Seeing things too big to see

The Cultivated Wilderness, or What is Landscape?
February 13, 1998

This is an ambitious, exuberant, breathless and at times irritating book that puts together what many writers have kept asunder - time and place, nature and culture. In his previous book, What is Architecture?, Paul Shepheard introduced the theme of landscape in the course of dealing with buildings and machines. Here he further pursues the theme on a quest that takes him round the world and deep into prehistory, "seeing things that are too big to see".

Seven particular "landscapes" are within his range of extended vision: Switzerland; Ely; Antarctica, "land of the noonday moon" where the "peace of reason" now reigns; the Highlands of Scotland, where haggis, cock-a-leekie soup and whisky need to be explained historically before they are enjoyed; Flevoland in the Netherlands, with its half-built capital, Lelystad, a complement and contrast to the "teeming streets" of Amsterdam; the "London basin", a "syncline fold of chalk", with the dome of St Paul's rising above it; and, in the last and most moving chapter, the western front, a battlescape that became a timescape and has ended as a parkscape, with human bodies buried beneath. The chapters on each landscape have nouns attached to them: Antarctica's is hope, the western front's is memory. There is also one substantial chapter on the seven wonders of the world, treated interestingly as a "symbol of unity". This carries the reader from Ur of the Chaldees to Halicarnassus and on (via the Pyramids) to Stonehenge.

Every chapter has revealing associations and penetrating insights, and the book can stimulate and challenge. The irritation arises from Shepheard's mode of introducing his theme (he would not like the word) through dialogue (the book is part of a series on "architectural discourses") between himself and the people he encounters on his travels, including a ghost (non-verbal discourse). At the start Shepheard is inspired on a plane by an ex-pilot, "drinking himself into oblivion". In England, it is a "mystical fogey in smelly tweeds" who reminds him of Stonehenge.

There is something mystical (or cultish) in Shepheard's remark that "the wilderness" is everywhere. "Not just in the oceans, nor just in the deserts and the mountain ranges, but everywhere. It trickles down the staircase of the minaret and into the prayer hall of the great mosque at Damascus. It seeps through the filters of the air-cooling plants at Rockefeller Center." What is the relevance of this thought to a professional architect? I can see, of course, that discourses do matter not only between architects and clients of "the public" but between architects and architects.

Almost all of the people Shepheard meets are prepared to indulge in the kind of discourse you might have on the Internet. There is one difference, however. Shepheard is keenly aware of physical presence. An archaeologist has "a glittering blue stare"; "Hugo's twin daughters are examining a range of red hair dyes laid out across the table". Some of the people Shepheard met earlier in his life had let him down. When he had a summer job on Popular Geography magazine, instead of meeting people "like Livingstone and Stanley" he met "Mr Pursey from accounts and Doris who mops the stairs on Wednesday mornings".

More monologue would have buttressed The Cultivated Wilderness. So, too, would different company. Shepheard travels to Ely without Clement Freud, to Halicarnassus without Herodotus and to Scotland without Scott. There were times in this book when I longed to be stranded in a landscape without humans, perhaps among penguins who look curiously like them.

Asa Briggs is former provost of Worcester College, Oxford.

The Cultivated Wilderness, or What is Landscape?

Author - Paul Shepheard
ISBN - 0 262 19380 9 and 69194 9
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £21.50 and £9.95
Pages - 230

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