John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
To John B. Jackson, the landscape is a “concrete, three-dimensional shared reality” which should be shared among everyone and easily understood (300). Before reading this book, I think we can all agree that we viewed our landscape as a physical scene found outside our window. Living 50 miles outside of Atlanta down a rural road full of small farms, I sometimes find myself taking the precious land my Father bought at 18 for granted. Although I did not find this as a true non-fiction book full of historical analysis, arguments and sources, Jackson helped me to appreciate the beauty behind the small farm I currently live on. Furthermore, after reading this book, I look at garages, roads, trailer park homes, and modern architecture in a different way.
Thanks to Daniel Horowitz’s wife and editor of this book, Helen Horowitz, we are introduced to Jackson and his prerogative in writing on landscape. Horowitz proposed a need to understand the history behind American Architecture. She wanted to understand how people in the past imagined and created the spaces in which they lived in. From this investigation, she discovered Jackson’s magazine publication Landscape, which was an outlet to write on American landscape and human geography from 1951 through 1996.
Although Jackson was not a trained geographer, he realized early on in his college career at Harvard his interest in human geography. He developed an eye for the beauty of American Southwestern terrain after college when he decided to become a cowboy in New Mexico. Later, he fell in love with the romantic, baroque architecture in Europe while serving in the Army during World War Two. After the war, he bought himself a jeep and decided to drive out West in America and took note of the Nation’s countryside with “fresh eyes.” (xix) While appreciating the past through classical architecture, farmlands, the American Southwest, and roads, Jackson was extremely quick to judge and criticize the emergence of modern architecture in the 1960s and the downfall of cultivation in farmlands once technology emerged on the land. One could say that he developed this sense of nostalgia while growing up in New England and appreciating the traditional and baroque architecture when traveling across Europe during World War Two.
In this book, Horowitz gathered numerous essays and accounts that Jackson wrote in his publication. Although there is no clear thesis, readers can sit back and enjoy a fresh new way of appreciating the classical human geography and architecture found in America, especially in the Southwest. Without the clear thesis or historical argument, the audience can read essays in a strategic chronological order that examines the Landscape in the past, present, and future.
The city of Optimo in the essay titled, “Almost Perfect Town,” hit home for me, because I come from a small town, where the Dallas Courthouse is crucial to the landscape and the center of sociability much like when Jackson is describing the courthouse in Optimo. He appreciates the value of these still hthe hundreds of Optimos throughout America, so valuable: the ties between country and town have not yet been broken. Limited though it may well be in many ways, the world of Optimo City is still complete.” (35)
Also, in the essay, “The Westward Moving House,” (81) Jackson gives a timeline of how the functions of homes and land have changed through time from the 1600s to the 1950s. One can see the beginnings of domesticity in the New World to the emergence of farmland technology that changed the relationships with landscapes a great deal in the 1950s. All throughout the book, Jackson is criticizing modernity, and this essay shows his criticism. He hates this idea of the new modern farmer much like Ray Tinkham in “Westward Moving Houses,” as he says they are not for the better in the later essay “Engineered Environment” (225).
When taking on the modern movement in architecture, one can see that Jackson despises the international modern style. He is an advocate for the vernacular function of land and homes, which is based on human needs and function, not to pleasure the human eye in aesthetics. When reading “Living Outdoors with Mrs. Panther,” (281) in which he wrote under his pseudonym Ajax, it is evident that he is mocking the modernity as Mr. and Mrs. Panther are explaining their new modern home of the 1960s. I found this essay a bit odd, but I read a little deeper and assumed that Jackson is possibly against the emerging counterculture movement of the 1960s? He writes Mrs. Panther’s dialogue on their new home, “When we have company I open some cans and toss a salad: we have a bottle of French wine, some cheese, and then sit around on cushions and discuss McCarthyism and how we dislike it.” (284)
All in all, I found this to be an interesting read and an overall eye-opener in how we can view the land we live on. Jackson is clearly frustrated with the modernity of architecture and homes when analyzing this collection of essays, but he finds great pleasure in the American Westward landscapes and the small towns that are dotted across the Nation, as most of the land can spark a sense of nostalgia within him. I was a bit confused, because some of it seemed fictional and other parts seemed historical, but I believe we can appreciate his passion for wanting Americans to always recreate a vernacular domesticity.
In looking at Elizabeth Blackmar’s essay, “Of REITS and Rights: Absentee Ownership in the Periphery,” she too discusses the degradation of land as it now becomes more of “nonmaterial form of property, a claim on a stream of income abstracted from geography” (83). She looks at the influx of shopping malls in the 1980s and 1990s and how the land has “lost its grounding in the natural world.” Now, REITS or Real Estate Investment Trusts are invested in a money game in attracting a great deal of home buyers with liquid mortgages, but the retail investors like Simon Properties and Bucksbaums’ General Growth Property are following the outward influx and practically calling the shots. Both Blackmar and Jackson criticize the direction in which landscape is following, which to them is a downward spiral. It is becoming less of a personal attachment and commodity and more of a financial game. Blackmar says that we are “severing our connection to the land that sustains us,”(98) which I am sure Jackson would agree.
Source of article: http://digital.library.pitt.edu/cgi-bin/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=pittpress;cc=pittpress;idno=31735060482266;rgn=full%20text;didno=31735060482266;view=image;seq=0091;node=31735060482266%3A1.8.1
- Which article/essay stood out to you in this collection? Why? Did you make a personal connection to it? Why, why not?
- Why did Jackson have this obsession with roads? What did he say about them?
- What makes the Western Landscape different than any other Landscapes found in America? Do you have the same fascination with it much like Jackson?
- He mentions “vernacular architecture” a great deal in his essays? What does this mean, and why is this important to him?
- Did you see any similarities or differences in Landscape in Sight and “Of REITS and Rights?”
- In looking at the bigger picture in his account on the Modern Movement in “Living Outdoors with Mrs. Panther”, do you think that Jackson was just a bit too conservative and could not handle the rise of change and the counterculture movement that began in the late 1950s?