Site, Sight, Insight

Site, Sight, Insight presents twelve essays by John Dixon Hunt, the leading theorist and historian of landscape architecture. The collection's common theme is a focus on sites, how we see them, and what we derive from that looking.

Site, Sight, Insight
Essays on Landscape Architecture

John Dixon Hunt. Foreword by Peter Walker and Jane Brown Gillette

2016 | 208 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents

—Peter Walker and Jane Brown Gillette

Chapter 1. The Lie of the Land
Chapter 2. Near and Far, and the Spaces in Between
Chapter 3. Stourhead Revisited and the Pursuit of Meaning in Gardens
Chapter 4. Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening
Chapter 5. John Ruskin, Claude Lorrain, Robert Smithson, Christopher Tunnard, Nikolaus Pevsner, and Yve-Alain Bois Walked into a Bar . . .
Chapter 6. Folly in the Garden
Chapter 7. Jardins: Reflections on the Human Condition
Chapter 8. Between Garden and Landscape
Chapter 9. Ekphrasis: Déjà Vu All Over Again
Chapter 10. Preservation in the Sphere of the Mind: Duration and Memory
Chapter 11. "ARCH, n. an architectural term. A material curve sustained by gravity as rapture by grief"
Afterword. From Illustration to Landscape


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Peter Walker and Jane Brown Gillette

We share with John Dixon Hunt a love of gardens, current and historic, in perfection and decay. We like to experience them in various seasons and times of day, to contemplate and enjoy and assess their artistry. We also like to discuss and criticize them and read and write about them. We do this, of course, from quite different points of view. John loves to be in gardens, as do many of us who design and build them. But John brings to his visits a critical, informed eye that is founded on his background in literary and art history, and it is this difference that makes him so valuable to the field of landscape architecture.

In one essay in this collection John describes a pivotal moment in his career. At an IFLA conference in 1992 he expressed the thought that he might become a landscape architect, and Pete, presumably, shouted "from the rear of the hall . . . (something like) 'No, no; go on doing what you do.'" Pete Walker must admit that he has no memory of making this statement, but John's book of essays proves that that advice, whether his or not, was wise. Landscape architects need garden historians.

Over the years, the field of landscape architecture has enjoyed little critical discourse compared to architecture, planning, and the other visual and environmental arts. For the most part we have focused our critical energies on either ecological or planning issues with little attention to the design and art and significance of gardens and other cultural landscapes—which, as is the case with any other craft, can only be lifted to their highest possibilities through intelligent criticism and a thorough understanding of their historical backgrounds. Unfortunately landscape education today is particularly weak in design criticism and history, as opposed to what we call theory, a variety of discourse seldom put in its historical context and thus frequently serving, at best, as an offshoot of advertising even as its academic voice grows louder. Meanwhile most landscape architecture students are lucky to receive a single history course, which is rarely taught by a trained historian. Occasionally, this course is augmented by a random architectural or art history course with little or no defined relationship to the practice and history of landscape architecture.

When we visit a fine garden or designed landscape, we experience a unique work of great complexity in purpose, which has been executed over a number of years—a work that, occasionally, achieves beauty. Such landscapes contain built structure, living plants, and water, all with the ability to express, exploit, and sustain the changes and impacts of the natural elements through time. A creation of such complexity is all too frequently invisible to the general public (and to many professionals) without an explanation derived from a critical discourse that relates it to other elements of cultural endeavor, some genre related, some historical. This discourse can certainly include and be enriched by designers, but we are not trained historians or critical theoreticians and frequently lack the wide-reaching literacy that informs such professions.

The importance of this literacy can be evidenced by many examples in Site, Sight, Insight, but one must suffice. Throughout the essays John gives voice to a pervasive concern with our intellectual and aesthetic understanding of gardens: How do they affect us emotionally? Do they have "meaning"? What does "meaning" mean? Couldn't "meaning" more accurately be called "significance"? In these essays, initially published in a wide range of venues, John is particularly adept at discussing the issue of significance as it relates to subjects like follies, ekphrasis, bridges, and memory, as well as site-specific expressions at Stourhead and a host of other gardens. He states the problem and suggests a solution, and he shows a profound humanity in his willingness to end his argument in inconclusiveness, in possibility, in an indeterminate state so difficult for most of us to accept. John points to a solution to the problem of "meaning" in his essay on Stourhead: maybe we understand the garden in a way that corresponds to the eighteenth-century belief in "association," notably put forth in the philosophy of John Locke. According to this theory of human psychology, a garden—rather than the exposition of a single "meaning"—inspires a variety of associations from each of us when we visit its confines. In later essays John also points to the problem of free association: if everything in a garden can mean anything, doesn't significance of any importance evaporate? In the face of this problem, John expresses a desire for a core of learning that would shape our associations, learning that can only come from the study of form and history and critical rhetoric, a sort of common understanding and perception shaped by sophisticated perception and knowledge. In other words, we would abandon the exposition of one "meaning" in a landscape for a significance that comes about from a flow of informed associations. Such an approach to significance would require a careful examination of the physical landscape and much historical education, not only for landscape architects but for the public in general. Indeed, such an approach might even call for undergraduate courses in landscape history and a recognition that, like literary history and art history and social history, the history of gardens is a necessary part of the liberal arts education.

This one example of John's ability to state a problem and find a solution shows why we both have such a deep appreciation of his broad and scholarly point of view. We continue to profit from his energetic work in teaching, writing, and expanding publications pertinent to our understanding and practice of design.

* * *


This collection brings together some of my recent writings on landscape architecture. Its common theme is a focus on sites, on how we see them and on what we derive from that looking. They reprise other sites about which I have written elsewhere, and they also allow some cross-references, even some overlaps, between the essays, since I have been pursuing these themes for some time, and certain topics recur on different occasions for different purposes. So I return frequently to a cluster of key sites and writings, upon which I have based much of my thinking about garden making and its role in landscape architecture: the gardens of Rousham in Oxfordshire, Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), William Gilpin's dialogue on Stowe (1747), Alexander Pope's meditation on genius loci, and sites like the Désert de Retz, Paolo Burgi's Cardada, and several designs by Bernard Lassus and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Six of these essays are published here for the first time, the remainder, most of which originally appeared in publications where those interested in landscape architecture are less likely to look, have all been significantly revised. The one piece which I have barely changed, but to which I have now added some images, is the essay on the meaning of Stourhead that was first published in the journal that I have edited since its inception in 1981. I like to think it is one of the more useful pieces I have written, as it tackles the tricky issue of how we today read historical gardens, a topic that I feel still needs to be aired, and it endorses what I had taken up two years earlier in The Afterlife of Gardens (2004). Otherwise, the essays are versions of talks given in Portugal, Paris, Versailles, and London, and in graduate seminars at Penn that circle around the topics of site, sight, and insight; that on "ARCH" borrows a small segment of a piece that I wrote for the festschrift for Michael Seiler, Wege zum Garten (Potsdam, 2004). I have not attempted to "flatten" out these different talks and essays, but leave each to address a different audience. Finally, I have added a postscript to answer the question I am often asked—why did you move from literature to landscape? I never have enough time to explain why, or what the benefits of such an academic transition might be, so I offer it here.

Warm thanks for contributing their foreword are due to Peter Walker, a distinguished landscape architect, and Jane Brown Gillette, a wonderful writer, whose path crossed mine when I was teaching English at Vassar College years ago.

I acknowledge good advice, as always, from Michael Leslie and Edward Harwood on some of these collected essays, as well as comments from an anonymous reader.