Melancholy is at once complex and contradictory. For some it is an emotion, for others a mental illness, or even a mood, a disposition, an affect, an effect. Melancholy’s extensive history ranges across everything from cures for something considered a disease, to paeans to its poignant beauty. While in the Dark Ages the ‘melancholy of monks’ – also called acedia
– necessitated a redoubling of prayer and an extra dose of courage, by the Romantic era melancholy was a source of inspiration for the poetry of Milton, Coleridge and Keats.1
Melancholy imbues artworks from Dürer’s Melancolia I
(1514) to Anselm Kiefer’s Melancholia
literature from Shakespeare to Sebald, and music from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to Nick Cave.3
But it is to the landscape that this book turns.
Landscape is itself a convoluted term, a ‘slippery word’ (Stilgoe, 1997, p.64).4
In its original form as landschaft
, the term referred to ‘a compact territory extensively modified by permanent inhabitants’, holding within it the idea of an occupied and ordered environment, a particular type of place (Stilgoe, 1997, p.64). When paintings of these kinds of places were taken to England, the word became landskip
, and was forever transformed into the idea of something seen, of scenery and views, which ultimately became the complex word ‘landscape’. The word carries with it, then, both a pictorial appreciation of that which is beheld in the outdoors, as well as a holistic sense of the landscape as the place of dwelling, where culture inscribes itself. This expansive etymology means that ‘landscape’ also encompasses architecture, as a contiguous element of the lived-in world. Both landscape and architecture constitute this continuous fabric, as the expressions of culture, the negotiations of the bio-physical givens, the inscriptions of ideas, the revealing of values, and all that makes up our occupation of places. Collectively, landscape architecture and architecture are professions which explore, analyse, speculate on and design the landscape, and both bodies of thought coalesce within the writings which follow. Across its vast compass, landscape in its expansive incorporation of gardens, environmental design, architecture, agriculture, infrastructure, and everything between and beyond, is the embodiment of identity. Points of reference are found as much in the representations of landscape – paintings, films, texts – as in the experiential, sensory,
phenomenological realm. Whether landscape is a mirror,5
or a seamless continuity with its inhabitants,8
it is the place from which we draw meaning, feeling; it is the armature for existence, the realm in which place and culture co-exist, and where the self dwells. As David Crouch majestically invokes, ‘Landscape is not perspective and horizon, a particular shape or defined aesthetics, but caught in its occurrence of affects: felt smudges, smears, kaleidoscope, a multi-sensual expressive poetics of potentiality, becoming and poetics: shuffling, unstable and lively’ (Crouch, 2015, p.244).
Within this expansive and meaning-imbued terrain the landscape holds within it the natural habitat for melancholy, as the locus of places of contemplation, memory, death, sadness. Yet, the place of melancholy within the landscape is one which is often resisted, marginalised and edited out. As part of the salvaging of the idea of melancholy as a dimension of existence, this book also offers a critique of the impoverishment of the emotional content of the contemporary designed environment. Juhani Pallasmaa’s critique of contemporary architecture is a lament which is true too of the broader sphere of the designed landscape, regretting how architecture
tends to be engaged with visual effects, and it lacks the tragic, the melancholy, the nostalgic, as well as the ecstatic and transcendental tones of the spectrum of emotions. In consequence our buildings tend to leave us as outsiders and spectators without being able to pull us into full emotional participation.
(Pallasmaa, 2001, p.91)
Melancholy appears in tension with prevailing cultural attitudes at large, and the designed landscape is no exception. Design is an embedding of values and ideals, and a critique of any landscape at any time is therefore an examination of the societal context, as much as of the work of the individual designer. Landscape architecture is gaining a much more visible presence globally, and ‘landscape’ as a concept has developed a certain cachet in a range of disciplines, including architecture, urban design, art and geography.9
The many seductive and lavish survey books on contemporary landscape architecture bear witness to its popularity, and browsing through these is to open a window into the prevailing trends. The extensive tomes 1000 X Landscape Architecture
(1,024 pages) and The Sourcebook of Contemporary Landscape Design
(600 pages), for example, exhaustively sample built landscapes and present them uncritically, as a form of ‘eye candy’ or perhaps twenty-first-century pattern books.10
The everyday landscape is also a barometer of contemporary values. In the popular media, in real-estate magazines, and mass market home and garden publications, landscape design has become a commodified realm, one of the main forms of conspicuous consumption. ‘Reality TV’ shows such as Extreme Makeover Home Edition
(USA), Backyard Blitz
(Australia) and Garden Wars
(New Zealand) reduce the designed landscape to little
more than instantaneous horizontal wallpaper. Gardens are designed and laid out in a matter of hours, rolled out by the square metre, with the expectation that enhancing the exterior décor of a home will either increase its value or provide an instant cure for whatever might be troubling the occupants. The economic value of well-designed gardens, as well as their healing properties, are inherent within landscape architecture, yet the theatrics of reality TV reduce all of this to superficial sensationalism.
In this context of reality TV, the emotional dimension of landscape, rather than possessing the subtle timbre of melancholy, becomes a melodramatic attempt to provoke extreme displays of overwhelment by the recipients of the garden makeover. Within the culture of spectatorship – the ‘society of the spectacle’ (Debord, 2014) – the voyeuristic observation of a stranger’s exhibition of emotion serves as entertainment, with a touch of schadenfreude
, the ‘pleasure of flinching’. The anaesthetising effect of reality TV detaches us from really feeling, and condemns us to wander in the ‘desert of the real’.11
Martin Jay warns that
only if aesthetic spectatorship declines the opportunity to conflate itself entirely with the entertainment industry’s cinema of attraction can it provide a possible alternative mode of relating to a world that threatens to dissolve the distinction between reality and simulacra entirely and make every experience vicarious, derivative, and ultimately hollow.
(Jay, 2003, p.117)
Bound up in the aspirations of reality TV garden makeovers, and in the vast numbers of self-help books on dealing with sadness, and in the self-medication for ‘depression’ is the fact that happiness has become an obsessive compulsion, and the inability to be constantly happy is perceived as a failing, or even a mental illness (de Graaf et al., 2002; Hamilton and Denniss, 2005).
As a consequence of the relentless pursuit of happiness, melancholy tends to be suppressed within contemporary society. Paralleling the pharmaceutical and popular psychological remedies, which are insistently promoted as a means of divesting us of any emotion other than joy, landscape interventions can simply become part of the drive for an eternal euphoria. In this context, the contemporary designed landscape is characterised by a one-dimensional existential spectrum, lives become sanitised and emotionally aseptic.
Melancholy’s marginalisation reflects in part modernity’s ontological objectification – the splitting of subject and object. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben lamented:
Nothing can convey the extent of the change that has taken place in the meaning of experience so much as the resulting reversal of the status of the imagination. For Antiquity, the imagination, which is now expunged from knowledge as ‘unreal,’ was the supreme medium of knowledge.
(Agamben, 1993, p.11)
The loss of the rich realm of the imaginative, through its placement within the subordinate category of subjectivity, is echoed in the words of geographer Tim Edensor:
The illuminating searchlight of modern science, in its rendering history, life and things transparent, whilst no doubt valuable in its contribution to the sum of knowledge, tends to subject all spaces to its pitiless glare, fostering the illusion that all might be revealed everywhere. This monumental banishment of the dark and mysterious within such a modern topography leaves little room for gloom and the disordered yet evocative matter which might lurk there.
(Edensor, 2005, p.135)
Related to this severance from the world of imagination is the loss of the introspective dimension of life. Melancholy was not simply a heightened awareness of the poignancy of existence, but the capacity for contemplation. A productive solitude is afforded by melancholy, in distinction from an imposed isolation, as in the ‘acedia’ or melancholy sloth of the monks in devotional exile in the Desert of Cells in the Egypt of the Dark Ages. A modern-day equivalent of acedia is found in the self-imposed exile within the isolation of technology, where all manner of personal devices have served to construct a virtual landscape of separation. As with the monks suffering from sloth in their cells, these worlds of isolation lack the restorative powers of melancholy solitude. The world of MP3 players and mobile phones is filled with noise and constant stimulation, imparting a sense of estrangement and ennui – a negative form of melancholy which is associated with boredom and anomie. Ever more introspective modes of entertainment, and the idea of communication-as-entertainment, challenge the authenticity of interpersonal relationships – as when someone who is essentially a stranger invites you to be a ‘friend’ on an internet social networking site.
The landscape has a role in proffering places of escape, of re-building the capacity for contemplation. Pallasmaa states the house is a ‘metaphysical instrument, a mythical tool with which we try to introduce a reflection of eternity into our momentary existence’ (in MacKeith, 2005, p.95). Echoing philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s conception of the house as ‘an instrument with which to confront the cosmos’ (Bachelard, 1969, p.46), Pallasmaa advocates that a house is more than simply shelter, but in the words of Karsten Harries, it can create places of meaning, places which transform ‘chaos’ into ‘cosmos’ (in MacKeith, 2005, pp.59–60). This vision of the house as a place in which to find one’s self in the world is also true of landscape architecture. From the tradition of hermitages in Picturesque gardens to the practice of seeking solace within wilderness, the landscape is the locus for contemplation, for meaningful solitude and melancholy reflection.
However, despite landscape’s potential as a site of melancholy, the embracing of sadness or contemplation is avoided in much contemporary
design thinking. The single-minded pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of places of solitude and contemplation are nowhere more evident than in contemporary attitudes towards tragedy. James Steven Curl describes a contemporary condition of ‘emotional anaemia’, a turn away from the ‘celebration of death’ (Curl, 1980, p.359). While ‘celebration’ might have unfortunate connotations of festivity, Curl’s diagnosis highlights the tendency to create diversions from the emotional depth of the tragic. Many contemporary memorials are characterised by an overloading of information, an emblemisation of the ‘data’ associated with the tragedy – the numbers of dead, the volume of debris, the ages of victims, creating death datascapes.12
Thomas Keenan suggests that this type of response aims for an ‘almost automatic machinery of remembrance’, and that this ‘can shield us from the powerful disorientation of the event the [memorials] seek to mark’ (Keenan, 2003).
In her study of genocide memorials in Cambodia and Rwanda, Shannon Davis found that tourists were drawn towards the informational elements of the sites (Davis, 2009). Having the respondents draw maps and take photographs, Davis noted that the tourists migrated towards signs or other informational sources wherever possible. At the less formalised site of Choeung Ek in Cambodia, where there were few directions or descriptions for visitors to gravitate towards, the tourists were left feeling adrift. Some felt that because of the lack of data on the site, they were left uninformed of the facts. Yet, this is a site which is emotionally charged, where visitors wander on paths formed only by footsteps. Through the slow erosion of the site by foot traffic, the teeth, bones, and other fragments of those buried in the unmarked mass graves surface and appear along the paths. Even after such a visceral experience of the tragic, it seemed that visitors simply wanted information, to have things neatly conveyed, perhaps manifesting a desire for the aseptic, detached, informationally intense media culture with which they are familiar, rather than a gut-wrenching immersion in place.
In his discussion of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Agamben wrote of the two dimensions of the ‘memorable’ and the ‘unforgettable’ (Godfrey, 2007, p.243). The memorable is that which is able to be archived, stored, sorted and placed within the orthodox devices of memory. This parallels the predilection for informational content. The unforgettable, however, exceeds these containers, and was applied to Eisenman’s memorial in the context of its abstraction: the memorial is non-representational, it is in essence a void and seeks to elude reading. Agamben’s ‘unforgettable’ is the place of melancholy in the context of memory, it is about a wound kept open, one that is lived, suffered, rather than being catalogued and simply ‘remembered’. It is within such moments that melancholy’s vital role is realised, and as Rico Franses observes, such memorials
generate … affect, making the stranger into a melancholic griever. And this as well is the social role of the memorial, and the social purpose
which melancholia serves; through the memorial, melancholia comes to function as an agent of social binding.
(Franses, 2001, p.102)
Melancholy and the Landscape embraces more than simply an exploration and amplification of melancholy itself, it also encompasses the allied resuscitation of an emotional life, as well as contributing to the revival of the phenomenological. Landscape architecture shares disciplinary territory with architecture and geography, and developments in these fields complement the striving for an emotional, phenomenological engagement with place. Geography, for example, has recently undergone an ‘emotional turn’. The collections Emotional Geographies (Davidson et al., 2005) and Emotion, Place and Culture (Smith et al., 2009), as well as the journal Emotion, Space and S...