Today, guest architecture image curator Jean Krchnak talks about an old
tension in a crowded new world. The University of Houston presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In a 1984 essay, John Brinckerhoff Jackson looked at settlement patterns through time and two forces that made them remain the same and made them change: First, our need to create communities:
No human being is at best in a solitary environment. Our interdependency
requires that sustained discourse, idea exchange, and disagreement sharpen
our identity. Aristotle called humans political animals, "debating good
and evil, justice and injustice, and how to act to achieve a good life."
The other force is that part of the natural order: spending time to provide
shelter, food, clothing, and security. So, when we set out to create a
community, we also create an environment modified by the settled group.
We create a new landscape.
These social/political and natural forces make of us, a fickle mixture. We
love a city's dense vitality, yet we complain about a lack of green spaces
and parks. We want to live alone, close to nature in the open countryside,
while we yearn to be joined politically, civically and socially. That tension,
by the way, has undermined every effort to create a utopian community.
Once a community establishes its landscape, with boundaries, roads and places
of assembly, our universal need has always been to organize those spaces.
Jackson sees us organizing space into micro-spaces, then assembling the micro-spaces
into macro-spaces. He says,
... in the political landscape the natural environment has no
inherent identity of its own; it is simply a means to an end,
a human end ... .
Of course, with less space available, we now commingle the uses of space. A
forest is used for recreation, meditation and logging.
The most elementary landscape has always been the piece of land where a family
lives and works, and every other space has been an extension of it. Greeks
considered land sacred to the gods. A Roman's land was supposed to remain in
the family's possession forever. Burying the dead on it made it a sacred space.
Aristotle saw the small landowner as a model of civic virtue, and the family
holding a miniature state. It was separated from the community by trees and
fences but also near enough to the road to be in touch.
When Thomas Jefferson drafted his Land Ordinance of 1785, he proposed a
rectangular grid system. This vast, almost nationwide grid divided land into
plots a mile square. It also placed a visible design on an untouched landscape; and
it continues to affect urban, suburban, and farmland planning today.
With explosive population growth, we wonder how 21st-century societies can organize
space. Agronomists now view the family farm as too small a unit to be efficient.
Environmentalists say it's too small to be sustainable. I wonder what form our
longed-after Garden of Eden can possibly take in today's crowded new world.
I'm Jean Krchnak, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Jean Krchnak is Curator of Architecture Visual Resources and
curates the college's teaching collection of images. She has
had several articles published on architecture and theory and
is currently working on a collaborative project to transition
the teaching collection to a digital format.
J. B. Jackson, A Pair of Ideal Landscapes. Discovering the
Vernacular Landscape. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
(Photo by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.