AUSTIN, TEXAS—As landscape architecture educators socialized Thursday evening with Lone Star beer, whiskey, and wine, conversations frequently returned to that day’s speech by the landscape historian John Stilgoe of Harvard University. What did it all mean? Is Stilgoe a prophetic observer or is he out of touch with the profession? Is he a feminist or the opposite?
The speech was a winding road system with many cul-de-sacs, loosely related observations that cannot be done justice in this format. Its main intent seemed to be challenging landscape architects to think about where they get their conceptions of landscape beauty, and where clients get theirs.
Stilgoe asserted that many people get their ideas about landscape beauty from advertisements. More specifically, he thinks many women get their ideas from the ads in fashion magazines, and so he has become an avid reader of these magazines himself. He challenged the audience to look at the landscapes that fashion models appear in, and showed slide after slide of unsmiling models positioned in similar landscapes of concrete and stone. “The very straightforward formula for producing the background image is very, very creepy,” Stilgoe said. “Notice how often the model is in a derelict environment.” The model is the beautiful thing. Nothing is allowed to outshine her or her dress.
He wondered why we seem to put historicized scenes on our Christmas cards and how our movies, our children’s books, and our camera lenses are affecting the way we see landscape.
Stilgoe has built his career on such questions and observations. “J. B. Jackson told me to get in a car and go look,” Stilgoe recalled. “Don’t ever ask for a grant, because how are you going to ask for money if you don’t know what you’re going to look at?”
He has observed a nation of passive consumers, more concerned about their own bodies than the content of their character or the flowers around them. “We became a people who stopped dancing and started to watch others dance,” Stilgoe said.
He said foreign students often ask him to explain Americans’ fascination with vampires. “How do you explain that to someone from another country?” he wondered.
And he said youthful explorations, particularly by girls, are being discouraged. Stilgoe argued children have become “the organized prisoners of adults.” Once, it was assumed that a child had the capacity to build things like rowboats and there are many books that showed them how with detailed plans. Today, boys are playing video games—though he seemed to find this less troubling than the little girls who dressed up as Disney princesses all the time. (He was generally a bit harder on women, which turned off some of the women in the audience.)
Why is that happening within our culture? To learn more about the subject, Stilgoe recommended Rudolf Flesh’s The Art of Clear Thinking. There are very few courses on advertising taught at any level of the education system, he observed.
Stilgoe offered a number of book recommendations, including Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It offers “something we’re beginning to forget in this country about the simplicity, about the beauty of nature,” he said.
As he closed his talk, he offered one final recommendation: Harmony by Prince Charles, though he wasn’t recommending the message, per se. Very powerful people, Stilgoe said, known to landscape architects as their clients, are getting their ideas about landscape from this book.