New GSD exhibition charts the evolution of mountains in the cultural imagination and the broader relationship between humans and the environment
To ask when we started looking at mountains is by no means the same as asking when we started to see them. Rather, it is to question what sorts of aesthetic and moral responses, what kinds of creative and reflective impulses, our new found regard for them prompted. It is evident enough that in a more or less recent geological time frame mountains have always just been there. It is possible that mountains, like the sea, best provide pleasure, visual and otherwise, when experienced from a (safe) physical and psychical distance. But it might also be the case that the pleasures mountains hold in store are of a learned and acquired sort.
Which is also to say that mountains themselves, for all their unforgiving thereness, are themselves the products of unwitnessed Neptunian and Vulcanian tumults or divine judgment. For the late seventeenth-century theologian and cosmogonist Thomas Burnet, mountains were "nothing but great ruins." A dawning appreciation of these wastelands appeared in the critical writings of John Dennis. Satirized as "Sir Tremendous Longinus" for his rehabilitation of the antique aesthetic category of the sublime, Dennis expressed the complex concept of "delightful horror." Mountain gloom was ready to become mixed with mountain glory. More work was still to be done on the literary and philosophical front before the Romantic breakthrough, one high vantage point being the essayist Joseph Addison's dream of finding himself in the Alps, "astonished at the discovery of such a Paradise amidst the wildness of those cold hoary landscapes."
But a kindred innovation in seeing and feeling was called for in the formation of mountains and the rise of landscape. Mountains, among other earth forms, are both the medium and outcome of still-evolving habits of experiencing, making, and imagining. Architects and landscape architects, mutually occupied with the horizontal surface, have had a touch equally as searching as that of mountaineers and poets in sensing the terrain. Mountains and the Rise of Landscape is the culmination of a curatorial project and a research seminar conducted at the Graduate School of Design, the latter focusing on the question, How do you model a mountain? The installation in the Druker Design Gallery and continuing in the Frances Loeb Library collects diverse objects and scientific instruments, drawings, photographs, and motion pictures of built and imagined projects and presents invitingly challenging modes of seeing (and hearing!) mountains of varied definition. Allied with the work of artists, visionaries, and interpreters of natural and cultural meaning, they propose new and foregone possibilities of perception and form-making in the acts of leveling and grading, cutting and filling, shaping and contouring, mapping and modeling, of reimagining "matter out of place," and finally of stacking the odds and mounting the possibilities.
Mountains and the Rise of Landscape offers five thematic sections:
Mountain Lines of Beauty: Mild mountaineers, John Ruskin (1819–1900) and Eug├¿ne Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) were among the first theorists, designers, and architects to teach us that the "line" formed by crests, peaks, and ridges presents an exemplary form of beauty. The invention of the panorama and the photomechanical reproduction of mountain views transformed a geophysical phenomenon into an object of aesthetic value and topographical knowledge. Guidebooks, geographical manuals, and maps glorified specific ranges by showing their most beautiful contours. To define a single mountain or group of mountains as a "line," however, implies a process of abstraction. This process is both enhanced and complicated by contemporary tools such as CAD, GIS, and GPS. To draw the most important mountain ranges of our contemporary world as "mountain lines of beauty"—the phrase is evidently inspired by the eighteenth-century painter William Hogarth's analysis of the serpentine, S-shaped "line of beauty"—should not be seen as a simplified way to represent them. Rather, the difficulty of representation itself becomes visible in the constructedness of the lines. Through them the possibility arises, again, of our being surprised by the sublimity, as well as the beauty, of the mountains.
Artificial mountains are a worldwide phenomenon. Burial sites, such as Etruscan tumuli, were often marked by the intimidating form of the man-made mountain. Incense burners in ancient China evoked the Five Sacred Mountains. A representation of Mount Parnassus was a significant element of European gardens and a symbol of Renaissance humanism. Artificial mounds, typically composed of locally excavated material, may be seen as so many milestones in the history of landscape architecture. The industrial revolution accelerated the rise of an anthropic topography, producing landforms that we often no longer recognize as being artificial. Mountains are ubiquitous in twentieth-century and contemporary art, with a special place—between site and non-site—reserved for the explorations of Robert Smithson, who reversed, displaced, and rebuilt the form, material, and meaning of mountains.
Camouflage: Among the first who climbed high mountains in antiquity were members of the military, in search of an advantageously elevated view of their enemy's position. From the seventeenth century onward, many mountainous regions were massively fortified, with military infrastructures placed strategically to take advantage of their secluded impregnability. The photographer Leo Fabrizio has documented traces of former military constructions hidden in the most remote areas of Alpine Switzerland. His visual archeology of camouflage techniques employed by the Swiss military exposes the unfamiliar territory of a landscape that still appears "natural" while being completely transformed from within.
Glaciers are in retreat throughout the world. Celebrated and studied during the eighteenth century as sublime objects—sung of by poets and depicted by landscape painters—glaciers register today as metonymies of global climate change and vanishing natural and scenic phenomena. Geneva-based composers Olga Kokcharova and Gianluca Ruggeri have explored the fascinating soundscape of the Mont Miné Glacier in the Swiss canton of Valais. Since 2000, the 4.9 mile-long glacier has lost about eighty-five feet per year. To hear the "voice" of a glacier compellingly questions the visual bias of the landscape-oriented perspective. The mysterious sounds of the white masses bear melancholy aural testimony to the progressive disappearance of a titanic natural feature.
Inhabitants of the Alpine regions have practiced transhumance for centuries, droving livestock between the valleys in winter and the high mountain pastures in summer. Many of the wooden or stone structures built by farmers to shelter their cattle and themselves have been abandoned, ruined, and in some instances transformed into chalets. Martino Pedrozzi, a Ticino-based architect, has worked for a decade in the remote valleys of southern Switzerland. His Recompositions, carried out with his students at the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture and other volunteers, consist in repairing the existing structures or in composing a new object from the abandoned material. The resulting architectural objects are designedly functionless; they are poetic metaphors and visual documents of a past that is at risk of disappearance.