Architecture and Nature: Creating the American Landscape
By Christine Macy and Sarah Bonnemaison. Routledge, 2003. 372pp. £26.99
A nation's landscape may be one of its most distinctive qualities, and one of the few things that cannot be convincingly copied beyond its borders. Hence a relationship to the landscape often plays a significant role in people's understanding of what nationhood means. Though parts of the landscape may appear to change relatively little over centuries, the stories that structure people's attitude to it can be reinforced, influenced and transformed.
In their ambitious and thought-provoking book, Architecture and Nature, Christine Macy and Sarah Bonnemaison describe how a series of architectural projects in the US, carried out at key historical moments, not only reveal a developing discourse about nature in American architecture but were instrumental in constructing a national identity.
Five projects, either directly or indirectly government-supported, and widely covered in the press at the time, are examined chronologically. Each is set within its 'slice' of history, and the structure makes coherent the gradual shifts of historical circumstance faced by each government.
The authors begin by assessing the construction of a landscaped island at the heart of the 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago, and the log cabin that was placed upon it. The significance in the American psyche of frontiersmen myths, and the underlying conservationist agenda that informed the project, are examined, uncovering whose interests were served and whose ignored or abused. Some alarming politics are revealed.
The development, myth-making and marketing of Yellowstone National Park from 1903 are then examined, and the emergence of an architecture of hotel and visitor facilities, which was designed to perpetuate a particular notion of rusticity while providing comfort for large numbers of a new kind of tourist.
The central chapter describes the 1933 Tennessee Valley Authority Project, a Modernist dam set in reconstructed parkland, and the creation of a community around it following the Depression, and a realisation that the landscape had been over-exploited.
A folksy architectural and planning vocabulary was used for the technologically advanced houses, partly in order to knit together a varied and potentially restless populace into the mythical, communitybased American homestead.
The penultimate chapter analyses, with considerable wit, the creation and launch of the Los Angeles Case Study Houses from 1945, in an era that straddled post-war optimism and deep-seated fears of the Cold War. How such a transformation of cultural context affected the way in which the nuclear family experienced the suburban ideal, architectural transparency and the new technologies, is poignantly described.
Finally, there is an account of the development of the new kind of global awareness, and subsequent counter-cultural activities, that were inspired by Buckminster Fuller's American Pavilion for the 1967 Montreal Expo - a 76m-diameter geodesic dome.
After a diversion into the dome's forerunners in the natural world and the dome as metaphor for human consciousness, we are led to the development of the sustainable integral urban house - a prototype of continuing relevance today.
The authors describe their historical approach as having both a 'symbolic' and a 'materialist' layer. This means that their analyses are carried out with reference to familiar secular and religious myths, as well as the social and political forces affecting the projects' design, construction and inhabitation.
Because of the skill with which this method is carried through, an array of stories are offered up for the reader. That these are so easy to engage with, reveals just how powerful such narratives can be when used as political tools. Interspersed among them are astute socio-political analyses, and considerable effort has been put into researching how the projects were experienced by different groups of people.
Without over-emphasis, the texts refreshingly incorporate women's perspective on the projects.
This is a thorough, original and very enjoyable book, which - while taking the US as a case study - opens up new avenues for the way in which we consider architecture's potential to express ideas about nature.
Julia Chance is an architect and writer, and teaches at the University of Liverpool Alex MacLean's oblique aerial photographs provide an exhaustive, sometimes revelatory, document of the American landscape today, highlighting the processes that shape it and patterns that emerge. More than 400 of them feature in a handsome paperback, Designs on the Land:
Exploring America from the Air (Thames & Hudson, £27.50).The images are grouped by subject - city grid, housing, forest, sprawl, etc; and the spread above is from the section on agriculture.