Anne Whiston Spirn and the language of landscape

Colin suggested adding Anne Whiston Spirn’s book on The language of landscape to the list of 100 Best Books on Landscape Architecture and I said I would re-read it. It is a good book, and as a commentary on a host of landscapes, it is inspirational. As a text on the theory of design, it is disappointing. The introduction (p.3) explains that ‘I was determined to write an entire book about the poetics of city and nature, one that would fuse function, feeling, and meaning’. But the word ‘poetics’ does not appear in the index and is not adequately explained in the text (though there is a reference to Aristotle but on urban planning). Wikipedia states that ‘Poetics refers generally to the theory of literary discourse and specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of “theory” itself’. Spirn apparently uses poetics as a synonym for ‘theory’. But her book’s strength is in its observation and analysis, not its theory. She uses language and linguistic structure as analogies but (p.4) ‘places are my primary data’. Wikipedia also tells us that ‘A language is a system for encoding and decoding information’ with ‘The concept of information closely related to notions of constraint, communication, control, data, form, instruction, knowledge, meaning, mental stimulus, pattern, perception, and representation’. While not disputing the relevance of Spirn’s analogy, I believe it needs a great deal more theoretical analysis than it receives in her book. But thank you for the suggestion, Colin: I have put it on the list because far too few people give theoretical attention to landscape architecture.

2 thoughts on “Anne Whiston Spirn and the language of landscape

  1. Marian

    Thank you Tom I have ordered this, it’s a great way to develop ones reading. What did you think of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space? I thought his idea of ‘intimate immensity’ was very powerful, although the introduction verges on hermetic.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Gaston Bachelard’s book is another which I need to re-read. My recollection is that it has a much more disciplined interpretation of poetics – and that I had a reservation about treating design PRIMARILY as a spatial composition. Though very important, space cannot be separated from functional or constructional considerations.


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