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Reading “Landscape”: Mid-century modernism and the landscape idea

Jeffrey D Blankenship, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation traces the recovery of the landscape idea during the middle decades of the 20th century by a group of public intellectuals, scholars and designers responding to the everyday realities of the modern American built environment. That recovery served as a corrective to modernism’s construction of landscape as either abstract utopian space or retrogressive historical tableau. The primary catalyst for this renewed interest in landscape as a representation of human cultures and their complex relationship with the natural world was the essayist and critic John Brinckerhoff Jackson and his magazine Landscape. During the years of Jackson’s editorship (1951–1968), the magazine became a locus for intellectual exchange, a gathering place for a community of scholars from different disciplines who were drawn to Jackson’s unique voice. Jackson’s essays in the magazine used the term landscape in a way that was not common outside of the field of human geography. Here landscape did not describe a picturesque or painterly scene, nor did it describe a process of beautification. Jackson wrote of landscapes that seemed somewhat prosaic: the everyday, ordinary environments of city streets, rural farms, individual dwellings, highways and the commercial strip. He insisted that understanding how to read these places for their social, cultural and ecological content was a necessary—though too rarely employed—prelude to imagining new prototypes for the design and management of human environments. The mid-century intellectual milieu fostered by J.B. Jackson ultimately nurtured a contemporary (and still evolving) understanding of landscape as a conceptual medium composed of a diversity of cultures, layers of visible history and hidden narratives and an interdependent human ecology that continues to shape landscape theory and practice today. Keywords: landscape, Landscape magazine, landscape idea, modernism, modernity, 20th century, mid-century, J.B. Jackson, nature, everyday, America, human geography, built environment, architecture, landscape architecture.

Subject Area

Geography|Landscape architecture|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Blankenship, Jeffrey D, "Reading “Landscape”: Mid-century modernism and the landscape idea" (2011). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3445150.