Poetic Landscape

Poetic Landscape

© Peter Zumthor (courtesy of the artist)

Lecture at Constructed Landscapes workshop, Studio 3: Experimental Architectures of the Innsbruck School of Architecture, at Lagoa Santo André, invited by Inês Dantas (wuda*). 

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I’ve been trying to define a type of landscape in my classes of Landscape Aesthetics from my personal objects of desire and research which, in turn, have lead me to think about what might be a poetic landscape. 

The name came from a project that Peter Zumthor had made in collaboration with a literature group in Detmold in the years of 1998 and 1999. It began with an idea of Brigitte Labs-Ehlert (responsible for the literature group in Detmold and for the preface of Peter Zumthor’s book Atmospheres) inviting several writers and poets, like Peter Waterhouse, Michael Hamburger and Yoko Tawada, to write a poem for a particular place in the countryside, near the town of Bad Salzuflen, in Germany. Then, several architects were invited to the sites chosen by the writers to create buildings to house the poems written about them. The main idea was that a certain feature of the countryside, a special place, would be interpreted in both literary and architectural form. And both interpretations could be experienced as one at the same place. Several places of this kind, near each other, would form a “Poetic Landscape” which could be explored on foot. However, the district government changed from one party to another and the project died. “Or did it really?”, asks Peter Zumthor. 

Peter Zumthor believes that the project didn’t die at that moment as it is still showing signs of life. Firstly, because we can find an obvious link between the projects Zumthor had made for the Poetic Landscape and the Bruder Klaus Kapelle and secondly, and most importantly, it allowed him to think differently about the relation between architecture and landscape, reflected in two main texts by him. In the first one, “Houses for Poems”, we can easily recognize traces of the Poetic Landscape project and it was written for a lecture presented at the ninth literature meeting in Schwalenberg in 2001, two years after the death of the Poetic Landscape. The second text is more recent and it will be published in a reedition of Thinking Architecture and it is named “Architecture and Landscape”. 

The Poetic Landscape project and both texts around it allowed me to think about an idea that comes from my passion for Deleuze and then to relate Peter Zumthor’s work with some ideas explored by the artists of the Land-Art. Strangely enough, I believe, there is a link between Deleuze, Zumthor and Land-Art and they all come together in what I would like to define as a Poetic Landscape. 

Beginning with Gilles Deleuze and the story of a bird, the brown stagemaker which lives in the mountain forests of northeast Queensland in Australia:

“The brown stagemaker lays down landmarks each morning by dropping leaves it picks from its tree, and then turning them upside down so the paler underside stands out against the dirt: inversion produces a matter of expression.

The territory is not primary in relation to the qualitative mark; it is the mark that makes the territory. Functions in a territory are not primary; they presuppose a territory-producing expressiveness. In this sense, the territory, and the functions performed within it, are products of territorialization. Territorialization is an act of rhythm that has become expressive, or of milieu components that have become qualitative”.

Why is this bird so important?

Deleuze believes that the territorializing factor comes from the becoming-expressive of certain qualities, in the case of the little bird, the color of his feathers, the sound of its singing, the posture, the smell... And, most importantly, these qualities are first and above all traces of expression. They don’t have to do with any kind of function, such as seducing the female or the male, defending the territory from others or even competing with the best singing composition which allows Deleuze (& Guattari) to state that a territory is born only when it is expressive. 

But then they ask: “Can this becoming (the becoming-expressive), this emergence (of the expression qualities or matters of expression), be called Art?” to which they answer “That would make the territory a result of art. The artist: the first person to set out a boundary stone, or to make a mark”. So, “Territorial marks are readymades. And what is called art brut in not at all pathological or primitive; it is merely this constitution, this freeing of matters of expression in the movement of territoriality: the base or ground of art. Take anything and make it a matter of expression. The stagemaker practices art brut”.

So, territory is the result of the becoming-expressive of milieu components. However, the qualities don’t depend upon the milieu components. There is an autonomy of expression. The leaves turned upside down are autonomous from the milieu components although they enter into relations with them. 

Deleuze & Guattari will again tell the story of the brown stagemaker to reinforce these ideas: “Perhaps art begins within the animal, at least with the animal that carves out a territory and constructs a house (both are correlative, or even one and the same, in what is called a habitat). The territory-house system transforms a number of organic functions - sexuality, procreation, aggression, feeding. But this transformation does not explain the appearance of the territory and the house; rather, it is the other way around: the territory implies the emergence of pure sensory qualities, of sensibilia that cease to be merely functional and become expressive features, making possible a transformation of function”.

But what the story of this bird tells me about landscape and the relation between architecture and landscape? I believe that it tells us to see how the earth is framed, how the forces of the chaos, the cosmological forces are contained, where we find its limit when the earth seems to vanish away, where a sensation comes to being and the space and time change. We may think of a molecular perception, a type of perception capable of perceiving things only through its matter of expression, its singular composition like entering into the materials that compose a certain landscape and bringing their most expressive property - sometimes saturating that same quality, taking the material to its very limit and other times making like the little bird by opposing an element that intensifies the whole landscape exactly in that moment of difference. 

That’s when Peter Zumthor’s Poetic Landscape came to my mind. The poets have chosen - as we may see in these images - singular moments of the landscape: three trees, the contrast between a large horizontal plane full of leaves, brown and textured and a sudden hill with a line of trees at its limit, an accentuated slope, the paths through boundaries, a soft movement of a declination... Poetry has that particular ability of transforming these properties of the landscape into matters of expressions, into sensations: a sensation of green, a saturated green which we can almost smell, a movement that stretches our body through every single grass, a sensation of humidity that we feel with our own skin. Poetry reacts immediately to the singularities of the landscape. It extracts from the landscape its own matter of expressions. It creates a bloc of sensations that doesn’t belong anymore to the landscape because the poem condenses and transforms our perception of that same landscape. 

It was Peter Zumthor’s time to create a building for each one of these places. He makes several attempts, he asks to himself about several ways of creating a building to house a poem in the exact same place for which the poem was written. And he concludes that the poem and the building do not touch themselves. The poem is not in the building as the building does not tell anything about the poem. The poem doesn’t know the building and doesn’t speak about it. But both the poem and the building speak of the same place. And the way they speak can only be through the earth, through its forces, through the energy of its ecstasy points, through the body of the landscape that transforms itself into the body of the poem and the body of a building. 

And we can easily see in Peter Zumthor’s drawings and models that the building stands in that moment of tension, at the very limit or boundary where the landscape changes its nature or where there is a dense groups of trees protecting and hiding the buildings’ mass or if the building is the leaf turned upside down when it even defies the nature forces only to making them visible. Making the invisible visible like Paul Klee used to say. Making the invisible forces visible only through the building’s composition. 

At this point is when I think that Peter Zumthor is close to the land-artists. It’s well-known his passion about Mario Merz’s or James Turrell’s works, but it’s when he thinks about the relation between architecture and landscape that we find more profound bounds. He begins with a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea. “An aesthetic experience: I see a man looking at the horizon line of the ocean with his back to the painter. Like the painter and the man in the painting, I look at the landscape, at the painted horizon, and feel the grandeur and vastness. A certain melancholy comes to the fore, imbued with the sense of a world that is infinitely bigger than I am but offers me sanctuary. In addition to the feeling that nature is close to me and yet larger that I am, landscape also gives me the feeling of being at home”. He wants then to do justice to the landscape he is working in. “First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see - because we don’t hurt what we love”. 

The images of the Poetic Landscape come to our mind once more. “Secondly, I have to take care. That is something I have learned from traditional agriculture, which uses the soil but is, at the same time, sustainable. It takes care of the things that nourish us. Thirdly, I must try to find the right measure, the right quantity, the right size, the right shape for the desired object in its beloved surroundings. The outcome is harmony or possibly even tension”. “But how do I find the right measure? I venture to claim that we all immediately sense if the relationship between the landscape and the building in which it has been placed is disrupted, if the landscape is not enriched through the architectural intervention but simply threatens to disappear. Besides, this kind of sensing is not a theoretical task; first and foremost, it means having faith in sensual perception”. 

The sensual perception is what I have already defined as a molecular perception, a kind of perception that allows us to enter into the landscape and therefore following its fluxes, its materials, its singularities like a change in a declination that intensifies a certain green or a certain force, a sensation of vastness or of infinity. And we can understand these again in Peter Zumthor’s own words: “I have to love the earth and the topography. I love the movement of the landscape, the flow and the structure of its forms; I try to imagine how thick the humus is; I see the hard bump in the meadow and sense the big boulder underneath all the other things I don’t know very much about, but that give me a wonderful feeling”. “And when I build something in the landscape, it is important to me to make sure my building materials match the historically grown substance of the landscape. The physical substance of what is built has to resonate with the physical substance of the area. (...) Without a delight in topography and the synthesis of materials, there is no form: I love precise and clear-cut form. A clear topological choice. Clear anatomies and bodies that look self-evident”. 

In Land-Art, there is also this feeling of loving the landscape and of taking care of it, but at the same time there is a moment when the landscape is transformed - and landscape, in land art, is not a mere support like the canvas is not a blank surface, but a territory in a deleuzian sense where a leaf turned upside down make the landscape resonate through sensation. And like Peter Zumthor’s Poetic Landscape which finds its form in the Bruder Klaus Kapelle, some works of land-art only intensify the territory’s expressive qualities. We may think of Barbara and Michael Leisgen photographs where the exact posture of the body (like the brown stagemaker) reveals and intensifies the landscape and we may imagine not the body, but a building standing there, that clear-cut form of which Zumthor speaks of. Or we may think of all the work that is built in that moment of tension, between artificial and natural, or in a moment of rupture, although a common sensation of horizontality is broken by other forces, of verticality or of openness or even by the color and all the different tonalities the wind and the movement of air and water create. And finally there is the same sense in relation to materials. There is an intensification of the materials, mainly through saturation of color and its physical properties, like Zumthor puts it, which we find in Robert Smithson’s works like the Spiral Jetty where the rose tone is given by a bacterium in the water. Or we may remember the color, the texture, the density of the Bruder Klaus exterior walls. 

To end, I would like to define what I’ve named a Poetic Landscape. I believe it is more a type of landscape, a constructed landscape, then a simple notion or idea upon landscape, because it implies: 

  1. A different way of looking, perceiving and understanding landscape that uses sensibility and intuition as modes of perception in order to extract from the landscape its traces of expression, its lines of force, the sensations it composes, its materials and their inner composition (almost like the fibers of a tissue). 
  2. But also, and most importantly, presents a transformation - it’s not a natural landscape - that converts all these forces, lines and materials into matters of expression of a work of architecture and only through the architect / artist composition. 
Expedition to an Intensive Architecture

Expedition to an Intensive Architecture