The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 11 June 2018

A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time

by John Brinckerhoff Jackson

With all the glossy magazines and web sites for bright clean pictures of architecture and interior design, we have plenty of input for our dreams and aspirations for our built environment. And, while some of these get built and some even get lived in, these visions are largely for the lucky and the wealthy. Down on the ground, most people don't work in sleek modern spaces. Most people don't live in glassy residential skyscrapers. The biggest successes of urban planning are still fairly few and far-between. Any trip through the actual landscape reveals that the vast majority of our places are of the vernacular variety: cheaper more standardized construction and often personalized and greatly altered homes; work-spaces; and even park land. Despite our aspirations, we still romanticize this landscape. Ed Ruscha's gas stations. Edward Hopper's lonely houses. Any number of contemporary artists who photograph or paint or sculpt the scruffy everyday-ness of our landscape. Author John Brinckerhoff Jackson was a partisan for such spaces. He celebrates the vernacular. The landscape is nothing if not altered in some way by humans living in their everyday lives.

In this collection of somewhat polemical essays, Brinckerhoff advocates for the hand-built houses and pueblos of the American southwest. He sees mobile homes as a worthy successor to the catalog-built houses of the last century. He elevates the lowly pickup truck to a vital tool of the vernacular economy. And he sees roads as a vital element, around which we build our commerce and our cities. While he nods toward preservation, he also recoils from an environmentalism that seeks to preserve the natural order of our environment. Jackson makes a point, in an otherwise general foreword, of calling out radical environmentalism. Later in the book, he makes a pointed critique of radical and even mainstream environmental movement as essentially anti-human and even racist. He revels in the human-altered natural environment he sees as more democratic. Some of this sharp commentary, narrowly defined as it is, has become part of the conservative anti-nature stance in today's highly polarized political environment. All of this is in service to his basic premise that we must take the landscape as we recieve it, in all its altered, distorted, damaged and polluted glory. What we choose to do with it from there is merely the next step in its use, its consumption. Preservation of large unused tracts of land from human intervention just seems to him to be quixotic, even pointless.

In the end, though, he speaks eloquently about the vernacular landscape, and by doing so contributes to our enduring romantic feelings toward it, even while dreaming of some sleek, planned, urban alternative. This book was first published in 1994, and its author passed away in 1996. One pauses to wonder what Brinckerhoff would think of today's modern urbanist movement back from the sprawling vernacular landscape into newly re-invigorated urban centers. At the same time, he may be satisfied at the increasing human alteration of our natural heritage, everything from our beaches to our most remote national parks. Despite it all, he has something to say. He draws our attention to the vital underbelly of our populated landscape. As the great majority live in such a place, it is a landscape worthy of our attention.

(For this book, Jackson was awarded the 1995 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.)

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