Landscape architecture is not just about creating ‘objects’ - urban squares, public parks, roof gardens, or car parks. It is also about mediating the way in which we experience the environment; framing the landscape as ‘subject’.
While it is easy to take for granted the route of a path through a forest, or the placement of a seat on a slope, these seemingly subtle interventions have the potential to define our perception of the landscape. This paper explores the potential of manipulating the landscape as subject through contrasting two ways of ways of seeing the same landscape a road and a gondola. Each provides a very different ‘point of view,’ demonstrating the way in which we can be unwittingly coerced into experiencing a particular version of the landscape.
I: Setting the Scene
The Summit Road and the Mount Cavendish Gondola are both located on the Port Hills, Christchurch, New Zealand. (Figure 1) As the remains of a long extinct volcano, the Port Hills rise above the flat, plains-bound city. It has been said of Christchurch, “The hills are its salvation.”1 The hills are not only important as relief in a flat landscape, but correspondingly, as a place to see the landscape from. Maori used parts of the hills as a lookout for possible invasions, while other sites were associated with events both real and mythical. Place names on the Port Hills illustrate the importance of the landscape to Maori, for example: O-kete-upoko: place of the basket of heads; Ti Tihi o Kahukura: citadel of the god whose incarnation is the rainbow; Orongomai: the place of listening.
The arrival of European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century confirmed the hills’ importance to the perception of the Canterbury landscape. Arriving at the Port of Lyttelton, the settlers then trudged across the Bridle Track, which crosses the hills, to the city of Christchurch. From the top of the track they viewed the landscape of the harbour and plains, establishing a visual agenda which persists today. The landscape was judged according to the aesthetic conventions of the time, particularly for its “picturesqueness.” For example, in 1853 a settler reported: “There are few prettier towns than Lyttelton… Situated in a small but picturesque bay, it is as it were, framed in the bold and rugged hills…” Looking in the other direction, Lord Lyttelton, one of the founders of the Canterbury Association, remarked, “for emigrants of a complaining turn of mind, and fond of the picturesque, [the Canterbury Plains] at first sight seemed exceedingly repulsive.”
II: The Picturesque and the Sublime on the Port Hills
Winding around the rim of the crater, the Summit Road is the epitome of the picturesque. Commenced by visionary philanthropist Harry Ell in 1908 and completed after his death in 1934, the serpentine roadm presents the traveller with a series of composed views. Contrary to its name, the Summit Road rarely runs along the very top of the hills, and instead follows the curves of the landform. From the road, the views are always framed by the hills, the Claudean coulisse which ensures a picturesque composition (Figure 2). The road is 29 kilometres from Evans Pass at one end to Gebbies Pass at the other, and is nearly level along the entire length, some 400 metres above sea level. It has an episodic character, punctuated by a number of what might be called follies. In the tradition of the great picturesque gardens of England the follies have evocative names. Like Stowe’s Temple of British Worthies, or Castle Howard’s Temple of the Four Winds, the Summit Road has the Sign of the Takahe, Sign of the Kiwi, Sign of the Bellbird, and the Sign of the Packhorse. The first three are named after native New Zealand birds, calling forth the genius loci. Serving as teahouses and shelters, the follies are picturesque structures predominantly constructed from the volcanic stone which they grow out of. An early description of the Sign of the Kiwi (Figure 3) captures the character of the Summit Road follies: ‘It stands in the saddle of Dyers Pass, 937 feet above sea level, built of stone, with a picturesque swinging sign, and a Shakespearian quotation inscribed over the porch. Here one can sit and take tea, and look down upon Christchurch, six miles away, framed by the arms of the hills.”2
The language of this early guidebook continues to evoke the picturesque, with its description of “a green vale dotted with park- like clumps of native trees,” and the observation that “From this distance the Port of Lyttelton takes on a romantic air, looking as if it might be some historied town on the coast of Sicily.”3 The picturesqueness of the road is accentuated by subsequent structures added in more recent years. From the stone memorial to pioneer women to the spire of the Sugar Loaf broadcasting transmitter (Figure 4), the collection of eclectic buildings continues to emphasise the episodic, serial nature of the landscape experience.
One of the more recent additions to this landscape challenges the picturesque sensibilities of the Summit Road. Dangling above the road, a cable carries capsules of tourists up the steep side of Mount Cavendish (Figure 5). Built in 1992 by the Mount Cavendish Gondola Company the gondola, like the Summit Road, is a means of experiencing the landscape. But here it is the sublime rather than the picturesque which is evoked. The challenge to self-preservation characteristic of the sublime is immediately achieved through the experience of travelling in the gondola capsule. Swinging from the cable there is a sense of fear and also’ a distancing from the landscape. There is a fine line between absolute terror and confidence in the safety of the gondola: it is this tension which is at the heart of the sublime. The landscape becomes something apart, awe-inspiring, as opposed to the more comfortable experience of travelling along the road. There is no stopping along the way to admire any carefully framed and composed views. Here there are no edges to the experience. In the words of an eighteenth century aesthetic theorist, “The view sublime, vast and unconfined.”4 From the gondola terminus the view is 360 degrees, and as far as the eye can see. The view is impossible to photograph, any frame being inadequate for the sense of boundlessness. The postcard promoted by the gondola tourist shop is a fold-out panorama — no framing hills, no overhanging branches. The picturesque has no place at the gondola. Writing on the Summit Road in 1914 the poet Blanche Baughan uncannily anticipates this changed point of view:
“Man was meant to take wide views, there is no doubt about it. No wonder that this generation dreams of tracts higher even than our Summit Road, and of journeys through the air.”5
The road and the gondola therefore illustrate how the landscape can be seen as either picturesque or sublime, depending on the way in which the experience is manipulated. From the road, the landscape is encountered as a series of composed images, reflecting picturesque theorist William Gilpin’s advice that the “landscape is not static but is constantly recomposing itself into different, separate, or singular pictures.”6
By contrast, the all encompassing view from the gondola terminus is not composed or contained, echoing Price’s observation that, “Infinity is one of the most efficient causes of the sublime.”7
III: Beyond the picturesque and the sublime
The contrasts in landscape experience between the road and the gondola are not confined to the eighteenth century categories of the sublime and the picturesque. While these conventions are the foundations of the appreciation of scenery, there are a number of other ways in which landscape experience varies. For example, there is a dramatic difference in the way in which the landscape is experienced temporally. Consistent with the picturesque point of view, the road can be conceptualised as a cinematic experience, recalling the way in which William Gilpin used his eye “like cine-camera, as his boat moves down the river, or as the ‘shifting’ scenes ‘float’ past his carriage window.”8 This gives a marked sense of the passing of time. By contrast, the experience of the landscape from the gondola terminus is comparable to an aerial photograph, which is read as a gestalt image. As Serra suggests of sculpture, “if you “if reduce sculpture to the flat plane of the photograph… [y]ou’re denying the temporal experience of the work.” Thus from the top of the gondola time stands still, and apart from the wind in the tussock there is no sense of movement. The landscape spreads out like a huge map to be read at a glance.
In addition to the temporal contrast, there is also a pronounced difference in spatial experience. The Summit Road provides a sense of spatial constancy - an extruded space which is punctuated regularly by views and follies. By contrast, the gondola has a boundless sense of space. Starting at the base of the gondola and travelling up the cable, the spatial boundaries expand exponentially. If it could be conceptualised as a volume, the experience would have to be described as conical, starting at a point and increasing in diameter until it covers 360 degrees. Therefore, the spatial memory of the Port Hills landscape from either the road or the gondola is dramatically different.
A further dissimilarity between the landscape experience provided by the road and the gondola is the way each is an expression of the zeitgeist of the respective eras of construction. The Summit Road characterises the genteel air of the early twentieth century, when walkers took delight in the many vistas along the rough track and approached the landscape in an unhurried way. Baughan’s evocative descriptions of the landscape capture the spirit of the age: “Past the scenic reserve, then, of Coronation Hill, with Governor’s Gap at the further side of it giving an exquisite little side-peep deep down between grey rocks, into a green valley opening on blue sea; below a high hill-top (Marley’s) crowned with dark pines, and then lo! all of a sudden, what a change - and what a picture! Gone is Cashmere Valley, gone are the plains; and here, twelve hundred feet below, in all its length and breadth, is Lyttelton Harbour…”10 The retention and restoration of the atmosphere of the teahouses, and minimal development of the roadsides, has allowed the leisurely quality of the Summit Road to be retained. By contrast, the gondola is emphatically of the late twentieth century. Ascending the hills rapidly, a trip up the gondola allows a quick-fix of landscape for those who haven’t the time or inclination to linger. The promotional brochure assures potential visitors that the gondola is “close and convenient.” The road and the gondola thus stand as metaphors for cultural change, expressing the priorities and values of the age.
The perception of access to the landscape provides a final contrast in experience. Harry Ell was a philanthropist and his vision was of the enjoyment of the people of Christchurch — “The wonderful beauty of the hills has been my inspiration to work all these years, nearly thirty now, to preserve public rights and to make the magnificent scenery of the hills more easily accessible by roadway and footway, that the people of Christchurch might enjoy Nature’s glorious heritage.”[^11] Although a tollgate operated for a short time to cover road construction costs, there was never any intention for the road to make a profit. In contrast, the gondola conceptualises the landscape as a commodity, something to be sold to tourists, giving the Mount Cavendish Gondola Company an annual turnover of over $NZ 4 million.[^12] The promotional brochure seems somewhat ironic with its schedule of fares accompanied by the comment that, “It is perhaps an extension to Harry Ell’s dream, providing the ideal means for all our citizens and visitors to experience this bold and dramatic land.”[^13]
Conclusion: the lesson of the road and the gondola
The Summit Road and the Mount Cavendish Gondola illustrate how the same landscape can appear in different guises, depending on your ‘point of view.’ Two contrasting landscape experiences are possible within the same setting. One picturesque, cinematic, sequential, animated, genteel, expressing a philanthropic attitude to access to the landscape. The other, sublime, gestalt, static, mercenary: a “pay-to-view” version of the landscape. Neither the road nor the gondola are design objects in their own right. A critique of the asphalt, cables and pylons would be as meaningless as an art critic’s commentary on a frame instead of the painting it contains. However, critiques of landscape architecture often focus on design as though it is an isolated object, ignoring the enormous effect an intervention in the landscape can have on our perception and memory of the greater environment. Even a very subtle design can transform the entire visual landscape through defining the way in which it is perceived. This perspective on landscape design has a parallel with the notion of the ‘ready-made.’ Duchamp and his followers transformed ordinary objects into works of art, merely through the process of exhibition. Similarly the landscape becomes ‘designed’ simply because of the it way it is framed or the visitors’ movements are defined. This emphasises the power a landscape architect has, even with minimal means, to construct the way in which the broader landscape is appreciated. The road and the gondola are therefore a lesson in remembering to consider the ‘big picture’ — not just its frame.
- 1 G Ogilvie, (1978). The Port Hills of Christchurch. Wellington: AH & AW Reed. p.Xv. Adams, C. Warren. (1853). A Spring in the Canterbury Settlement. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman. p.25. Lord Lyttelton quoted in Thelma Strongman (1984). The Gardens of Canterbury: A History. Wellington. p.12.↩
- Summit Road. Automobile Association (194? no date) no page numbers.↩
- Richard Payne (1794) The Landscape: A Didactic ?? in Malcolm Mathers (ed) 1994. Picturesque ?? Sources and Documents Mountfield ?? Vol 2.↩
- ?? Baughan ?? : An attempt to ?? the summit ?? in B E Baughan ?? R Speight ?? Summit Road ?? Botany and ?? Christchurch: Summit Road ?? p. 10.↩
- William Gilpin quoted in ?? Ian Michasiw ?? Nine Revisionist ?? on the Picturesque. ?? 38, ?? 1992 ?? P.88.↩
- ?? Price (1794) ?? the Picturesque. In Andrews ?? Vol. 2, p. 94.↩
- Timothy Brownlow (1983). John Clare and picturesque landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.12.↩
- Baughan, op cit, p.8.↩