Aerial Perspectives of Landscape and Nature

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Gaspard Felix Tournachon, a 19th century French photographer also known as “Nadar,” was the first photographer to successfully publish an aerial photo.  Nadar is also well-known for documenting the Haussmanization of Paris, France, coincidentally utilizing aerial photographs as his main form of documentation.

Le Corbusier would be satisfied with this documentation but would have proposed using aerial photographs as basis for analysis and planning.    Corbs believed “aerial observation in revealing the failure of cities as well as the potential of new, synoptic planning processes” would relieve the built environment of the “picturesque sentimentality” that plagued the planning process at that time (Corner 124,125).  Nonetheless, there is little doubt that aerial photography has and continues to change society’s perception of the landscape.

This is illustrated in fascist propaganda in the early 1930’s where “the power of the state of the state was displayed in the disseminated aerial photographs of mass audiences assembled to simultaneously project and perceive a new form of collective subjectivity” (Corner 125).  Bird’s eye views of the masses showing support of leadership was certainly powerful and the ideas it ascertained from that perspective were numerous.

Prior to this technology the natural world was always viewed as a foil for mankind’s activities.  Nature is where activities ended and the unknown began.  Henceforth landscape and architecture was primarily based on phenomenology, viewing positions and space relative to man.  

The invention of aerial photograph and the commercial airliner gave birth to planning the landscape as viewed from above.  Charles Waldheim remarks on Joseph Lea Gleave’s winning submission in the International Lighthouse Competition in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, “those flying into Santo Domingo would see the monument as a vast landscape sculpture cut into the ground of the New World… Those on the ground would see it as a light installation cutting through the night sky above the island” (Corner 123).  

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Representation by Gleave now took on two forms; sky and ground.  Both representations have become equal in the mind of the architect and planner.  

Waldheim’s approach to the topic of aerial photography is fascinating and worth looking into.  He eventually goes into the militaristic nature of the practice (for instance, drones, satellites, the interstate highway system, and more) and how we, as landscape architects and architects might be wise to understand that “the relentless imaging of the earth’s surface from above has changed the meaning and landscape irrevocably,” not-to-mention changed the worlds perspective on nature as well.  

The essay is called “Aerial Representation and the Recovery of Landscape” by Charles Waldheim in James Corner’s book called “Recovering Landscape” (I do not know how to underline on WP). I highly recommend reading it for further insight into Landscape Architecture as a field of thought.  

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