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  • Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice
  • Thomas Carter (bio)
Richard Longstreth, editor Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 218 pages, 77 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 10: 0-8166-5099-3, $25.00 PB

In case you haven’t noticed, cultural landscapes are the “in” thing these days in architectural studies. We are seeing a growing number of publications of all kinds that not only move beyond buildings to include surrounding elements like fields, roads, and vegetation, but also address the larger question of how humans have interacted with the natural environment to produce habitable social spaces. This is a good thing; slowly but [End Page 106] surely we are coming to realize that buildings are best understood as parts of functioning symbolic communities and that the more we know about the systemic relations between various objects within those communities, the better chance we have of understanding their meaning. Cultural landscape study therefore includes place—the physical environment (both natural and human-produced) and process—the creative act involved in making a place according to specific sets of underlying values and ideals.

Historic cultural landscapes are, of course, rarely found intact: the passage of time takes its toll on even the most isolated and traditional areas. In most cases, some form of reconstruction is necessary to develop a complete portrait of a landscape at a given point in time. Some places exist, however, that do continue to represent a historic way of life and, despite some modern intrusions, retain a degree of physical integrity. The rarity of such places makes them highly valued, and in recent years there has been a concerted effort by public and private agencies to preserve them. The National Park Service added cultural landscapes as a category to the national register of Historic Places in 1988, and in 1994 the service published a set of guidelines for defining, identifying, evaluating, and treating these environments. In 2004, preservation scholars and professionals from around the country gathered at Goucher College in Maryland for the Fourth National Forum on Historic Preservation Practice to discuss issues and methods in cultural landscape preservation. The present volume, Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice, is a record of the conference proceedings.

Collections of essays are often rather unsatisfying in their lack of both focus and consistency. Such is not the case here. Editor Richard Longstreth, something of a national treasure himself when it comes to promoting historic preservation, has assembled eleven essays that provide a tight-knit and highly useful tutorial covering the central issues confronting cultural landscape preservationists. He divides the collection into roughly equal halves, the first centering on landscape interpretation and the second on preservation practice. The authors on the whole stay on point, driving home the central message that cultural landscape study and preservation is a highly complex pursuit requiring creativity and flexibility both in how significance is determined and how landscapes are managed. For me, two major themes emerge: first, that it is the experiential nature of the landscape—the way it is invested with meaning—that is of utmost importance; and second, that because landscapes are constantly evolving and changing, unlike individual buildings, strategies for protecting them must shift from the landscape alone to include the cultural conditions which gave rise to that landscape. Other themes are in evidence as well, but these two provide the fabric that holds the collection together and makes it such a useful tool, a kind of handbook if you will, for cultural landscape preservation practice.

The notion that landscapes are as much idea as object emerges in the first essay by Julie Riesenweber. After recounting some of the early history of cultural landscape studies, she shows how geographers have increasingly embraced a symbolic approach to landscape that stresses its ideological underpinnings rather than just its material reality. Hillary Jenks continues this argument by describing the contested nature of preservation in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo district and the battle over whose story will be told. Also contested is the meaning of the landscape created by the insertion of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New...


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