"The Monument and the Bungalow," Peirce Lewis (published in Geographical Review, 1998)
You may choose to view the complete .pdf version of this essay as published in Geographical Review in 1998. However, note that the complete essay is more difficult to read in the opening sections. The version below is heavily abbreviated until the section titled "The First Precept." The removed paragraphs provide a history of landscape study, a discussion of contributions to the field by important scholars like J.B. Jackson and Carl Sauer, and a story of how two graduate students led Lewis to write this essay.
In the evolution of modern American geography, few writers or teachers have left a more important and indelible intellectual legacy than John Brinckerhoff Jackson—a man who dominated scholarly thinking about the American landscape for almost half a century. At the time of his death in 1996, it is fair to say that no single individual had done more to enliven the study of ordinary American landscapes—no writer had done more to influence and make respectable the study of seemingly ordinary things. . . . Jackson was a prolific writer, and his essays on landscape embrace a wide variety of ideas, arguments, musings, and speculations. Throughout his huge opus, however, one basic proposition persistently recurs. Although it is not original with Jackson, it is fundamental to the intellectual position he espoused:
Wherever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. . . . A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it. (Jackson 1951)
In sum, landscape is an historic document that tells a story—nay, multiple stories—about the people who created the landscape—and the cultural context in which that landscape was embedded (Lewis 1979). And, like any document, landscape can be read by those who possess the necessary skills and vocabulary.
Vernacular landscape, furthermore, is a very special kind of document. The ordinary landscape is, after all, the only lasting record written by the overwhelming majority of the earth‘s population who can’t write because they are illiterate, or don’t write because they are uncomfortable with the use of written language. The landscape created by ordinary people is the main historic record left behind by those ordinary unlettered people—records “written” on the face of the earth.
But what does it mean to read landscape? How do we learn to do it? And, how do we teach our students the skills of landscape reading. . . . These are not idle questions. This urge to read landscape that many geographers take for granted is not taken for granted by the public at large. No matter how important and interesting we think the enterprise is, it is totally outside the normal experience of most Americans.
Looking around for pedagogical guidance, I found that the pickings were slim. Brinck Jackson, for example, generally avoided the question of pedagogy . . . he taught by example. As he once remarked to Robert Calo, “I see things that other people don’t see, and I simply call their attention to them” (qtd. in Horowitz 1997). . . . I went . . . to Karl Sauer’s “The Education of a Geographer,” in search of pedagogical advice. . . . Despite the title of his essay, Sauer wasn’t very helpful. According to him, the ability to read landscape somehow comes with the genes. . . . You either have it, or you don’t. Now I don’t doubt that Sauer had a point. Some people are better at visual things than others; I suppose it has something to do with being left brained or right brained. But I knew from my own experience that students could be taught to read landscape.
So I went back and tried to rethink what I had discovered in the process of teaching beginning students to make sense of the commonplace landscapes. Were there any basic guidelines that students had to follow if they were going to learn the art of landscape reading? When I rephrased my own question that way, I came to the conclusion that there [are] two minimum requirements—two things a student ha[s] to learn—two precepts, if you will . . .
I don’t submit either one of these as original with me. But I am convinced that they are essential guides when it comes to introducing students to the joys and rewards of reading the vernacular American landscape. And, I might add, both of these precepts sound very simple. They start getting complicated when one undertakes to apply them in the field.
The First Precept: Cultivating the Habit of Attention
The first precept is basic. Students need to develop and cultivate the habit of using their eyes and asking nonjudgmental questions about familiar, commonplace things.
Put this in a slightly different way. Students need to get into the habit of trusting the evidence of their eyes—of looking, and of asking some very elementary descriptive questions. What is that? Why does it look the way it does? How does it work? Why is it there?
Note another thing: The questions are nonjudgmental. Teachers should not encourage students to make snap judgments about whether they like or don’t like something in the landscape. Premature aesthetic or ideological judgments are commonly half baked, and they almost always get in the way of clear vision—at least in the early stages of serious landscape study. So the first question should always be: What is that thing?—not whether I like it or not. This is simply another way of stating the obvious: One can’t say anything intelligent about anything unless one can first describe it accurately and dispassionately.
To geographers and others who have lived most of their adult lives with the ideas of trying to read landscape, all of this sounds tediously obvious. Why make such a fuss about using one’s eyes and asking serious questions about what one sees?
The answer is not comforting. Most modern Americans simply don’t use their eyes—and they certainly don’t use their eyes to look at the commonplace landscape that they inhabit from day to day. Australian Bushmen do; it’s a matter of survival with them. Most Americans don’t—and that includes most American college students.
It’s not hard to fix blame for that. The American educational system, both formal and informal, actively discourages the act of looking and thinking about what one sees. The informal education, where most of our students get most of their ideas, says very clearly that looking at landscape isn’t something that cool people normally do. In fact, students often get embarrassed when I suggest that they feel the texture of bricks in a building, or wiggle a window shutter to find out if it really works, or get down on their hands and knees to see what a piece of pavement is made of. From their gestures and their body language, not to mention what they say, it’s obvious that you’re not supposed to go around feeling bricks. People will think you’re strange—and the ordinary eighteen-year-old, fresh out of high school, does not like to be thought strange.
Our formal education is just as culpable. Throughout high school, college, and university, students are inculcated with the idea that reliable information comes only from reading words—books, journals, or messages on the Web.
It’s a plain fact that our educational apparatus privileges the written word as a way of getting information, as a way of learning. Look at the typical college course catalog, for example. The pages are full of courses in literary analysis and literary criticism. Nearly all history courses are taught from books and lectures—full stop. And, I am sorry to say, most geography is taught the same way, Then look for the courses that teach students to gain knowledge from looking at the things that make up the vernacular landscape—and you will look in vain. The few courses that do pay attention to visible things tend to focus on famous buildings and high-style paintings—not on what streets and alleys and farms and freeways look like. It’s a rare academy that encourages the habit of looking at outbuildings in farmyards or municipal fireplugs or the signs in front of fast-food restaurants or pink flamingos on residential lawns (Figure 1).
Our first job, if we want to teach students how to read landscape, is to help them to develop the habit of thoughtful looking and of asking questions about what they see in the ordinary landscape they inhabit. Fortunately, that’s not hard to do. Bright, curious students pick up on the idea right away, especially in the field, when they are freed from those authoritarian classrooms with their chairs bolted to the floor, and turned loose in the real world to look at real stuff.
Then too, in a curious way, students are flattered by the idea that a professor thinks it important to look at the world that they inhabit. Students are accustomed to professors who think that Victorian poetry and the laws of thermodynamics are important. Indeed, one main reason that academics are often thought to be stuffy is that they rarely exhibit much interest in the things the students think important. Many students are simply delighted when they discover that it’s academically okay to go out and look at the parking lots and shopping malls that they frequent, and at the arrangement of houses and trees and lawns on the residential streets where they live—and then ask serious questions about such things. To take those students’ habitat seriously is, in effect, to take them seriously. Many students find this idea astonishing—and exhilarating.
The Second Precept: Acquiring Vocabulary
So there is the first precept of landscape reading. Students have to learn the habit of using their eyes—of paying attention to the commonplace things that they rarely notice. The second precept follows neatly. If students are going to look at elements of landscape and describe them, they need to acquire a vocabulary that allows them to describe things accurately.
Let me put it another way. One can’t talk about anything, especially something as complicated as human landscape, if one looks at it simply as a kind of goulash of miscellaneous objects, all tossed together in no special order. Students can’t see order in the world unless they can recognize similarities and difference—and a good vocabulary helps them do that.
Geomorphologists, for example, recognize a kind of feature that they call an alluvial fan (Figure 2). The language is crucial. Two words describe a peculiar kind of landform, with a peculiar and highly recognizable shape that looks from above like an old-fashioned fan, of the kind that ladies used to wield in church. But the term also says that we know how that shape originated—its history. All alluvial fans are created by running water, by a stream depositing sand and gravel when the stream’s volume and velocity drop below a certain point, and the stream is forced to drop the load it had previously been carrying. The term also makes it possible to relate the fan to things around it. Alluvial fans are always younger than the material beneath them, always younger than bedrock slopes along their flanks. In short, to say those two words, “alluvial fan,” the geomorphologist knows what the feature looks like, how it came to be, what it’s made of, and how the feature relates to surrounding elements in the landscape. And, because all alluvial fans are created by streams that are overburdened, the geomorphologist can go on and start asking other, more sophisticated questions: Why is this stream behaving the way it is? What’s been going on here, to create this form, in this particular place? These are excellent questions, but none is askable unless one first knows what an alluvial fan is, and knows how to apply the term.
The same principle applies in other fields as well. In plant ecology, certain species of plants are signals or indicators of ecological change—but one has to recognize and identify the plants before one can begin to speculate about what is happening. Agricultural geographers give names to certain kinds of barns and outbuildings, because those structures are clues to what kind of farming is being conducted. If a certain kind of barn is consistently being abandoned or altered, while another kind isn’t, that is evidence of a particular kind of agricultural change. But one can’t talk about barns intelligently unless one can first give them names, and know what those names refer to.
The Case of Bellefonte
Two examples from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, illustrate how the accurate use of vocabulary can help students get their teeth into the act of landscape reading. Bellefonte is a small town that I have used from time to time as a laboratory for my own work (Lewis 1972). The town is county seat of Centre County, close to the geographical center of Pennsylvania, and a dozen or so miles from my university—a convenient place to take students on field trips when I am first trying to show them some of the ways that human landscapes can be read.
As the students and I walk the streets of Bellefonte, I introduce them to various kinds of technical vocabulary to describe what we are seeing—botanical, technological, demographic—but the most important vocabulary in this initial stage of landscape reading is that of architectural history. There is good reason for that. The central elements in many human landscapes are buildings—houses, office buildings, barns, factories, warehouses, and so on. They are quintessentially “significant forms,” to use Sauer’s language. People take buildings very seriously: They are expensive, they last a long time, and their exterior appearance is often interpreted as a reflection of the person who created the building or who now inhabits it. Furthermore, architectural styles and forms provide important clues to the age of a building. If one hopes to read the meaning of a town’s landscape, for example, it is useful—often crucial—to know what was built when, in order to comprehend the town’s chronology.
If students are going to talk intelligently about the appearance of buildings, however, they need a certain level of architectural vocabulary—and, unfortunately, most Americans do not possess that vocabulary. So, before taking students to Bellefonte for the first time, I give them a crash course in postcolonial architectural history—more accurately, of building facades. I ask them to learn some basic vocabulary—what an Italianate house looks like, for example, and how it differs from Gothic and Queen Anne—and I ask them to learn some dates, so that when they see a neighborhood of Italianate houses in Bellefonte, they can know that it is probably older by a decade or two than the Queen Anne neighborhood nearby.
What Vocabulary Can Do: The Monument and the Bungalows
In the course of a day’s field trip through Bellefonte, we encounter two things that a typical student, in the course of daily life, would likely not pay much attention to.
The first is the war monument in front of the Court House, at the head of High Street (Figure 3). Standing in front of the monument is a dignified bronze statue of Andrew Curtin, Bellefonte’s most famous citizen, who was governor of Pennsylvania during the Civil War and a potent supporter of Lincoln and the Union cause (Figure 4). The monument is a very elaborate celebration of Centre County’s role in helping to fight America’s numerous wars. Along with a fair bit of martial statuary, it bears the names of all the county’s citizens who have served in the military in war- time — during the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, World War I, World War 11, Korea, and Vietnam. There are four long rows of bronze plaques, all closely engraved with the names of veterans (Figure 5). It is quite an array.
The second thing—or rather set of things—is a scattering of California bungalows, largely located in a middle-class residential neighborhood several blocks from the courthouse.
The monument and the bungalows don’t seem to be related to each other, and to most students, they don’t seem very interesting either. Typically, students glance at the monument and promptly dismiss it. “Just another war memorial. What’s the big deal?” As for the bungalows, the beginning student sees them as no more interesting than the monument. “ Just a bunch of old houses. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. Don’t all towns have things like that?’’
Now the monument—like any artifact in the landscape—can be read at several levels. It is a memorial to the citizens of Centre County who served in the military—that much is obvious. But that monument is an extraordinary thing to see in the main square of a supposedly peaceful little town. For most of its history, Bellefonte was just a very small place in an isolated and sparsely populated rural county. Some of the town’s early settlers very likely came to America to evade military conscription in Europe. Yet there are more than 4,000 names on that monument. It bespeaks a bloody history, and it raises forceful questions about the popular roots of American militarism—questions that abstract discussions in the classroom aren’t likely to raise.
At another level, the monument, with all those names in bronze, reveals a good deal about the town’s ethnic composition at various stages in its history. There are more than 2,000 names of Civil War veterans on the monument, and nearly all are of British or Irish or German derivation (Figure 6). There is a conspicuous absence of names from Scandinavia, eastern or southern Europe, not to mention Asia or Latin America. And there are no Italian names at all, a seeming paradox. A considerable proportion of Pennsylvania’s contemporary population is of Italian ancestry. Perhaps a quarter of the students in any given class at my university are likely to have Italian names. But not in Civil War Bellefonte. What happened between then and now? There are plenty of Italian Americans in Bellefonte today.
Standing at the monument, one can look down High Street to Bonfatto’s Restaurant (Figure 7), and just a little way down Allegheny Street is the former Roma Family Restaurant, where the ex-mayor (a second-generation Italian American) used to drink his morning coffee. And there is no shortage of Italian names on the grave stones in the Catholic cemetery, just a few blocks up the street. Suddenly, a few students begin to realize that one doesn’t need special training in history to make some intelligent guesses about the streams of foreign migration that washed through the streets of small Pennsylvania towns in the last third of the nineteenth century. A good many students find this sort of thing interesting, especially if their name happens to be Capparelli, or Berducci, or their great-grandmother arrived in Pennsylvania from Sicily or Calabria in 1905.
But the architecture of the monument permits yet another reading—and this is where a knowledge of architectural vocabulary exhibits its power.
The monument is right out of the textbook: neoclassical Beaux Arts. The students know—because they had that crash course in architectural history back in the classroom—that the style, in that particular form, originated in Second Empire France, but they also know that this particular manifestation is peculiarly American. The date on the monument is 1904—and the architecture is plainly derivative of Daniel Burnham’s Great White City at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. It also bears a strong resemblance to the McMillan Plan buildings in Washington D.C.—Union Station and those white marble buildings that line the Mall (Figure 8). For 1904, that Bellefonte monument is architecturally very up to date for its time. With its elaborate classical detailing and its formidable statue of Bellefonte’s leading citizen, it is also very Establishment.
The monument, in effect, is a powerful political statement—nothing less than architectural propaganda. It is boastful, and makes no apologies for that. It asserts and glorifies America’s connection with a purified and high-minded classical tradition. These are America’s roots, the monument says, and they’re Bellefonte’s roots, too. They go back to the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. They are very respectable.
At the same time, just like Union Station in Washington, the monument is a proclamation of America’s new political and military and technological power, which had destroyed the last remnants of Spain’s once might overseas empire just six years before the monument was built. That same power would send Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet sailing around the world—America’s mailed fist in a white glove—only four years after the monument was finished. The statue of Governor Curtin reinforces that Establishment message. Bellefonte’s first citizen is central to this patriotic experience. “Look at us! We’re Americans! We can do anything!” (Figure 9).
For the brighter students (Sauer would have liked these kids!), this kind of thing comes as revelation. Theodore Roosevelt and Daniel Burhham aren’t just shadowy figures in an arid textbook. Roosevelt and Burnham are right here, the monument says, and they want to talk to you. That’s not a familiar experience for most undergraduate students.
Now there is plainly much more that can be said about the monument—about its overt and cover meanings. One can dispute what I have argued so far, and one can surely provide alternative readings of the Bellefonte monument. But this reading, however debatable, would not have been possible without a rudimentary vocabulary of American architectural history.
By the time we arrive in Bellefonte, the students have acquired enough vocabulary to recognize a California bungalow when they see one (Figure 10). They know, for example, that such houses derived from the work of Pasadena architects like Greene and Greene during the 1890s and early 1900s, and their adoption in the East was one of the first signals that California no longer was an isolated western territory but was becoming a major center for domestic innovation, reaching even into the isolated, conservative valleys of central Pennsylvania (Figure 11). They know that simplified versions of those California bungalows were built in vast numbers in the eastern United States during the 1920s and 1920s, and they know also that the Crash of 1929 essentially killed them off as a popular domestic style. Those bungalows, then, are index fossils of residential growth during the 1920s, and their presence in Bellefonte is fairly typical of most American towns of that period.
A few of those Bellefonte bungalows, furthermore, carry the faint earmarks of the Craftsman movement—and here’s where a knowledge architectural vocabulary allows the student to see those houses in a new light Back in class, while they were still acquiring their vocabulary, the students learned about the Arts and Crafts movement, first promoted in England by John Ruskin and William Morris, and then adopted and publicized in America by architects like the brothers Greene in Pasadena and designer-promoters like Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman Magazine, founded in 1900. The best of Bellefonte’s bungalows are fairly watered down, and an admirer of Greene and Greene would probably sneer at them. But some of them, however simplified, incorporate a few Craftsman gestures: rough-cut undressed stone, hand-split shingles, exposed rafters, imperfectly fired brick, and sloppy mortar joints. Look, the designer is telling us: These houses were not made by machines; they were made by hand, and the mark of the craftsman’s hand can be seen everywhere.
In short, these bungalows are not merely old houses. Just as the War Memorial is a political statement, these houses have political implications too. In the spirit of John Ruskin, who had inveighed against the railroads and factories that were despoiling his beloved English countryside, and in the spirit of Lewis Mumford, who lamented the excesses of American urbanism, these Craftsman designers were protesting the worship of rampant technology, which they saw as inhuman and inhumane. They were, through their designs, urging a return to an older, simpler, and supposedly more “natural” America.
Now it is stretching things a bit to say that these particular houses were political statements. The bungalows in Bellefonte are far removed from the elegant and flamboyant Greene and Greene originals in Pasadena. The designs for these very likely came from pattern books, and the builders may or may not have heard of the Craftsman movement. Very likely not.
But the architectural provenance of those houses is very clear, and it comes from a social philosophy that is violently at odds with the aggressive jingoism of the War Memorial. Just as the monument is telling Bellefontonians that progress is wonderful, that the future is bright, and that Americans can do anything, those bungalows (or at least their immediate ancestors) convey a very different message. In our mad pursuit of power and progress, these houses are saying, Americans have really botched things. Those machines that were supposed to liberate humanity have in fact dehumanized us, made us slaves. We must mend our ways, those bungalows are saying. Let us get back to simpler times, when men and women could take pride in honest work.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Well, so what? The answer to that is, “So plenty!” The students learn the powerful message (as J. B. Jackson put it) that “Landscape is history made visible” (Jackson, qtd. in Horowitz 1997). The students discover that ordinary human landscapes offer them a chance to look into an older world—the parent of the world they inhabit. But they couldn’t do that until they had first observed those two precepts I’ve argued here. Students had to get over the idea that the stuff of commonplace landscapes is boring, to open their eyes and their minds at the same time, to see landscape in a new way. And they had to learn a rudimentary vocabulary that allowed them to identify and give names to things in the landscape, so that they could connect those things with larger ideas.
That monument and those bungalows, of course, are but samples. The world is full of artifacts providing a glimpse of past worlds that are just as complex as the one we inhabit today—just as riven with controversy—wherein people, just as they are today, were simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about the world they inhabited. The people who created those monuments and those bungalows, in short, were thinking many of the same thoughts that we think today. They were torn by the same kinds of hopes and doubts about a new and unfamiliar world that was suddenly thrust upon them.
Now I do not mean to be glib. My readings of that monument and those bungalows are certainly not the only readings—and they may not even be correct readings—although naturally I like to think they are. My argument goes beyond a particular reading of monument, bungalow, or some other artifact in the landscape. I am arguing that we can teach students to read landscapes by getting them into the habit of looking and teaching them the vocabulary that allows them to identify and classify recurrent significant forms. If they learn to do that, they will have acquired the raw materials to do something quite wonderful. They can start to learn from the landscape, not because they listen to lectures from me or some other teacher but because they’ve learned, on their own, to see a world they’ve never seen before. And that will start to happen when the student says first, “Oh gosh, look at that.” And then, a while later, the student says—and means it—Oh! I SEE”—and means “I see!” in the most literal sense of the word.
And when that happens, we teachers have done our job, and we can go home. Mr. Jackson, I believe, would have liked that.
(For figures, notes and references, please see .pdf version of this essay)