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Qualities Peculiar to Landscape Compositions

In most of the fine arts the act of creative designing means the putting together or shaping of raw materials into a new kind of unity; as a painter assembles pigments and canvas into a picture, where no picture was before; as an architect creates a building where no building was before by assembling diverse materials which have not previously entered into the composition of a building.  By contrast, the creations of landscape architecture — namely landscapes — are made by altering, adapting, or perfecting real landscapes existing in advance as such, much as an architect alters an old building to adapt it to new uses while respectfully conserving its fine qualities.  The changes may be more or less radical, the new expression may be strikingly different from the old; but always the starting point is not merely a lot of separate raw materials for a landscape but an actual landscape of some sort, whether it possesses much or little of artistic quality worthy of preservation and development in the new landscape.  The form of the ground may by its outline or by its vertical modelling, or both, suggest to the trained eye shapes which need only to be perfected and to be emphasized by the addition of suitable details or the elimination of unsuitable details, to become the chief elements of a very beautiful new landscape.  The same may be true of any other element or elements of the original landscape, such as a portion of the existing local vegetation, or the gleam of water in a lake a mile away or a mountain on the distant sky line.

Even more often is it true that elements of the preexisting landscape which are beyond the practical control of the designer impose limitations upon the kinds of landscape which he can successfully produce by his changes; and a bumptious disregard of these limitations is responsible for many a wasteful failure.  Always the surroundings, the underlying geological skeleton, the sky, and the climate remain — beyond control.  And it is usually a reckless waster of landscape values who does not, with respectful modesty, save, cherish, and weave into the altered landscape with strengthened or altered emphasis, the characteristic qualities of these and other preexisting elements. 

Alike for one who seeks only to increase his enjoyment of landscape as it is, and for one who essays to alter landscapes, the first and most important lesson is this one of alertly sensitive, respectful, clear-sighted appreciation of existing landscape qualities for which he can take no credit to himself.  It calls for a much more self-subordinate attitude of mind than that of other artists, who aim at qualities to be produced by them with raw materials which they may choose from anywhere to fit their preconceived aim. 

Closely akin to this is another fundamental fact of landscape art; that every landscape has parts which are also parts of other landscapes.  For the landscape of the world is continuous, its elements regrouping into new unities as the beholder moves from place to place; so that each particular landscape must be considered in relation to its actual surroundings, like a mural painting as distinguished from an easel picture; and also not merely as seen from a single point of view, however dominantly important, but as seen by living people who move about and see as they go. 

— Frederick Law Olmsted  


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