Saturday, January 14, 2017

The View as Enclosure

In the autumn of 2001 I had an experience at the Mattituck Museum, in Waterbury, Connecticut. The exhibit, Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore was on display upstairs. His Hudson River School style is typically described as Luminism, its hallmark a tranquil scene with evanescent light, and in Kensett’s case -more often than not an image of the conjunction of water and land. The impact of each work is an experience of restfulness and calm, a bath of even, transcendental light in the reassuring, supportive bosom of nature. 




On the first floor was Mattituck's permanent exhibit titled Brass City –a brutal display of miserable working and living conditions in Waterbury, one of Connecticut’s several industrialized river cities through the 19th  and early 20th century. 

In this contradiction I recognize how the Hudson River School paintings were a looking or turning away.

The history of the Hudson Valley is one of industrial and commercial enterprise, of resource extraction, where the hills, especially those closest to the river, were cleared of timber for use in iron production, charcoal production, tanning, building, and of course, cleared for farming. The valley was home to quarrying for road making, building, brick making, and of course, cement production. Rail and steam terminals, dikes and dredging, and other riverside alterations were commonplace thanks to the opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825. One hundred or so brilliant white ice houses, many hundreds of feet long, were built along the river to store ice cut from the frozen river to ship to NYC. Yet it is the rarest of paintings from the time period that represents any of this. The image below was made by one of the "lesser" artists of the time -it depicts industry on the shores of the city of Hudson, NY.


Samuel Coleman, 1866


I expect people to desire the dream, but what never occurred to me is that anyone would confuse Hudson River School pictorialization with truth. The painters of the time, like any artist, did not stay true to the world before them. No, they were creating visages of a dream and they were as well aware of it as we are today. 


The Viewshed

A view shed has been defined as:

"the geographical area that is visible from a location. It includes all surrounding points that are in line-of-sight with that location and excludes points that are beyond the horizon or obstructed by terrain and other features."

This singular point of view sounds awfully like perspective, a system that prioritizes the view of a single eye, a single individual, or in the case outlined below, a single institution. This singular point of view is an expression of the utmost power, not the benign locus of landscape appreciation.

I've always found the term view shed indigestible, primarily because it shifts meaning from laws of fluids and gravity to laws of man. So how does eyesight flow, how is it "shed?" That single viewpoint radiates outward from a point somewhere on a 3.5 mm retinal disc. The shedding is done by the human brain, and what flows from it is not out there, a part of nature, but something within the mind of the shedder. Optics prevent us from seeing around obstructions creating what amounts to blind spots, but what of the "view shed" in the age of technological prosthetics like drones or remote cameras?  

Nowhere has the application of this idea been more apparent than in the Hudson Valley, where the view shed has been legitimated by the apparent "truth" of Hudson River School paintings. While there are many grand views in the Hudson Valley, the most often cited, preeminent view is that from Olana, the home and landscaped acres of the Hudson River School's Frederic Church. While there is plenty of evidence, if one aims to find it, of quite a different landscape in his day, it appears that plaintiffs commonly utilize the "historic" view as the basis for legal argument against any industrial activity that may alter it. 


“This discussion, while it addresses the prospect of a nuclear power plant, is not about nuclear energy,” commented Sara Griffen, President of The Olana Partnership. “It is the story of how the importance of the Olana Viewshed factored into the siting of a plant, and how this mattered on a national and regional level.” “Olana is famous for its breath-taking panoramic views that draw thousands of visitors to this magnificent historic site every year,” said Kimberly Flook, Site Manager of Olana Historic Site. “It was Frederic Church’s vision that actively shaped his landscape to frame the Hudson Valley’s unique natural beauty."

"The resulting Environmental Impact Statement caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff to recommended denial of a construction license for the proposed nuclear power plant (just south of Catskill). This was the first and only time that such a recommendation had been made on any grounds—let alone environmental or aesthetic." 

The image below is an "artist" rendering of the view of the proposed power plant, looking south from Olana. The rendering isn't terribly offensive, except that the image of a parabolic cooling tower has become an architecture of anxiety.




Again and again the "historic view" is used as justification to halt or alter proposed industrial projects in the Hudson River Valley. One of the more recent and controversial was the case of the proposed St. Lawrence Cement plant in the town of Greenport, NY, just upriver from the now hip town of Hudson. The National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the St. Lawrence Cement Plant as an imminent threat to the area, declaring the Hudson River Valley one of America’s eleven most endangered historic places, as its scenic areas and historic landmarks are constantly threatened by sprawl and industrialization. 

Mark Brobowski's study, "Scenic Landscape Protection Under the Police Power," shows us that the Supreme Court decision in 1954, Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, helped pave the way for future landscape preservation efforts based primarily on aesthetic values." Further, he states "The increasing value of tourism to local economies has prompted local governments, under their police powers, to move towards legitimizing aesthetic regulation, and landscape protection based on aesthetic values has evolved from a secondary purpose to a constant theme in environmental protection (Brobowski 1995, 700-702).

The view shed is not so much something to protect as it is an enclosure of a kind, a way to exact a great, limiting influence over many square miles of land and the human activity within it. At who's expense is the view kept a dream? We all dream of a land unspoiled by industry, but we have to engage it to deal with it. A quote from the brilliant Paul Shepard:

"My point is that their origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation like sex or climate or fashion, which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. The dilemma is that those who yearn for the warm garment of landscape security are already deflowered. They can only go back so far. They can regain the hunter's, pastoralist's, farmer's nonverbal responses, limited to an extent by their self-consciousness; but the yearning is thrust upon them in any case, for they were all children once and they had wild ancestors and they dream and to some degree all have premonitions of special places."


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