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Cultural landscapes 'created from nature, shaped by humans'

Liz deAvila, News Bureau intern


Amita Sinha
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Amita Sinha, professor of landscape architecture, has written a book on cultural landscapes because there were none available.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The word “landscape” often conjures up pastoral images of meadows dotted with cows and haystacks under a threatening sky, or perhaps a sunny beach scene with waves breaking in the background. Slip one of those painted images into a frame and it becomes a landscape.

Over the years, according to Amita Sinha, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the meaning of “landscape” has evolved. Where it once referred to an artist’s interpretation of a view, it eventually came to represent the view itself.

Still, this definition is hardly universal today, writes Sinha, the author of a recently published book, “Landscapes in India: Forms and Meanings” (University Press of Colorado), which offers a different perspective on landscapes and how to read them.

“The idea of landscapes as visual representations dominated Western scholarship,” Sinha wrote. “However, recent writings have begun to focus on their materiality and phenomenological experience. The term has undergone change in its connotation from attractive natural scenery to any humanly ordered modification of the natural environment.”

Sinha began teaching cultural and social issues in landscapes at the U. of I. in 1989, after earning a doctorate in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. About that time, she also started investigating cultural landscapes, which she describes in her book as being “created from the natural world and shaped by human societies.”

The idea to write a book on cultural landscapes, however, did not take shape until the mid-1990s. That’s when she realized there were no publications available for her own teaching and research on cultural landscapes, which she believes are more than just physical settings, but also representations with encoded meanings that can be observed and interpreted.

“There was not a single title I could consult when I was trying to find information on this topic,” said Sinha, who made six trips to India to gather material for her work.

In the book, Sinha introduces readers to significant landscapes – both sacred and secular – throughout South Asia. Some, like the sacred landscape featuring temples lining the Ganges, are iconic and recognizable outside the region. Many more, such as the sacred landscape of Braj, a major pilgrimage site in the state of Uttar Pradesh, or the secular landscapes of Indian cities, villages and homes, for example, are not. Sinha explores the relationships among nature, culture and built landscapes of these and other sites by tracing the meanings of these forms as described in the mythology and literature of India.

“It is about theory and practice,” Sinha said. “That is, the theory of cultural landscapes and how they are related to each other, and practice, in that it is useful to landscape and design professionals also.”

The book is divided into four parts, including an introduction in which the professor defines key terms, such as her use of “landscape” and “archetype.”

“I use the word ‘landscape’ in an inclusive sense – open spaces and structures ranging in scale from a grove of trees to a region, from a building to a city,” Sinha wrote. “I argue that cultural landscapes … are constituted by archetypal symbols.”

She defines “archetype” in the Jungian sense. According to Sinha, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, used archetypes as an approach to exploring the psychological meanings expressed in symbols. Archetypes can be seen as a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought or image universally present in individual psyches.

The natural archetype of the tree in Hindu and Buddhist narratives, for example, and how it is now represented by the spatial archetype of the cosmic pillar, is one of the projects Sinha explores and examines for different meanings.

She explains that if landscapes are read the same way one reads a written language, archetypal forms are the roots of words. They evolve over time, assume definite stylistic expressions and are influenced by local conditions.

The book’s most useful chapter for readers, Sinha believes, may be its final chapter, “Visions for the Future.” Instead of focusing solely on the past, it considers the potential of archetypes and designs, and addresses the various possibilities of cultural landscapes.

Although it may serve as a useful teaching aid – it is required reading in a course Sinha teaches on “Cultural Landscapes of South Asia” – the book is not intended primarily as a textbook, nor is it extremely technical.

“It wasn’t written just for landscape architects,” Sinha said. “The intended audience is a combination of people with an interest and curiosity in cultural landscapes, such as students who want to learn more about history and culture of society through landscapes. It is also useful to anyone who is interested in South Asian studies, such as anthropologists.”

She said her approach to reading cultural landscapes as languages, using India’s diverse land as her model, may help pave the way for others to begin interpreting and approaching cultural landscapes all over the world. In that sense, she said, the book functions as a guide for learning to see landscapes as understandable signs and symbols and how to read them as languages that reveal cultural values.

“I write this book with the hope that reading landscapes will allow a richer understanding of society and the culture that sustains them. That it will give direction to those involved in designing landscapes of the future."