Politics, the Picturesqe, and Park Design, by Roger Paden

In this talk I take up the question of whether architecture can have a direct political or ideological effect. I understand this question to be asking if buildings can play a direct role in supporting a particular political ethos, and answer in the affirmative.


Of course a great deal depends on what is meant by the various terms involved. I focus on notion of a political ethos. Karsten Harries has argued that architecture has an “ethical function.” He notes that “‘ethical’ derives from ‘ethos.’ By a person’s ethos we mean his or her character, nature, or disposition. Similarly we speak of a community’s ethos, referring to the spirit that presides over its activities. ‘Ethos’ here names the way human beings exist in the world: their way of being. By the ethical function of architecture I mean its task to help articulate a common ethos.” Following this lead, I take a political ethos to be a lived ideology; a political ethos, that is to say, takes a set of ideas, infuses them in the population in such a way that it guides people’s decisions, beliefs, self-understandings, emotions, and actions. A political ethos allows one to develop the habits necessary to inhabit a social world structured by a political ideology.


I focus on one particular ideology; namely, “civic republicanism.” Moreover, I construe “architecture” broadly to include all of the designed, inhabitable, environment—not only architecture proper, but urban planning and landscape architecture—and focus on the relationship between landscape architecture (and urban parks in particular) and politics. Thus, my question is: Can urban parks play a direct, non-symbolic and non-expressive role in articulating and supporting civic republicanism?


My talk has two parts. The first is historical and addresses picturesque gardens and picturesque garden theory. This, in turn, also has two parts, one focusing on the origins of this gardening movement in Britain, the other on its flowering in the United States. In addition to briefly discussing the elements of picturesque design, I draw attention to the political ideas of picturesque theorists. These ideas can be traced back to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which contained a line which was intended to criticize both French gardens and politics: “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth.” The Reflections were written in opposition to the absolute democracy that was produced by the French revolution and in favor of a “mixed” government. Picturesque theorists followed Burke in their opposition to both the formal gardens found in France and to its absolutist approach to politics. All favored a Whiggish approach to politics that emphasized the value of social complexity and participation.


This style of garden—and these associated political ideals—were brought to America by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is best known for designing public and urban parks built in the picturesque style. Olmsted also claimed that parks designed in this fashion would have positive political effects by supporting a “republican” form of “democracy,” American terms used to refer to a Whiggish form of politics.


Following this history, the second part of the talk argues directly that parks designed in a picturesque style can support a civic republican political ethos. In making this argument, I first briefly describe the fundamental elements of civic republican theory. These elements include, support for public space, an interest in strengthening political communities, and a commitment to self-determination through political deliberation. In addition, civic republicans understand that to make their theory work, it is essential that citizenship be cultivated and that citizens develop a number of “civic virtues.” I argued that parks can be designed in ways that contribute to the development of these virtues. I argue, in particular, that parks (1) are the sort of public spaces that civic republicans support, (2) that picturesque parks are based on an aesthetics which expresses the political ethos that civic republicans champion, and (3) that the spatial design of picturesque parks provides people the opportunity to practice civic virtues and experience the benefits of citizenship as conceived by civic republicans.

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