History and theory of landscapes

Summer term, lecture, 4 semester hours, 4 ECTS, Karin Raith

Base Angewandte


The course deals with the phenomenon landscape and, most importantly, with the forces behind the visual appearance of individual landscapes. How do landscapes evolve? Why do they look like they look? Which are the natural conditions they are based on? Which economic, social and political circumstances and developments have shaped their character? These and other questions will be raised to call attention to the processes governing the formation and transformation of landscapes and to help students form their own critical awareness that there are specific reasons why cultural landscapes exhibit certain features.
The efforts of societies to adjust the environment to human needs can be seen as the most powerful driving forces of landscape change. Aesthetic concepts that shaped landscapes to an art form are further (but less potent) influences. We will try to identify the coherences between the interpretation of the world (“Weltbild”, world view, philosophy) and the appearance of landscapes (“Landschaftsbild”) prevailing in specific periods of time. Further, we will explore current concepts and trends in landscape design. These reflections are expected to heighten the sensitivity for landscape phenomena.


The course covers a variety of topics such as:
Notions of landscape: 
Landscape as territory, landscape as scenery, landscape as “system of man-made spaces on the surface of the earth”, landscape as process, landscape as construct on the basis of a real substrate,…
Landscape and energy: 
How did the amount of available energy influence the generation and development of landscapes? (based on Rolf Peter Sieferle’s model of a history of energy use)
Two opposing aspects of landscape: “performative” (practical, functional, utilitarian) versus “representational” (communicative, symbolic-aesthetic) landscape: 
Landscapes as “by-products” of the cultivation and/or exploitation of the territory for the necessities of human existence as opposed to landscapes as media and/or artworks.
A cultural history of European landscapes from the Neolithic Age up to the present day (including extra-European influences and excurses into the history and theory of extra-European landscapes): 
The lecture provides both a general overview and a foundation for further specialized studies in the field. It presents clips of history analysing significant examples of landscapes from different periods. We will look at the coherences between socio-economic, political and technical developments and the transformation of landscapes, at the linkages between scientific achievements and landscape design, and at the coherences between landscape art/garden art and the other arts of the respective ages. Special attention is given to the transformation of landscapes through building, the relationship between architecture and landscape and between nature and artefact. The students are encouraged to discuss the conclusions (or inspirations) that can be drawn from the knowledge of landscape history for our present artwork. Which principles are obsolete and why? Which concepts are still valid and fruitful and how do they relate to current approaches in landscape architecture and landscape art?


Occasionally these issues are complemented by specific semester topics. Up to date these special topics included:


  • Particular sites: Biographies of distinctive landscapes and the question of differences in the age of global information flows. (W 2003/04)
  • Natürlich künstlich! Aspects of the progressive blurring of borders between nature and artefact. (S 2004)
    National parks. (S 2005)
  • Expansion_contraction_transformation: On the problem of suburbanisation, urban drain and shrinking cities. 
(W 2006/07)
  • Reuse_restore_reshape: Controversies and innovations in dealing with historic buildings and landscapes. (S 2007)
  • The geometry of water: Landscape, architecture and garden art in the cultural sphere of Islam. (S 2014)
  • Precarious landscapes (W 2015/16)
    Landscapes of modernism (S 2016)


The purpose of the course is to provide the students with a theoretical background for their creative work.
Examination requirements:
Students are expected to participate actively in the discussions. In addition, they have to give a presentation on a topic of their choice (to be agreed upon in advance).