Cultural Landscape Studies

Scholars, students, makers, and inhabitants of the built environment speak a language of visual symbols, geometric form, spatial experiences, and architectural materials. The language of architecture, unlike literature, is not comprised of spoken words or written text. Some scholars read the built environment as a semiotic and syntactic language constructed out of visual symbols and formal geometries.[1] Much of my teaching and research aims to delineate methods and ways of reading the built environment [click here for more on fieldwork methods]. I focus on a relatively unexamined area of spatial communication that is non-representational in nature, a form of engagement that historian Paul Connerton calls incorporating practices.[2] Incorporating practices are habitual responses to the environment. These responses are generated from internalized values, accepted maxims, and customs that are deeply cultural in nature. Incorporating practices are embedded in the taken-for-granted logic that underpins our responses to the ordinary and everyday world around us and our kinesthetic and haptic engagement with the world.[3] Reading visceral interactions between social and material worlds is a valuable strategy for understanding culture.

The need to acknowledge and engage diverse perspectives and voices is commonplace in the scholarship of equitable “communicative action.”[4] In the case of the built environment it is often difficult to interpret and uncover the multiplicity of voices embedded in the material world around us. I believe that by revealing voices and histories of stakeholders who are subaltern and often “voiceless,” I can contribute to an expanded and equitable knowledge of our lived environments. [5]

My long-term research goal is to examine social equity and diverse forms of ethnic and civic belonging in the urban built environment of North America [click here for more on South Asian Cultural Landscapes research]. I do so by studying the politics of cross-cultural engagements. I uncover hitherto untold stories, values, and voices of communities and stakeholders engaging each other. The physical landscape and the material world are registers onto which I map the multiple and inflected points of view of its diverse users.

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[1] For example, Umberto Eco,“Function and Sign: Semiotics of Architecture,” in Rethinking Architecture, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 182-220 ; Joan Ockman, “Towards a Theory of Normative Architecture,” in Architecture of the Everyday, ed. Steven Harris and Deborah Berke (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 122-52; Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977).

[2] Historian Paul Connerton points out that multisensory bodily engagements produce incorporating practices. These practices are embodied, learned, and incorporated into our daily practices, often unintentionally. According to Connerton, “Bodily practices of a culturally specific kind, entail a combination of cognitive and habit-memory. The appropriate performance of the movements contained in the repertoire of the group not only reminds the performers of systems of classification which the group holds to be important; it requires also the exercise of habit-memory. In the performances explicit classifications and maxims tend to be taken for granted to the extent that they have been remembered as habits. Indeed, it is precisely because what is performed is something to which the performers are habituated that the cognitive content of what the group remembers in common exercises such persuasive and persistent force.” Paul Connerton, “Bodily Practices,” in How Societies Remember (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 88.

[3] Maurice Merleau Ponty shows us that the corporeality of the body frames and determines our experience and nature of engagement with the external world. Ponty’s formulation shows us that the tactile and sensory engagement with the material world is central to the way we exist and make sense of our world. In that, the way we situate ourselves is not merely a cognitive act described by speech and language but an embodied experience that depends on the nature of our engagement with the material world. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Part 1: The Body,” in Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge, 1995), 207-42.

[4] Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

[5] The roots of this interest lie in Heidegger’s foregrounding of the dialectical, constitutive relationship between people and their physical environment in his notion of dasein (being-in-the-world). The term suggests that the world around us cannot exist independently of the people who inhabit it. It is only through our consciousness, actions, and interactions that the physical landscape is brought into being. For seminal thinkers like French theorist Henri Lefebvre, social orders are so crucial to the construction of spaces that according to his definition, the political and ideological conditions of those who produce space are its most important constitutive elements. Places are fraught with conflicts over ideological, economic, and symbolic reasons. Hence, ”Whose place?” and “Who makes place?” are key unresolved questions that make the study of the built environment central to the understanding of multiculturalism. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).