thomas m wilson

Put Your Signature on the Landscape

September 25th, 2007

This afternoon I saw this sign in a suburb of Perth sur Swan. The real estate agents were offering me up the dream opportunity of stamping my personal signature on the Western Australian landscape. The signature would be made in angular concrete and two car garage luxury. What joy! In the background I saw that people all around this patch of bare and soon to be built upon earth had already taken up the opportunity to erase all sense of belonging with the land.


As I looked at the sign I rememberd D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence wrote of the Etruscans (a society that had inhabited Italy prior to the Romans) with their wooden architecture and organic connection with the natural world and contrasted this vividly with the arrogant stone monuments of imperial Rome. The buildings of Rome are still there to be seen. The trace of the Etruscans on the landscape has faded leaving few remains.

I passed by this bit of coporate skull-duggery on barren ground, and found my way westwards, up onto Wireless Hill, an area of original woodland and heath. The kangaroo paws glowed up at me, and the Swan snaked by down to the north.

This is what the landscape looks like around here. Idiosyncratic shapes that have evolved for millions of years in isolation from the rest of the green, leafy globe. The first Australians probably walked over this hill on a bright spring morning ten thousand years ago, and maybe their great grand children did so again 180 years ago. I can’t see the signature that they put on the landscape.

Two days ago I watched the film ‘The New World’, written and directed by Terence Malick and released at the start of 2006. This film follows the history of the English arrival on the east coast of the US, at Virginia, and their encounter with the local people of the land. I encourage you all to watch this film – it is one of the most beautiful meditations on the life-giving nature of the natural environment I’ve ever seen, and boasts some superb photography of the forests and waterways of Virginia. But what sprung to mind as I stood on Wireless Hill, is that the native American people leave no heavy and pompous architectural trace in their inhabitation of Virginia as portrayed in this film. Like the first Australians, their’s is an elegant ecological footprint, not a fat boot print.
‘Put your signature on the landscape.’

Would you ‘put your signature’ on your mother? The kind of message I saw on a billboard in the Perth suburbs could only come from a life-world that was blind to the beauty and life-giving qualities of nature. It could only come from a Roman-mentality of arrogance and bombastic immaturity.

Of course we need some kind of shelter, but this shelter should find accommodation within the matrix of a pre-existing landscape.

We need architecture that takes as its maxim: Being with the earth.