Designing Space in a Relativist World


"We live in an age that is frightened by the very idea of certitude, and one really disturbing outgrowth is the easy divorce between words and the conceptual realities which our right minds know they must stand for. This takes the form especially of looseness and exaggeration. Now exaggeration, it should be realized, is essentially a form of ignorance, one that allows and seems to justify distortion." (Weaver, 163)[1]

Trying to appraise the ailments of a disintegrating and factional post-war world, conservative philosopher Richard Weaver argued that without universal meaning communication across groups could not exist. Semanticists, he claimed, fail to reflect an appropriate reality based on a world that we agree exists. "Words, because of their common currency, acquire an ignorance greater than can be imparted to them by a single user and greater than can be applied to a single situation" (Weaver, 158). Weaver believed in ideals, which, according to

him are the only "aspects constituting knowledge" (158).

The post-modern movement in art and landscape architecture can be read as a rejection of universals and traditional ideals. In their place, relative ideals are posited as a system for understanding the world. It follows that the recurrent notion of mythology or mysticism along with the elevation of symbolism (material or intellectual) in post-modern art and landscape is reflective of a search for meaning caused by the loss of universal truths, assuming that tradition provided definitive meaning across groups, even if such meanings excluded participation across subcultures and minority groups. The existence of the universal nurtured the growth of a reactionary relativity and simultaneously left a vacuum of meaning for the relativist artist. In time, culturally specific, local symbolism replaced global ideals. The inherent nature of this substitution now calls into question the accessibility of universals across cultures without access to group-defined codes of meaning. Using Weaver's logic as a position of theoretical departure, does this dynamic disintegrate the public sphere, wherein landscape houses its meaning? To be sure, this notion of the revisionist universal must include groups and contexts that past, singular readings of the world failed to include. Griselda Pollockin"Modernity & The Spaces of Femininity"elaborates the critical role played by feminist scholarship in shifting authored notions of universals. By "refuting the myths of universal or general meaning" and understanding that the death of the author does not correspond with "the negation of the historical producer working within conditions which determine the productivity of the work while never confining its actual or potential field of meanings," Pollock presents an inclusionary and context-based universality that can be accessed by the viewer. This perspective operatively rejects and revises Weaverian notions of universals and authorship, allowing our understanding of class structure, femininity and public and private customs to be better understood by an argument from circumstance.

The work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are testament to understanding the genus of place and rejection of the universal. In "Learning from Pop," Brown makes it clear that social equity must follow a disintegration of the developer's ideal. By taking cues from the "preexisting context in all its messy heterogeneity and informational flux," a new language for the communication of space can exist whereby the site, not universals, dictates form.

So, if a context-specific, relative universal emerges, I think it can be argued that references to mythology become the Weaverian universal. In her article "Landscape and Common Culture: Since Modernism," landscape architect Martha Schwartz makes it clear that landscape architectural history has failed to produce notable works because of a reliance upon a romanticized tradition, a failure to integrate new materials and a general intellectual malaise. The universal of the discipline, then, creates stagnation. Yet, Schwartz also argues that architectural deployments and geometries within the landscape allow for spaces to be "mentally mapped." In her opinion, naturalistic landscapes of "squiggly lines, lumps and bumps" are "in-humane." Interestingly, Schwartz refers to the "mysticism and symbolism" found within geometry. The universal, geometric patterning, is selected over the organic as some way of entering into a space spiritually; yet, it is nevertheless a selection of a universal germane to architecture. The mythical reference to objectivity in the landscape and to legibility ("obvious form") comes in place of a staid tradition of landscapes that attempt to slip into a naturalized field.

Grey Gundaker's fascinating article "Innovation in African-American Yards" takes the idea of mythology and projects its designed analog onto the public realm, raising interesting questions for how a collective public space reacts to a multitude of culturally specific, exclusionary universals. In Gundaker's work, "yard-work" or the placement of found and collected objects onto one's property becomes a medium for communicating cultural values that express African traditions surrounding life and death. In the public realm, at the scale of the residential block, the hanging of bottles from trees, painting of facades, use of symbolic imagery on one's property becomes a clear statement of expression. This physical manifestation of a culturally produced symbolism differs from the intellectual symbolism incurred by Schwartz' geometries, which are universally accepted patterns of architecture. The reading of found objects, which dates back to Kongo culture and slave houses creates a visual not easily read by Anglo-Saxon culture or architecture and can cause misinterpretations; as Gundaker alludes to when the subject of his narrative had her belongings removed by the city.

Legal regulations and visual codes, then, become Weaver's universal for the built environment. This interplay of public space and personal meaning poses an interesting problem for the modern landscape. If these deployments of culturally specific meaning can be read as sculpture or public art, does their value have to translate to a greater public? Laurie Olin has suggested that some threshold for public art must exist: but who determines that threshold? The resolution of this issue through malleable regulations would assure that culturally specific, publicly appropriate manifestations of a multitude of mythologies could exist within a necessarily universal visual environment. If not, arguments in text will continue to deride singular readings of the world and landscape will remain incapable of addressing the problem of a top-down universal.


[1]Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.