The Power of Landscape in the Making of Utopias

 The Garden at the Island of Cythera, Francesco Colonna,  Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,  1499

The Garden at the Island of Cythera, Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499

The social and political structures of these utopias are manifested in the specific landscape typologies of these ideal projects. Through John Dixon Hunt’s classification system of the three natures of landscape, a more telling understanding of the utopia and its negotiation with space reveals itself. Hunt classifies the three natures as follows:

“Gardens … take their place as a third nature in a scale or hierarchy of human intervention into the physical world: gardens become more sophisticated, more deliberate, and more complex in their mixture of culture and nature than agricultural land, which is a large part of Cicero's 'second nature.' By implication, the first nature becomes … the territory of unmediated nature … wilderness.”[1]

The geometry of the Third Nature garden takes on an ornamental aspect, embodying the ordering principles through the formal metrics of spatial symbolism. Second Nature, the farm or orchard, is a productive landscape, cultivated through labor to generate capital. Finally, First Nature is wilderness, a Virgilian landscape untended by human intervention. The utopia’s claim to landscape and its authorship in shaping the garden, the farm, or the park, is a potent political strategy. It is the use of the land as an agent of economics, labor, aesthetics, pleasure, or theological synecdoche that the true potency of the utopia rests. The earthly paradise stands as an impossible double of the ideal – and the utopia can remain an imitation of Eden or aspire toward a new Eden, redefining its own terms of paradise through its spatial ideology.

This notion of a paradise on earth, an unattainable paradigm of political, theological, economic, and formal structures, has often served as an apparatus for proposing a new social order. Although the utopia is often meant as a metaphor for an ideal society, it is equally important to address the space of the utopia – its methods of territorialization and formal shaping – to understand the spatial product these ideal social structures require.  Peter Fitting writes of the authority of space in the utopia:

 “the organization of space is understood not just as a reflection or symbol of the new ideals, but as a decisive component in the production of the new man or woman.”[2]

Space is thus a managerial strategy in the shaping of the utopia and the inhabitants of that utopia; it is only through an imitation and elaboration of these ideal spatial formulas that a utopian statehood can authentically shape its own territory. It is in its organization of space – of a home, of a city, of a garden, and of a landscape – that the utopia is able to gain authenticity as a new social order and legitimacy as an ideal formal proposal. This paper investigates the agency of the landscape in the creation of these ideal societies and proposes four unique archetypes of utopia: the monastic cloister, the formal garden, the agrarian republic, and the modernist tower in a park.

1. John Dixon Hunt. “The Idea of the Garden and the Three Natures.” Greater Perfections. (Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 2000): 34.

2. Peter Fitting. “Urban Planning/Utopian Dreaming.” Utopian Studies 13.1 (2006): 69.