Understanding of Place in Cultural Landscapes

In American Architecture, we read Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia,” (1984) an exploration of the social experience of plantation architecture and landscape in the separate spheres of masters and slaves. His articulated spheres illustrate the original dichotomy between high style and vernacular architecture that Upton critiques in “Architectural History or Landscape History?” (1991). He envisions a white landscape focused on the mansion and the obligatory social procession to it through the physical setting. This landscape is one of self-styling, where the Master crafts a formal, hierarchical approach with himself at the center. Physical barriers throughout the plantation and within the mansion act as social barriers, ensuring that visitors would know their place in the hierarchy. African Americans were not a part of this landscape, Upton contends, but occupied a separate plane in the same physical space, moving through the white landscape but not of it. The African American landscape consisted of the slave quarters, the kitchen and service areas of the house, the fields, and perhaps routes to other plantations. By being able to move through these spaces without observing the formalities, Upton implies that the slaves were able to undercut the social statement of the formal processional route.

Being an art historian, Upton’s focus is principally on the tangible environment and how different actors moved through it. If a cultural landscape “fuses the physical with the imaginative structures that all inhabitants of the landscape use in construing and constructing it,” I’m curious as to those more imaginative structures. Due to the lack of first-hand accounts of plantation life from slaves, it is obviously difficult to conceive of how the slave might have constructed and construed his own landscape, the values he might have assigned to space, or his understanding or attachment to place. Might a slave cook have conceived of the kitchen as “her space”? Was the field hand aware of the highly articulated social channel carefully crafted by his white owners?

Hayden’s reference to place memory and body memory indicates physical experience as that which most pervasively determines one’s memory (and perception) of a space. The experience of forced labor and the commodification of one’s body must be inextricably linked to how the slave might have understood space—his physical being as credit in an economic landscape.

Cultural landscape theory allows for the existence of multiple reference points that occur independently without needing to be universalized or generalized. It pulls focus from architectural achievement or vernacular efforts and centers on human experience. Thus we can infer values from the physical environment about the social and cultural processes that shaped thought, understanding, and place-making within that landscape in a myriad of ways.


Upton, Dell. “Architectural History or Landscape History?” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 44 No.4 (Aug 1991).

Upton, Dell. “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Material Life in America, 1600-1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George (1988) 87-103.

Hayden, Dolores. Part I, “Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History.” in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press, 1995.


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