Selected books by J. B. Jackson

Mitchell Schwarzer

No country had ever been as wealthy as America was after 1945. No people were ever as absorbed in the fevers of technology and mobility or the splendors of youth and consumption. It was as if the script for The Grapes of Wrath—for the bleak Depression years—had been replaced by It’s a Wonderful Life and then once again by Beach Blanket Bingo. In those halcyon postwar years, America waved good-bye to the past to embrace an unknown but irresistible future, substituting motorcycle rambles across remote hills for Sunday strolls in the park, witnessing the country for the first time from the windows of airplanes, and experiencing the night as fountains of colored lights. A new physical world was emerging, impelled by vehicles, lined by parking lots, and criss-crossed by ribbons of freeway.

How could this vehicular culture be described in words? Which metaphors and methodologies could capture the spaciousness of limitless streets edged by tract houses, multipurpose boxes, and nonstop commerce? Would academic architectural history or urban studies be able to apprehend the swift and unplanned ways by which vehicular culture was reshaping the American landscape?

Until the early 1970s, architectural historians were preoccupied with wavelike patterns of historical development that crested in high notes of the avant garde or corporate technology and faded on base lines of kitsch populism. Despite the record-breaking temperatures of cultural change being registered in North America, most architectural historians worked within European methodologies whose bandwidth did not reach the lower frequencies of mass cultural design. Even Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) debunked functionalism only to fall back into discussions of masterpieces. Urbanists, while less preoccupied with the heroic past, also framed the changing circumstances of city building within earlier mentalities. Christopher Tunnard and Boris Pushkarev’s masterful Man-Made America: Chaos or Control? (1963) argued that the built environment must be planned everywhere. Whereas the authors eschewed stylistic analysis and stressed newly emerging elements like freeways and subdivisions, they still hoped to aestheticize the landscape according to customary notions of order and beauty.

On the open road, at the equinox between scholarship and storytelling, moved John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996). In essays written between 1951 and 1967 for his magazine Landscape, we alight onto the rough surfaces of the American continent. Whereas historians like Sigfried Giedion wrote of rosy-fingered sunrises and sunsets, J.B. Jackson’s pages, like the paintings of Edward Hopper, were full of the glare and banality of midday. Instead of skyscrapers and factories, we read of garages and trailer parks, of horizontal perceptions and flimsy dwellings, of shapeless and unconfined cities. Like the Action painters of the postwar years, Jackson strove to capture the hugeness and frenetic emotions of the American scene; his was an architectural writing composed in cadences of American distance and not coincidentally inspired by the magnificent western reaches of the country where he lived. But closer to the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson’s observations were less of psychological states of mind than of found states of affairs; urban debris, lawn-bordered streets, and truck loading docks all find their way into the essays.

In later collections—The Necessity for Ruins, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, and A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time—Jackson continued his earlier ruminations, tying together contemporary and earlier times through the commonalities of roads, boundaries, and places of assembly, and developing genealogies of landscape types like gardens, fences, and ruins. Antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern Europe, and contemporary America were all alike to him because of their incessant technological shaping of landscape. “How comparatively easy it is to engineer the environment,” Jackson wrote. “There are few technological limits to our capacity to transform the land to suit our needs.”

Throughout, Jackson maintained an outsider’s voice, employing neither the iconography or formalism of art history nor the statistical methods or cartography of urban studies. His voice was literary, weaving words as the pointed extremities of the multifarious and unpredictable life transpiring around him on the land. He is delightful to read because through him one experiences the landscape “for all its stench of beer and burning grease, its bleary eyes and uncertain clutching of doorjambs.” The essays are a trumpet roll of sensory experience, a journey into places that are loud, colorful, and often disreputable.

The word “landscape” beguiled Jackson, and he used it as an on-ramp to literary excursions. Jackson perceived landscape as the tactile/visual counterpart to verbal language. It was the speech of human culture through hands, tools, and machines. It was a technological endeavor that enlarged the physical/intellectual boundaries of the world. And just as the verbal languages of the 20th century were being reshaped by new media—radio, motion pictures, and television—Jackson understood the physical landscapes of this century as products of new technologies of construction and communication—of standardized building practices and mass marketing, of freeways and neon signs. The transforming landscape, its relentless stammer of commercial and individual endeavors, was always visible outside his windshield.

These perspectives led Jackson to resituate the concept of landscape away from its traditional locus within painting, where it had frequently been a view onto scenery or a background for important human events. To Jackson, landscape had to be more than a ground for other figurations. It could never be merely two-dimensional. Just outside the eye of the hurricane, landscape was a four-dimensional intervention within geographic, social, and economic life. It was the clamor and lightning of the physical universe humanized. And reflecting none of Lewis Mumford’s emphasis on landscapes of harmony and ends, Jackson’s landscape was a process of sequences absent a plot, an assembly line of images fading into the horizon.

Different temporal aspects comprise Jackson’s notion of landscape. Short-lived as grass, landscapes could be an annual occurrence, a fragile human flower within the natural firmament. Fed by unpredictable torrents of economic opportunity, landscapes—including both medieval market crossroads and contemporary shopping centers—could blossom seemingly out of nowhere. They could die back just as quickly when the rains ceased. In other perennial circumstances, landscapes endured. Ranging from patterns of crop rotation to gigantic Roman amphitheaters to city grids, they straightened lines of terrain, raised up domical cliffs, and furrowed cadastral foundations that persisted for centuries.

The ephemeral and durable landscape implied for Jackson dual human and natural underpinnings. No deep channel separated the human world from the natural. Landscape was both technological and biological, an economic product and an aesthetic object, full of intentions and yet always the product of chance. It was nature forged with steel, through electric illumination, and atop asphalt, “a space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature.”

As Jackson was aware, most students of the subject believed otherwise. On the one side of such schemes stood the romantic notion (of writers like Henry David Thoreau) that we are part of nature and should value natural powers above human creation. Romantics favored picturesque cities whose roads and buildings rambled along the swells of topography and the grains of local materials. On the other side was the humanist/pragmatic attitude (of those like Thomas Jefferson) that the human shape is supreme and that we must control nature. Pragmatists advocated for the gridded plan where right angles clipped, hedged, and hacked back natural color, texture, and form in the guise of reason and utility.

Both philosophies, Jackson realized, while at opposite ends of the spectrum, used a priori reasoning. That is to say, they first defined a relationship between human and natural, and then applied that definition as the basis for appropriate environments. Such reasoning, according to Jackson, was flawed. Excluded in such deductive thought were the unpredictable freedoms of the individual spirit and senses. As he wrote: “All that we can now do is produce landscapes for unpredictable men where the free and democratic intercourse of the Jeffersonian landscape can somehow be combined with the intense self-awareness of the solitary Romantic.” Landscape had to satisfy both functional demands and reflective aspirations—physiological and psychological requirements.

How these factors were defined takes us further into Jackson’s idea of landscape. If health, well-being, and beauty were not to be understood from axiomatic concepts or ideal painterly visions, they were to be gleaned from empirical experience, from direct sensual observation and even emotional reaction. Jackson’s writings are descriptive and passionate, fed by the ever-widening spirals of his travels, experiences, and reactions. His concepts are fluid as well, marked by changes of attitude that reflect his accumulations of perception. Like the landscapes he wrote about, some of his ideas would wither and die, while others would always influence his thought.

Jackson believed that his liquid notion of landscape matched that of his country. After the Second World War, affluence and technology had created conditions for new sensibilities and relationships to land. Vehicles became a culture unto themselves. They enabled a life on the road, one that consisted of radio-blasting discovery and anaesthetizing repetition. Why, Jackson mused, should Americans follow traditional building ways if Americans were being transformed by fleeting contacts with new forms, spaces, lights, and sounds? Why should the wild dynamism and expansive distances of America be clouded and barricaded by old values and old forms?

Shocking sensation and interminable movement are essential to Jackson’s American landscape. In place of symmetry and harmonic proportions is a road-trip sensibility; we hear of the wonders to be gained from bewildering contrasts, from abrupt glimpses of sky or water or city, from serendipitous rambles through rotting neighborhoods glowing alien under the speeding American sky. We are witness to the vivid colors and soft textures of a bank of flowers, but also to the blinking lights and distracting profiles of highway signs and billboards. In no way could the multicolored beach blanket of the American landscape be understood through static and hierarchical European values.

Most of all, Jackson gave his attention to an American roadside that was easy and fast to build, and that was temporary and visually chaotic. He celebrated a “popular other-directed architecture meant for pleasure and popular mass entertainment.” He observed the country’s trailer courts, billboards, motels, do-it-yourself houses, a landscape composed of solid banks and confident grids, but also shabby buildings and streets full of the anxious dance of consumption and use. Why not have a landscape that jumbled forms and spaces much as the evolving American language mixed dictions and definitions?

Such marginal landscapes were deplored by most of Jackson’s contemporaries. Planners, architects, and writers advocated ordering the sensory/commercial violence they felt was ravaging postwar cities and rural areas. Junked cars should be hidden, suburban sprawl should be combated, and dying places—such as bypassed downtown business districts—should be rescued. Jackson felt otherwise. He worried about the effects of sanity that resulted from planning. He distrusted grand schemes that restricted spontaneous activity, especially civic centers, those arrays “of classic edifices, lost in the midst of waste space, the meaningless pomp of flag poles and war memorials and dribbling fountains.” In an age of convertibles and hot rods, why would public gatherings be designed in cramped, sterile, and noncommercial spaces?

Jackson went so far as to advocate the vehicular strip as the new American form of community. Subject to neither the isolation of the rural countryside nor the anonymity of a great city, the strip created a dialogue between individuality and collectivity, between life spent in the single-family home and at the sprawling shopping center. Earlier than most writers on urbanism, he recognized that automobile shopping had replaced the church, the public square, or the community center as the dominant locus for American socialization. Shopping strips possessed all the things Jackson admired in the modern landscape: freedom of conduct and dress, spontaneous association, flickering movement, and gregarious desire as stimulated by advertisements and products. A transpersonal community was created, connecting people via stores, cars, and television sets, an aesthetic of “clean-cut geometric forms, primary colors, vast smooth surfaces and wide spaces uninterrupted by any detail, and bright lights.”

Reading these texts today, one is struck by their boundless optimism and by their absence of social critique. For all of his acumen in recognizing that America’s postwar landscape was the result of anonymous commercial and technological forces, Jackson is almost too comfortable with these forces. He has little to say about income and wealth inequities, racial/gender/religious discrimination, and environmental degradation. No mention is made of the Cold War or civil rights movement. Barefoot on the emerald grass of his American yard, Jackson seems oblivious to the thorns and weeds of social conflict that accompany new, explosive growth. He comes off sometimes like a technological determinist and other times like a free-market enthusiast.

For his part, Jackson might have responded to these criticisms by saying that social critique (of the nature described above) implies an a priori concept of what society should be like and how it should be shaped. Instead, he was after “a coherent definition not of man but of man’s relationship to the world and to his fellow men.” Pure sensual reaction and description mattered most, a form of writing that was very much in tune with the way the landscape was formed by market forces and sensed by common people. Opposed to European modernism and the avant gardes, Jackson shunned underlying causes, hidden forces, or competing ideologies. All implied commanding solutions that could not begin to address the shapeless, inarticulate world of American mass culture or the messy public/private negotiations that worked to create the country’s physical spaces.

Far from art history’s preoccupation with beginnings, cycles, and ends, Jackson rambled a directionless landscape history, posturing at times like an Ernest Hemingway of the wild roadside. His essays enable no grandiose narratives or consummate conclusions. He merely expressed—as influenced by the philosopher Oswald Spengler—what he believed to be Western humanity’s desire for freedom and expansiveness within its changing world. In the end, the essays encourage others to experience a richer interaction with sensual things, not to understand the total meaning of the landscape.

Indeed, central to Jackson’s philosophy was an opposition to the idea of architecture and planning as the masterful construction of the built environment. Contra the notion of any individual as overlord of physical space, the landscape is anonymously created and perceived. Amazingly, in a world vision premised on individuality, Jackson reserved no seats for solitary creators. Paradoxically, in a world growing technologically more complex each year, he eschewed the advice of specialists. The great questions posed by Jackson’s essays then become: in a world characterized by continual flux, what is the role of the marketplace and real estate industry in creating the surroundings? In a world dominated by encounters with the landscape, how is perception affected by exposure to advertising images? And, in a world of excessive and continually new stimuli, to what extent should design be a form of mediation?

Ultimately, because of his resistance to engage conflict, Jackson’s brand of pure description cannot engage such questions. Despite his advocacy of landscape’s technological aspect, the means of manufacturing landscape are not subject to extensive interrogation. The essays fall into a conformist current that runs deep in Anglo-American empiricism. Jackson’s landscapes are normative and preoccupied with “traditional urban behavior.” They exclude the inner-city subaltern and the avant-garde poseur. They leave out the rebellions of youth, underground despair, and scholarly or artistic otherness: the unhinged nocturnals of that “crazy American night” Jack Kerouac wrote about during the same postwar years. Quite differently from Kerouac, with his depiction of movement as flight from boredom and despair, Jackson suggests the road as a permanent vacation. It is a vision of the everyman as rambler, the average citizen succumbing to the temptations of the highway.

Of course, these descriptions of the common man emerge from a most uncommon man. Jackson’s specialty was stealing the unforeseen landscape view, gunning for outrageous glances upon emerging from a tunnel or garage, driving madly to the Tin Pan Alley sounds of American social fragmentation. His American landscape was the product of acute and distanced perceptions. It is ultimately the mythic ideal of a nation created by an outsider, akin to the America of barren roads, rusted fuel pumps, and transient coffee shops photographed during the 1950s by Robert Frank.

After a couple of decades of pulp heroes and gigolo critics, there is something fresh and insightful about Jackson’s detailed observations of the vehicular landscape of postwar America. Reading these essays today, one is struck by the absence of irony and the presence of heartfelt emotions. Unlike the cynical parodies of postmodern cultural theorists, who discover bliss while strolling the generic aisles of 24-hour supermarkets, Jackson never makes the landscape into a soap opera.

The America portrayed in Jackson’s essays is epic. Absent the critical glance of psychoanalytic, Marxist, or semiotic theory, the essays conjure a country of Cyclopean dimensions and Odyssean wandering. It is a land of glory but also of ruin, of advanced technology amid primitive emotional drives. Jackson writes of the American people as nonreflective but deeply engaged with their senses, passionately absorbed in the moment but distrustful of inward regions. He writes of their landscape as a place forged by contradiction, where matter is substantial yet transcendence is just another exit off the highway.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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