Virgil presum'd to paint th' Elysian Fields,
To him my Lays, but not my Subject yields.
Had Mantua's Bard been bless'd with such a Theme,
He ne'r had form'd a Visionary Dream.
All that Luxurious Fancy can invent,
What Poets feign, what Painters represent;
Not in Imagination here we trace,
Realities adorn this happy Place.1
In his essay “Castle Howard and the Emergence of the Modern Architectural Subject”, the architectural historian Neil Levine quotes this poem by Lady Irwin, a daughter of the patron of Castle Howard, in order to underscore the significance of corporeality in the estate's landscape garden design.2 Levine sees this as a radically modern approach that not only spurred the development of the picturesque landscape garden but also initiated a conception of space that aimed to form coherent meaning through the interaction between built form and the beholder in motion. It was a new way of constructing reality that broke with past authority and undermined a reductive mode of perception that depended on the recognition of a familiar picture. At the same time this radical break precipitated a crisis in representation that continues to haunt the modernist project and in many ways underwrites it. Indeed, as the art theorist Rosalind Krauss has argued, the very singularity of the picturesque experience, like its romantic transfiguration as the originality of the avant-garde, is itself inextricably bound to the issue of representation by way of its paradoxical relation to the formulaic and the repetitive, which appear to oppose it but actually render it possible through the referencing of prior models.3
The exhibition “Reconfiguring Natures: Modern Architecture and the Picturesque” explores certain facets of the twentieth-century inheritance of this legacy through a number of iconic projects as well as some lesser known architectural works that challenge the more orthodox interpretations of modernism.
Maki Iisaka and David Kerr
David Kerr is a professor of mathematics at Texas A&M University. The exhibition also integrates with the Ph.D. dissertation work of Maki Iisaka, who is studying two of the architects represented here (Togo Murano and Seiichi Shirai) and has prepared the accompanying guide.