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Wastelands provide a rich history for architectural historian

Vittoria Di Palma’s exhaustive research yields a look at landscape and land use through the ages

Allison Engelby Allison Engel

A wasteland is an area ravaged by culture, including toxic, derelict and abandoned sites. But a wasteland also can be an area untouched by culture, such as a desert, steppe or ice sheet. The two types of wasteland share no physical characteristics. They are united by what they don’t have — and by the fear or disgust they provoke.

In England, improvement of wasteland is framed as a redemptive activity, analogous to the spiritual journey of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Vittoria Di Palma

These are the findings of architectural historian Vittoria Di Palma, an assistant professor at the USC School of Architecture who has spent several years researching the history of these desolate spots. Her efforts have produced an engaging history of landscape and land use that explains how these forlorn places have shaped our conceptions of landscape. Aptly titled Wasteland, the book, just published by Yale University Press, is the first history of the concept of wasteland.

Di Palma’s research was done at Columbia University, where she received her Ph.D. in art history, and in England, where she for several years was co-director of the Histories and Theories of Architecture graduate program at the Architectural Association in London.

Wasteland book cover

Wasteland has received good reviews. (Photo/courtesy of USC Architecture)

The anti-picturesque history she wrote covers “the long 18th century” — from the mid-17th century to 1820. The landscapes she writes about are English, with a jump over the Atlantic at the very end to cover the painters of New York’s Hudson River School, who focused on wilderness landscapes.

“I looked to biblical origins,” Di Palma said. “Originally, the terms wilderness and wasteland were used interchangeably, to refer to a place of exile and testing for Christ and the hermit saints, a place where they faced physical and spiritual threats and encountered God.”

Wasteland and wilderness

But in the 17th century, the new King James translation of the Bible began to separate the ideas of wasteland and wilderness, she said. “Wilderness” began referring to untouched lands and “wasteland” to post-apocalyptic spaces.

In the 17th century, culture is seen as capable of improving wasteland. The marshy regions of eastern England known as The Fens were drained, turning swampland into fields for agriculture. In later years, at the end of the Enlightenment, “culture is increasingly seen as destructive, not productive,” Di Palma noted. Forests that had been cut down for timber were replanted as ornamental gardens. Paths and follies were added to turn a place of fear and terror into a space for recreation. “Making a wasteland into a garden is framed as a compensatory activity,” she said.

In addition to usual library references, Di Palma consulted unusual sources such as early British husbandry manuals, maps, paintings, fishing and hunting treatises, gardening texts and descriptions of tools for trenching and surveying. In the British Library, she came across a jigsaw puzzle of The Pilgrim’s Progress that showed the landscapes of swamp, mountain and forest that played starring roles in the epic tale.

“They are three very different landscapes, but they are all wastelands,” Di Palma said. “There’s a visceral disgust to a swamp, and an aesthetic disgust to mountains, which are considered ‘warts on the face of Mother Earth’ and can provoke fear and terror. Forests presented a moral or ethical disgust when, for example, people reacted to the extensive deforestation caused by the growth of the iron industry and the upheavals of the [1642-1651] English Civil War.”

That eureka moment

Seeing the puzzle was one of her eureka moments.

“I suddenly saw that the image encapsulated my entire argument. In England, improvement of wasteland is framed as a redemptive activity, analogous to the spiritual journey of The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Di Palma was so taken with the image that she decided to use the puzzle as the cover of her book.

The importance of the book, she said, is that by becoming aware of the history of wasteland, we can begin to address the enormous challenges the postindustrial wasteland confronts us with today.

Critics are calling Wasteland “a wonderful book, a history of the senses and sensibilities that people have brought to landscape” and “a valuable, original and rigorous assessment of major themes in landscape studies, with sound historical and intellectual reasoning.”

Di Palma, who teaches contemporary architecture theory, is developing “The Landscape Imaginary,” a course for next spring that will examine different conceptions of landscape from antiquity through to contemporary times. “I’m hoping that it will be a new GE course, open to students throughout the university,” she said.

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