A Valentine

If the Academy Awards are an indicator of the zeitgeist, then we are in an age of nostalgia - at least for the beginnings of cinema. The age of movies more or less coincided with the American century and, for most of that time, they were thoroughly intertwined. The Artist, which was awarded Best Picture, is a French production, entirely shot in Los Angeles. It serves as a valentine to the motion picture industry and, perhaps, to America; set in the 1920's and 1930's, it documents the traumatic transition between silent films and the 'talkies'.

The film's black and white cinematography is the almost perfect medium with which to record the sun-bleached monochrome of LA: a city where the hazy whites, creams and pale ochres of the built environment play against the grey and blues of sea, sky and hills. The Artist conjures a town of classical-revival and deco architecture where the homes of movie stars and the theaters in which their work is shown are set in the great treeless basin that was Los Angeles in the twenties. The wonder is that this Los Angeles dream time was shot primarily using surviving buildings from the era with only a nominal assist from the Warner Brothers backlot.

Hugo, Martin Scorcese's deeply flawed but stunningly designed 3-D flick commemorates the pre-world-war-one fantasist, inventor and cineaste Georges Melies who created over 300 short films between 1896 and 1913. His career was over by the beginning of the war and by the 1920's he was reduced to selling candy and toys at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris. Given the perfunctory characterization of the protagonists, the station becomes the unlikely star of the film. Designed by Victor Lenoir and the engineer Eugène Flachat and completed in 1840, it was severely damaged by a famous runaway train in 1895. In 1969, it was completely rebuilt in the anonymous style of the time. The original station, with its Beaux Arts wrapper and industrial baroque interior was lovingly recreated by Production Designer Dante Ferretti at London's Shepperton Studios; his wife, Francesca Lo Schiavo, set-decorated. Together, they were awarded the Oscar for best Art Direction.

Both movies celebrate old ways of making movies, but they also serve as nostalgic memorials to particular urban environments. Ironically, the one set in Paris, a city that has slavishly preserved its past, and is arguably the least modern of all European capitals, required the re-creation of its nineteenth century Montparnasse station in suburban London; and, while an American film crew tasked with creating 1920's Los Angeles would have almost certainly fled to Vancouver to do so, the French film crew on The Artist found in Los Angeles, a city dedicated to its own constant renewal, sufficient echoes of the past to create a winning illusion. We fetishize nostalgic environments, not least in the movies, and as these half-remembered pasts slip out of our grasp at an ever increasing rate, they metastasize into something like a heritage industry.

Nowhere is this more evident than in England, where the perceived glories of its architectural, social and environmental past are preserved in areas where change is bureaucratically restricted, or are re-packaged as entertainments such as Downton Abbey. I was born in the small Surrey wool-town of Godalming, at a time when its economic past endured in the form of two large knitwear factories both of which closed towards the end of the last century; but much of the town's Medieval, Georgian, and Victorian architectural past endures. Its high street, however, is now commercially irrelevant, its quaint store fronts beneath half-timbered second stories mostly vacant or leased by 'charity shops' - outflanked and under-priced by nearby, big box 'super stores'.

Godalming's unique architectural gem is Lutyen's first work, Munstead Wood (1896), the house he designed as a home for Gertrude Jekyll (April Showers). The house is considered eccentric and even weird. Its design is influenced by Philip Webb (1831-1915), William Morris, and Richard Norman Shaw, stalwarts of the English Arts and Crafts Movement - but individual elements of Lutyens creative gestalt at Munstead can also be traced back to Surrey half timbering and those black, agricultural barns. His later work eschewed whimsy for the powerful, largely undecorated massing of proto-modernism (Black Magic).

Within this mostly spurious heritage industry  landscape is awarded value: some environments are privileged over others. As a life-long champion of the under-dog I have dog-gedly defended the unloved native landscapes of both New South Wales, Australia and now California. What we preserve constitutes our cultural heritage, what we ignore become the wastelands of history. The difference between the two is down to taste, historical circumstance and the limits of our ecological vision.

Jay Appleton is a very old man. At 93, he is Emeritus Professor of the University of Hull where he taught geography from 1950 to 1985. His speciality is Landscape Aesthetics. By coincidence, it was to Hull University that I applied in the late 1960's based purely on the fact that Philip Larkin was the librarian there. I was politely turned down: their loss perhaps, but also a missed opportunity for me to have met a man who was and is a key figure in a field to which I have been gravitating ever since.

Had I met him, perhaps I would have been convinced of his then emerging Prospect-Refuge Theory. In The Experience of Landscape, London: John Wiley, 1975, he wrote,

"aesthetic satisfaction, experienced in the contemplation of landscape, stems from the spontaneous perception of landscape features which, in their shapes, colours, spatial arrangements and other visible attributes, act as sign-stimuli indicative of environmental conditions favourable to survival, whether they really are favourable or not......at both human and sub-human level the ability to see and the ability to hide are both important in calculating a creature's survival prospects . . . . Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge..."

He illustrates this theory with a classical landscape that has all the three-dimensional cues that I have attributed to a Renaissance inspired notion of seeing (Rikyu Grey). It is a theory, that if true, dooms the appreciation of the kind of planar two-dimensional landscapes that I go on about. Chaparral offers neither prospect or refuge, nor does it offer those three-dimensional sculptural objects (like trees that rise above grasslands) that 'organize' our experience of the vista.

Chaparral is existential. It just is. it exists almost outside of time - it has endured for 30,000 years. It does not fit into our Western legacy of landscape aesthetics. It is the Elfin forest. It does not, nor perhaps ever will, inspire nostalgia. It does not get awards. It is background. I love it.

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