The hype of representation: some thoughts on the roles of the hyperreal and the hyperobject in contemporary landscape architecture.
Richard Weller, University of Pennsylvania
There is a serious rift along representational lines in contemporary landscape architecture. On the one hand the profession seeks to produce ever more hyperreal images of landscape views to sell their projects, whereas in the academy the primary concern is with trying to visualize environmental processes and relationships that are largely invisible to the naked human eye. Per the philosopher Timothy Morton, these invisibilities are known as “hyperobjects” — amorphous things like climate change, the 6th extinction, or the depletion of ground water; things we know to exist as large forces, but of which we can only see fragmentary evidence and are difficult to en-gage with. Although hyperreal and hyperobject images are both made by computers, the former pretend to be seen ‘naturally’ as if by the human eye, where-as the latter can only be ‘seen’ — or rather mapped — by disembodied machinic eyes such as satellites and drones as well as through digital simulations of da-ta derived from sensors.
Setting these two modes of representation — the hyperreal and the hyperobject — in contradistinction opens up important issues regarding landscape architecture’s historical moment. The HyperrealIf you look at the images that flash up on the web-sites of the world’s major landscape architecture offices and keep an eye on the images they use to win design competitions it is plain to see that hyperrealism is the profession’s preferred mode of representation. These increasingly immersive and high-resolution images share several key characteristics.
First, they are perspectival and, as al-ready noted, typically constructed from the single (human) viewpoint or, if the project is large then sometimes the viewpoint will be lifted to that of a bird. Second, they are generally structured in a picturesque, or more precisely a ‘beautiful’ manner, meaning they almost always have a framed foreground, a middle ground focus, and a background typically free of any urbanity or industry that would otherwise pollute the bucolic ambience of the scene. Where such pollution is admitted it is deliberately set in stark contrast to the redemptive green of the design being advertised, which leads to the third point: the images are almost invariably verdant — every leaf bristling with life in the high-resolution detail.
This means these images are also typically frozen in time — usually about 20 years into the future when the vegetation is mature. Needless to say, the scenes are generally sunny and occupied by stylish, fit, happy (mainly white) people enjoying themselves in a healthy landscape. One can only assume that the hyperrealism of these images casts a certain spell over clients and the public, giving them a sense of confidence and comfort in the world they and the designers are about to join hands in virtuously creating. And even though everyone knows these images are not telling the truth exactly, the ineluctable power of hyperrealism is that it stares you straight in the eye and insists that it is.
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