Mountains – A Poetic Gaze

On January 29, the Harvard Graduate School of Design launched the exhibition “Mountains and the Rise of Landscape,” curated by Swiss landscape architect Michael Jakob. We chatted with Jakob about the intent behind the exhibition, the role of Switzerland in the global landscape architecture scene and the inner life of a mountain. “Mountains and the Rise of Landscape” is on display at the GSD Druker Design Gallery until March 10. Admission is free.

The Earth’s surface is covered in gigantic ridges that give structure to landscapes, dividing them into mountains and valleys, separating and connecting different regions of the world. Mountain massifs sprawl across all continents and have long captured the fascination of their surrounding populations. To this day, we adore and fear our mountains, conquer them and exploit them.

The mountain as a polysemic spectacle

When people think of Switzerland, they often think of mountains, but Jakob’s exhibition is not a celebration of superficial beauty. Rather, he unravels and questions the underlying concept of mountains and the meanings we project onto them: “It’s impossible to show actual mountains, so we have to reduce them and create a representation. Paul Klee used to say ‘art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible’’. I look at this exhibition in the same way: It inspires us to think about visibility”.

Jakob emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinarity and different perspectives in exhibition curation. “It’s simply fantastic that we can be here in Cambridge and only a few steps away, we find a Swiss organization we can collaborate with.”

Faux mountains and their symbolic meanings. Bruno Taut’s Alpine architecture translated into an ephemeral form.

Dante, Kant and the digging for enlightenment

For Jakob, the role of mountains in the perception of landscapes is to reflect the world’s shadows and lights. He draws analogies to the work of Dante Alighieri, where the mountain emerges as an allegory for the positive and negative. In “Divine Comedy,” Dante describes the road to Hell as a downward spiraling cone and Purgatory as a mountainous form* – the ascent where the suffering of hell is finally eased.  

For as much as we know about the shapes and surfaces of mountains, we rarely talk about what’s underneath. “Mountains are fascinating structures of architecture. The way they were formed by nature and the fact that we don’t really know what’s inside them,” notes Jakob. He compares the exploration of a mountain’s inner life with Immanuel Kant’s plea for enlightenment. Sapere aude! What Kant describes as “(…) a man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”, is the metaphor of “digging” for Jakob: “In order to see what’s really inside the mountains, we need to dig into them”.

Michael Jakob in front of a conceptual image illustrating different mountain ranges of the world.

The Ever-Changing Nature of Landscapes

“Mountains and the Rise of Landscapes” provides different perspectives on the subject. We hear the squeaking sound of a glacier and explore the narrative behind human-made “fake mountains” from the tower of Babel to the set of a Chanel fashion show. Jakob is intentionally provocative when he says that “landscapes” are an inherently European concept. “The Chinese language does not have a term for landscape.” The Mandarin concept of 山水 shān shuǐ for example literally means “water mountain” and refers to a holistic idea of nature – especially in paintings.

Although Switzerland is a relative newcomer to the landscape architecture scene, Jakob emphasizes the important role the country plays on a global scale. Not only does Switzerland export talent, but also a diligent and structured approach to the work. In the United States, on the contrary, landscape architecture has been an integral element since the 19th Century. “Central Park in New York is a great example for Landscape Architecture.” When we ask him about the implications of societal and environmental changes on his work, Michael Jakob says: “Landscapes have always changed -and always will. They are never static.”

The exhibition lasts until March 10 and is on view at the Druker Design Gallery at GSD. All details can be found on their website.


* There is an entire article that speaks about the role of geological references in Dante’s most famous work.