Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Dissimulated Landscapes: Postcolonial Method and the Politics of Space in Southern Sri Lanka

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Dissimulated Landscapes: Postcolonial Method and the Politics of Space in Southern Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

In a quiet spot on the banks of Lake Deduwa on Sri Lanka's southwest coast, lies the sprawling estate of Lunuganga, the home and garden of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most famous 'tropical-modern' architect. Of the landscapes, buildings, and pavilions that he built over his years there, one view from the main house south across Cinnamon Hill stood out as the architect's favourite. Standing at the house, looking across the thick lawn and up the gentle hill slope, one's view is framed by trees on either side and in the middle distance, on the crest of Cinnamon Hill, a lone moonamal tree looms over a large pot. The tree points to the gleaming white dome of the Katukuliya temple, a Buddhist dagoba nestled in the verdant vegetation of a hill separated from the estate by a thin sliver of lake. Each day, the temple is clearly visible with the naked eye from the estate (see figure 1). Of this landscaped vista, Bawa once remarked:

"Over the years moving through the garden as it grew, one saw the potential of various areas which had inherently different atmospheres. For instance, the long view to the south ended with the temple, but in the middle distance was a ridge with a splendid ancient moonamal tree and when I placed a large Chinese jar under it, the hand of man was established in this middle distance" (Bawa et al, 1990, page 13).

This paper offers a reading of the politics of this kind of tropical-modern landscape design in southern Sri Lanka; a style made most famous by the work of architects like Geoffrey Bawa, Minette de Silva, and Ulrik Plesner through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Specifically though, this paper is an exploration of the 'methodophilosophical' challenge that an effective reading of the politics of this kind of landscape entails. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty's (2002, page 69) reflections on modernity's manifold habitations, the challenge designated here as 'methodophilosophical' works toward critical readings sensitized to the idiom of another--that is to say, a non-Euro-American--landscape context. Part of the challenge in this paper then is the translation of a landscape context that is very different from those through which cultural geography's rich expertise has been developed.

Cultural geography has been a significant staging ground for conversations around the importance of landscape for excavating modes of power, presence, and the political. Recent decades have witnessed a retreat from purely materialist approaches conceiving landscape simply as 'areal classification' (after Carl Sauer), toward approaches more sensitized to landscape's textual production. Borrowing from art history and literary theory in particular, early poststructural approaches to landscape geography (see Barnes and Duncan 1992; Cosgrove 1984; Cosgrove and Daniels 1988; Daniels 1994) productively regarded the meanings of

any given landscape as structured discursively through dynamic representational processes. Landscapes thought this way, textually that is, are always becoming, and in turn are both products and signifiers of power relations and exclusions. The emphasis on landscape's textuality also led to an introspection regarding the term itself, especially its cultural demarcation as a concept-metaphor tied to the visual. Landscape has thereby been reconceptualised as not simply area, but instead, as Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels famously put it, "a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing, structuring or symbolising surroundings" (1988, page 1).

Landscape geography's representational turn, however, has since been critically engaged because of the distanciation implied through such a pervasive focus on the visual (see Thrift and Dewsbury, 2000; Wylie 2007, chapter 5). (1) The troubling couplet sight/ site captures well the concern that foregrounding the visuality of landscape masks more mundane human immersions in spaces that, instead of being conceived textually, are better understood through the affective dimensions of landscape experience. …

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