Let Me Walk You Through
I can walk you to the metro station, take you through the city to meet people in bars and restaurants, we can walk through the supermarket or even stroll along the paintings in a museum. We all walk. Mainly to cross distances, to get from one place to the other. These walks are merely circumstantial, serving another purpose than walking in itself.
I can walk you through Paris, the city of Baudelaire’s flâneur. We can observe modern city life in a discrete and elegant way, while walking the sidewalks. The act of promenading, always staged in an urban setting, implies finding pleasure in the wandering itself, heading nowhere in particular. Though the walk of the flâneur is determined by a strictly cultural frame: the crowd’s envolvement with the city motivates his trail and occupies his thoughts.
I can walk you through the Mediterranean landscape as the ancient Greeks did. We would walk with the intention of thinking or teaching. Centuries later Jean Jacques Rousseau walked for the same reason, to meditate and to exercise body and mind simultaneously. Where the Greek philosophers could walk together to discuss social matters, seeing their thoughts reflected in the surrounding architectural elements, Rousseau felt the need to walk alone. Outside society, in complete solitude, he tried to regain the mental original state of man in his natural environment. In both cases we would let the landscape influence our ideas be it only on a secondary level: in essence we would give thought to the condition of our civilisation, whether or not in relation to nature, and not primary to the experience of the landscape in specific.
In ‘Let Me Walk You Through’ we will walk consciously, aware of our path and with a clear image of our chosen landscape. Our walks will provide us exercise, conversation and ideas but above all we will enjoy the stroll. Walking for pleasure arose in eighteenth century Europe simultaneously with the birth of the English landscape garden. Of course the aristocracy of that time had already walked in the formal French gardens but there was no physical action required to behold the magnificent central view that could easily be seen by stepping through the doors on to the main terrace. Medieval gardens were mainly designed to sit in and to offer some privacy to those who needed a secret hideout. During the renaissance period the nobility had a choice: sit, walk or stand still. The English garden, however, needed to be explored on foot.
‘Walks were now laid out by private owners in their country parks, and walking became as much a part of the pleasure of a park as hunting, driving and riding. The walks themselves were made increasingly interesting, with aesthetic considerations developing from the simple static vista from a window or terrace, to something that took account of a more mobile point of view...The walker in fact made a circuit, and in the eighteenth century this was to become the standard manner for viewing gardens and parks.’ (quote by Susan Lasdun, Rebecca Solnit, ‘Wanderlust: A history of Walking’, 2001, p88) The ‘aesthetic considerations’ Lasdun mentions are generally part of the natural environment, such as certain panoramic views of the land hidden behind the walls or the view of a lake through the trees. The landscape garden consists of various natural scenes assembled in a larger composition that can only be discovered in fragments and therefore by walking. On his path the walker will be surprised by the discovery of a grotto, a waterfall and other artificial features that are representative of the picturesque landscape. Italian Renaissance gardens were often located upon a hill enclosed by low walls which allows us to look out over the landscape and perceive the garden and the countryside as one. In its turn the concept was translated to the English ideal. An estate consisted of a house, a small garden encircling the mansion and a larger park that segregated the leisure classes. In the park, the owner and his visitors could walk a considerable distance without reaching any fences and consequently they really got the impression of being in nature. At some points the landscape opened up and one could overlook the entire countryside. It is said that people exclaimed ‘ha-ha’ when they encountered these unexpected locations where the park opens up and connects to the world.
First, walking through the English landscape garden is a cultural act. Because our walk is part of an aesthetic experience, the landscape was designed according to certain artistic beliefs and was created to be regarded as a piece of art. Secondly, we walk just for the pleasure of moving through the landscape. Alone or in good company we stroll through parks and gardens while commenting on the remarkable lifelike paintings we eye on our tour. What we enjoy, on a more philosophical, and unconscious, level is the perfect harmony between culture and nature, a rare but possible concept. In ‘Let Me Walk You Through’ I will apply these 18th century ideas to today’s leisure walks only. Some notions still stand but European culture evolved and so did the way we walk.