Who is present in a beau­ti­ful land­scape? Oth­er than you, behold­ing the scene, there might be at best a few iso­lat­ed souls. If there used to be a few blank-faced peas­ants in a Book of Hours, work­ing the fore­ground, most like­ly today there will be a one or two strollers, up to noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar; maybe a hang glid­er off in the sky.

If one or two peo­ple gives an appro­pri­ate hint as to the desired use or affect of the land­scape scene – the wan­der­er on the path, or the her­mit on the cliff – any more than that threat­ens to over­write the land­scape itself. Such is the pow­er of peo­ple to dis­tract oth­er peo­ple. This is as much the fear of the vaca­tion­er as the Sun­day painter or the archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er. But while the obvi­ous solu­tion is to min­i­mize the amount of peo­ple present in the pic­ture, anoth­er is to mul­ti­ply the actors inside the scene while keep­ing them all rough­ly at the same lev­el of empha­sis. (That takes a lit­tle more skill, espe­cial­ly in a per­spec­ti­val view.) This is not a mat­ter of approv­ing the social good of peo­ple cohab­i­tat­ing, or appre­ci­at­ing the access to social con­tact for your­self; it is the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of an abun­dance of inter­ac­tion. And in paint­ing all over the world – the mur­al of the par­adise of Tlaloc at Teoti­hua­can, the amphithe­ater fres­co at Pom­peii, the dis­mal publics of Bruegel the Elder – we find all-over com­po­si­tions where a field of human activ­i­ties coex­ist, solid­ly root­ed in a com­mon landscape. 

We have the habit in land­scape archi­tec­ture of think­ing of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence along the con­tin­u­um estab­lished in the 18th cen­tu­ry: from the beau­ti­ful to the sub­lime, with the pic­turesque some­where halfway in-between. There is noth­ing to say that our actu­al aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of a land­scape needs to take place along this pole; par­tic­u­lar­ly since each of them priv­i­leges being the sole wan­der­er in the land­scape. The cul­tur­al the­o­rist Sianne Ngai has argued for rec­og­niz­ing a larg­er galaxy of aes­thet­ic modes in her Our Aes­thet­ic Cat­e­gories: Zany, Cute, Inter­est­ing. For instance, Ngai has con­trast­ed the instan­ta­neous expe­ri­ence of the beau­ti­ful – an aes­thet­ic judg­ment that is imme­di­ate­ly decid­ed, and not sub­ject to dis­cus­sion – with that of the inter­est­ing – one that is pro­vi­sion­al, sub­ject to change. We might find such as aes­thet­ic mode in a stim­u­lus-dense land­scape that can only be picked through one strand at a time, always bal­anc­ing the risk of tip­ping into tedi­um with the reward of immersion. 

bruegel gloomy
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, THE GLOOMY DAY
berner wimmel
Rotraut Susanne Berner, SUMMER LAKE

If we had a name for it, we might well rec­og­nize this ten­den­cy through­out the cul­tur­al field, from Altman’s Nashville to – once again! – OMA’s pro­pos­al for Parc La Vil­lette. But what name can we put to it? The quick­est way to do this is to once again dip into our Ger­man dic­tio­nary, and intro­duce into Eng­lish the word wim­mel. It lit­er­al­ly means teem­ing,” and is cus­tom­ar­i­ly used to describe a cer­tain genre of land­scape pic­ture that is so full of infor­ma­tion – lit­tle sto­ries, peo­ple act­ing, var­i­ous struc­tures – that it can­not be tak­en in at a glance. 

In the Ger­man sprachraum, the term is usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with a genre of children’s books that empha­size such pic­tures. You’ve prob­a­bly seen the equiv­a­lent in Eng­lish, from the Where’s Wal­do series to Richard Scarry’s immor­tal Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Google Trans­late telling­ly ren­ders wim­mel­bild as hid­den object,” match­ing the osten­si­ble point of look­ing through many such books – but the Ger­man wim­mel­buch is pre­cise­ly not about find­ing a sin­gle impor­tant detail in the noise, but about trac­ing a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of equal­ly impor­tant threads – sys­tems, nar­ra­tives, events – that are coin­cid­ing in the same place. The atten­tion is free to wan­der among the scene. 

The pow­er of wim­mel is that it is an aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of land­scape that does not speak to nature, or try to nat­u­ral­ize. It does not resort to a sin­gle prin­ci­ple. The fric­tion of wim­mel is greased by the urban prin­ci­ple of indif­fer­ence – mul­ti­ple things are pos­si­ble at the same time, most of them not touch­ing. Instead, the expe­ri­ence of wim­mel is one of won­der­ing at the prove­nance and tra­jec­to­ry of each thread – what hap­pened here? What else is hap­pen­ing now? What will hap­pen next? 

Why is the land­scape impor­tant, and not only the field of actors inhab­it­ing it? Because the land­scape dic­tates the affor­dances of the scene; what it is actu­al­ly pos­si­ble to do. In fact, while the pres­ence of a few dif­fer­ent par­ties of peo­ple increas­es the like­li­hood that we will per­ceive a scene as wim­mel, a scene can be unpop­u­lat­ed and still main­tain the same qual­i­ty. In such a case, it is only nec­es­sary that the record on the land­scape make obvi­ous a series of events that have occurred over time. (The abil­i­ty to achieve this may vary – a geol­o­gist could find wim­mel where some­one else sees a sin­gle outcropping.) 

To achieve wim­mel in a design, then, is not only to pro­vide a max­i­mal­ly wel­com­ing pub­lic space for peo­ple. It would also be about mak­ing it sto­chas­ti­cal­ly more like­ly for wim­mel scenes to occur. 

(February 2022)