Cultural Landscapes Blog

The Rural Virginia Landscape as Multi-Layered Research Site

The rural landscape known today as “Morven” has a complex, multi-layered history spanning thousands of years of human occupation. Located in southwestern Albemarle County, not far from Jefferson’s Monticello, the site has attracted new interest from researchers since its acquisition by the University of Virginia in 2001.

Today, Morven is home to an ongoing research initiative featuring team-taught classes, field schools, and a Summer Institute. Rather than focus on one period of site history to the exclusion of others, scholars from a range of disciplines – History, Architecture, Archaeology, Landscape Architecture, Environmental Sciences, and Politics – are attempting to understand the site as a whole through cross-disciplinary exchange informed by discipline-specific research agendas.


Dr. Robert MacFarlane is the Director of English Studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is also a celebrated author whose subjects include nature, the post-pastoral, travel writing, and environmentalism. An article in The Guardian explores his creative project to "rewild the language of landscape." He writes:

"I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

...Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

The University of Virginia School of Architecture held its fifth annual Vortex design workshop in January 2016. An article published in UVA Today provides an overview of this year's program:

Can Charlottesville’s Preston Avenue, a commercial corridor scarred by contentious urban renewal policies, become a more attractive home for businesses and residents?

Over the past two weeks, students in the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture have grappled with that question during the school’s fifth annual Vortex design workshop. Unique among American schools of design, the workshop brings together more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students and 30 faculty members across the school’s four disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, urban and environmental planning and architectural history – to tackle a single area of focus within the local community.

This year, they were split into teams to consider how Preston Avenue – a half-mile stretch of four-lane, divided roadway connecting downtown Charlottesville with the more residential Venable neighborhood – could offer more appealing public spaces, become more pedestrian-friendly, improve public housing availlability and create a better atmosphere for businesses and residents alike.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) recently announced their 2016 season of events, which includes an exhibition titled Landslide 2016: The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Lawrence Halprin in Washington D.C.

An excerpt from the TCLF website provides more information about the exhibition: "Set to open in the fall of 2016 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Landslide 2016: The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Lawrence Halprin is a traveling photographic exhibition that will feature the life and work of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) on the 100th anniversary of the year of his birth. Halprin was, without doubt, among the foremost landscape architects of the twentieth century. His prolific career spanned more than five decades, with highlights that include the FDR Memorial (in Washington, D.C.), Freeway Park (in Seattle, Washington), and the Portland Open Space Sequence (in Portland, Oregon). His firm was a seedbed for many talented designers now celebrated in their own right, and the innovative techniques he pioneered changed the field forever. While the traveling exhibition will honor Halprin and his career, it will also call attention to the need for the informed and effective stewardship of his irreplaceable legacy. Like much of the work of prominent landscape architects in the post-War period, many of Halprin’s designs are now in a diminished state, while some face an uncertain future."

For the full article about the exhibition, click here

Chris Stevens, ASLA, Maryland Chapter, and alumni of UVA's Master of Landscape Architecture program, has been recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) for his contributions to historic landscape preservation.

The ASLA publication LAND writes: Chris Stevens is a leading advocate for the Historic American Landscapes Survey’s (HALS) mission to record historic landscapes in the United States and its territories through measured drawings and interpretive drawings, written histories and large-format black and white photographs and color photographs. He has been involved at the leadership level with both HALS and the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network, and is currently chair of the HALS subcommittee and HALS chapter liaison coordinator. As historical landscape architect at the National Park Service (NPS), Stevens is a crucial link between ASLA, NPS, and the Library of Congress, all of whom signed a memorandum of understanding in 2001 and an updated tripartite agreement in 2010 to collaboratively work to fulfill HALS’ mission. 

You can read the full piece here.

In the Center's most recent research roundtable, Professor Brian Balogh spoke about his forthcoming book In the Nation's Backyard: How History Preserved Rural Life in Green Springs, 1970 to the Present. The book tells the story of citizen participation in an unlikely setting - rural Virginia in the 1970s, and the battle to fight a maximum security state prison facility, then vermiculite mining by WR Grace, and now, exurban sprawl, in MY own backyard, Louisa County, VA.  The preservationists won this one, at least for the moment. They created a national historical landmark district, reinforced by an Act of Congress, in the mid-seventies.  Along the way, they pursued path breaking federal litigation and made the most of the growing demand for citizen participation that was sweeping the country.  This is also a story of changing gender roles, as the leader who forged this history was a woman who did not have a college degree.

Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village has been long celebrated for its use of ancient architectural precedents and its reimagined relationship between faculty and students, something we now call a Living-Learning Community. But one dimension of the lived experience of the Academical Village that has received less attention is the relationship between the students and the faculty and their families as the village’s white population and the numerous enslaved African Americans who lived and worked for decades in and around the academical village. 

This semester, the students in Louis Nelson’s “Field Methods in Historic Preservation” class have dedicated their semester to the search for physical evidence of the use of various spaces by this long neglected community. To this end, students have been crawling with flashlights through attics and cellars looking for physical evidence of the workings of basement kitchens, but also the transformation of marginal spaces into spaces of accommodation for the growing population of the enslaved.

Reinterpreting the Pollock’s Branch Watershed is an interdisciplinary mapping project undertaken by the University of Virginia’s Center for Cultural Landscapes and led by faculty in the School of Architecture and the Department of Drama. Funded in part by a UVA Faculty Research Grant for the Arts, this project will engage residents within the Pollock’s Branch watershed as creative agents in the collective process 1) to identify and celebrate the unique features and places valued by the community, 2) to reimagine the area’s future use and character as the City continues to plan for change over time, and 3) to create a place-based experience of the watershed to share with the larger Charlottesville community. Through embodied forms of analysis—including movement and sensorial experiences—the project will investigate the complexities of the landscape as it is lived and felt in order to amplify future analysis and urban design initiatives undertaken by the City of Charlottesville for the Strategic Investment Area.

Winneba Ghana frames a cultural landscape study around the shifting cultural relationship of a historic fishing village to its watery landscape. The mythic legend of the Effutu tribe’s arrival around 1400 A.D. to this coastal site next to the Muni-Pomadze Lagoon is central to Winneba’s identity.  For centuries, citizens abided by taboos and practices that protected these sacred waters. The 20th century, however, witnessed a decline in the lagoon quality due to a growing indifference to sacred traditions, and a lack of management plans, which led to encroachment into the lagoon. In 1992, Muni Lagoon (including the city limits) was incorporated by the inter-governmental Ramsar Convention in its worldwide network of significant wetlands. The call for its preservation and wise management gave the lagoon a new lease on life.   Our team’s projections indicate that sea level rise will transform the currently closed lagoon into a biologically rich estuary and offer new possibilities for industry, education, and tourism. What will be the impact of these new possibilities and rising water levels on Winneba’s mythic landscape?

As Winneba seeks to arise out of a period of decline in the 20th century, the waters are proving central once again to the community’s identity, opportunities, and challenges.

Preserved in the songs, plays, pictures, and movies about shantytowns is a working-poor discourse that resonates with values of hospitality, autonomy, adaptation, and reinvention, but which also reflects bitter inter-ethnic and intra-class conflicts among poor urban laborers. Shantytown residents of all races and ethnicities were keenly aware of economic opportunities, and of their civil and property rights, and they acted in ways designed to protect and enhance them—routinely going to court, for example, and often prevailing in their efforts to resist eviction and preserve their occupation of property. This was true of shantytowns built by free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, and their hyphenated-American descendants. But while they claimed the rights and benefits associated with middle-class status—property, privacy, access to the legal system—they rejected the cultural trappings of bourgeois refinement. In the end, they lost the battle over their rights to the city. The history of shantytowns illuminates a direct relationship between the expulsion of the working poor from center cities and developing ideas about public space. Public policy and public works were used to validate and camouflage middle-class fears about the working poor while engraving those fears on the urban landscape. The urban public and urban public space has long been “classed,” in other words, by the exclusion of certain types of people. Shantytowns unite the material and cultural history of working people. An unstudied cultural landscape, they open a new site for scholarly conversations about labor, race, urban history, and class formation.