The Void, the Grid and the Garden

by William L. Fox

© all rights reserved

Most of my non-fiction books are about how human cognition engages with land to convert it into landscape (or space into place, terrain into territory, depending on the context). I tend to work most often in the hot and the cold deserts of the world–places such as America’s Death Valley and the Antarctic–because these are highly isotropic environments in which our cognition struggles the hardest to interact with the surface of the planet, thus making the process more apparent. These difficult surroundings, which appear much the same in all directions, also offer open fields of view in which to examine the physical remnants that we leave behind as evidence of the process. Not only are there few trees to obscure the mirages, but the layers of culture tend to be relatively thin and easily compared.

I am also concerned with how we perceive, or more accurately misperceive deserts because approximately twenty percent of the world’s population now lives in arid regions, a figure estimated by the United Nations to rise as high as fifty percent by mid-century. This is the result not only of having run out of room for new settlements in temperate regions, but also because our very presence is creating new desert acreage every day as we misuse and waste and simply destroy water, foliage, and arable soil.

When I use the word cognition, I mean the physical and mental means by which we perceive, process, and imaginatively manipulate the world, a process which is conducted through all of the senses and throughout the body. It is also a haptic process, which is to say one that includes touching the world and being touched by it in return, a sensory mechanism that guides our actions through an array of biofeedback mechanisms. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m limiting us to talking primarily about vision, the sense that brings us eighty percent of all the information we take in each day, and that involves an unprecedented fifty percent or more of our cortex.

Vision started out some 1.5 billion years ago as the ability for plants and animals to tell the difference between light and dark, then evolved into a way for animals to parse the boundaries between the two into shapes. At that point you could begin to tell the difference between something to eat and something that would eat you. This is when we have organisms with brains, and the earliest outgrowths of them that we can call eyes–maybe 500 million years ago.

Humanoid eyes and brains evolved only 3 million years ago, when we were coming out of the forest and onto the African savannah. Human eyes are incredibly sensitive, able to see the light of a single candle from twenty miles away, and they take in 100 million bits of information per second. We’re forced to throw away most of that information, lest it cook our brains, and we do so through a system of triage. We parse everything we see into roughly twenty-four shapes, most of which are closed geometrical forms such as circles, squares, and polygons of varying kinds. This ability to assemble and categorise pattern allows us to distinguish the stripes of a tiger hiding in a striped landscape, such as tall grass–a supremely useful talent for a slow and somewhat clumsy primate as we moved out of the forest.

But this ability is wired into us so deeply that we will also imagine geometrical shapes even when they are not there naturally–hence the visual dissonance known as paradelia, where we imagine patterns that aren’t there, such as canals on Mars, when what we’re seeing is just random dots in a landscape. Seeing shapes is a survival skill, but it consequently also increases our psychological sense of safety, because we think we understand what’s around us, even when it’s not real.

Our specific visual wiring evolved in a temperate environment, a conceal-and-reveal landscape where we understood the space and our place within it. We could hide behind foliage and peer out to a nearby waterhole, scoping out the primary resources we needed, game and water. We could see yet be not seen. We knew how the length of our arms and legs, our limbs, related to the limbs of the trees, thus had the ability to understand distance and guess how fast we could get from one place of safety to another. On the horizon the landscape turned blue with distance, the light scattered by humidity and dust, and we could measure ourselves against the size of the visible world. We had established a human scale matched to our survival needs.

In deserts those measurements are radically distorted, which puts us at risk. Our neurology can’t cope. We have only our feet in the foreground and the distant horizon to watch, with little or nothing in the middle ground with which to scale ourselves. Even the atmospheric perspective has shifted, due to the lack of moisture to scatter light and the lighter palette of what little vegetation there may be. Every year people leave their cars to take short hikes in places like Death Valley —hikes from which they may never return, as they radically underestimate the distances, hence need for water.

We overcome this dissonance through cultural means, the cartographic imperative among them. Once you start to set out a straight line, even in your imagination, to measure how far it is from you to another point, you are only one step away from turning that into a two-dimensional set of lines that leads you to a grid. Just crossing one path with another is all it takes, and you begin to box in the world, to square up reality with a mental map of it. Our ability to grid off arid terrain in regular and measurable units is a way of bringing it within our cognitive reach, and this mechanism becomes visible at least as early as the urban grid of Catal Hayuk in Anatolia 8,000 years ago, a late neolithic trading centre in a semi-arid landscape that was steadily getting drier.

 A fifteen-foot-long fragment of a wall mural recovered from the site has been called both the earliest surviving landscape painting and the first map. The rectilinear grid of houses and streets that it displays was a consequence of its 6,000 residents requiring water to irrigate crops to support what was for the time a large population. That meant creating a publicly-funded work force. In order to raise taxes to pay for the workers, a fair system of apportionment had to be derived in order to avoid revolt. Property was divided into the most basic and regular shape that was easy to tile–the square. Streets were laid out along a plat of squared properties even before the houses were built, in what may be the first known example of urban planning.

It’s also interesting to note the division of representation in the mural, the flat plan of geometry, the plain of rationality set out in the foreground, contrasted with the view in elevation or profile of the erupting volcano, wild nature in the background. The square was set up in opposition to unpredictability; a sign of man asserting what he thought was control over a dangerous and unpredictable landscape.

The architecture and town planning of Mesopotamia and the larger Middle East continued to evolve responses to the increasing heat and aridity based on the grid. The four walls of the caravanserai, for example, offered shelter from sun and wind while exclosing environmental stress and the threat of nomadic marauders. Water, the most precious resource, was enclosed. The use of a rectilinear shape to establish boundary contrasts and zones of safety also informed both the designs of the first gardens and the paradise rugs alluding to them. By six thousand years ago, the inhabitants of what is now Iran were building rectilinear domestic gardens that featured a fountain in the middle to represent an oasis, and channels that carried off the water to each of the four cardinal directions. This design represented and celebrated the human ability to manipulate the environment through irrigation, which was taken to mean the triumph of culture over nature, the creation of an earthly analogue for a heaven that promised unlimited water.

The word in Old Persian for garden stems from that language’s word for paradise — pairidaeza —which is formed from pairi for around and daeza for wall. The paradise rug featured a blue “water” area in the middle that was surrounded by foliage, a profoundly symmetrical pattern that seemingly entwined to infinity. This eventually became the basis for the Arab prayer rug, which was seen as an entrance to paradise, to the original garden that Christians came to refer to as Eden. This design template–a cognitive response to the environment encoded deeply into culture via religion as well as architectural practice–spread along trade routes east to India and west to Egypt

The geometry of the Mesopotamians was, of course, adopted by the Egyptians for everything from pyramids to gardens, and the propagation of the garden grid continued northward to Rome, and eventually to the formal gardens of the French, and thence into the mind of a late 18th-century American surveyor and president. Thomas Jefferson, who was born and raised within the geometrically gridded scheme of a plantation, promulgated a scheme that measured off America into equal squares of land that would be settled into farms. Each square was to be owned by a citizen voter capable of supporting himself and his family. It was a grand and egalitarian goal that unfortunately failed to take into account the increasingly obvious fact that the western half of America was not a temperate woodland like his native Virginia.

Just a few hundred miles west of America ‘s centreline the annual average rainfall drops below 20 inches and irrigation becomes necessary–which requires a much different division of the landscape in order to maintain a growing population with any hope of sustainability. The grid becomes illogical in a terrain where territory is more sensibly defined by watershed; property boundaries following straight lines encourage the transfer of water in and out of watersheds, leading people to grow wildly inappropriate crops–such as the water-intensive alfalfa–in the middle of the desert.

I should note that Catal Hayuk and every other hydraulic civilisation of the world has, at one time or another, failed. Nonetheless, if you look at a map of America, you will notice how its western states tend to have squared off boundary lines, regardless of all but the largest geographical features. That gridded division of land extends downward to the county and city scales, and finally to the design of individual homes, which feature square plots of water-intensive grass out front and abutting the ruler-like boundaries of the sidewalk and street.

When the grid was extended across the arid lands of the American West during the 19th century, it was as if Manifest Destiny had been mathematically verified–we had the tools to rule a map over the land, hence we presumed to be able to overrule the aridity. We had what was, in essence, a sacred geometry giving us permission to extend dominion from shore to shore. That’s led us to the metastasising of cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, and very much back to the water issues facing ancient Mesopotamians.

The combination of our longstanding cognitive dissonance in deserts, which means we have trouble perceiving and thus understanding them, along with cultural adaptations based on a neurologically based way of organising our vision of landscape, has produced havoc around the world. Nowhere is the evidence of this pattern of behaviour more evident that in the semi-arid basins of Los Angeles, a megalopolis of ten million people squeezed in between the Mojave Desert and the Pacific Ocean.

Prior to the spread of Jefferson’s national grid, the Spanish had begun to propagate their own grid in the American Southwest, which had come to them from ancient Persia via the Moors. The original planning for the settlement of Los Angeles followed the Spain ‘s Law of the Indies, which called for offsetting the grid from its cardinal orientation to true North by forty-five degrees, thus angling all of the buildings to receive equal amounts of daylight. The central plaza was built in the 1790s next to the Los Angeles River, however, and was only able to achieve thirty-six degrees of offset, a good example of how local planning ignored Utopian decrees in favour of local topography. What was a small pueblo grew steadily throughout the next century and a half, yet during the late 19th century was balancing the dictates of the Jeffersonian grid with the contours of the land. Los Angeles is the only city in the world split by a mountain range, and until the post-World War II housing boom retained a relatively eccentric and charming patchwork scheme to accommodate that reality. Major avenues followed straight sightlines devoted to the compass, but neighbourhood streets meandered according to the hillsides and various watercourses.

 Shortly after World War II the mass-production techniques deployed by the American military for rapid construction of military bases were adapted to the needs of the baby-boom generation for housing. In order for the production system to achieve an economy of scale that could maximise profitability, builders had to standardise house designs for housing developments–and that meant altering the topography to fit the hard-edged plans from the drawing boards. The ground was carved up to fit the grid, rather than the other way around. There was no dialogue with the land, and by 1960 the rectilinear grid had completely overrun the Los Angeles Basin and nearby valleys. The rivers and streams were now concrete-lined ditches meant to channel flood waters (and the occasional Hollywood action sequence), and the drought-tolerant native flora was replaced by straight asphalt lines and rectilinear lawns.

Before Las Vegas and Phoenix and the other large cities of the desert southwest began to metastasise their urban grids at mid-century, Palm Springs was colonised as a faux oasis in the desert, a two-hour car drive east of Los Angeles. Because it was a resort town, versus a suburb, the growth pressures were at first much less, and architects working there had the patronage and permission to explore ways to loosen the grip of the grid on their aesthetics. In 1923 Frank Lloyd Wright designed the first modernist resort in Palm Springs, which was constructed around an old adobe ranch house in the centre of town. Although the interior of the Oasis resort was still dark and protected, and the exterior was planted with foliage alien to the region, Wright actually included a native cottonwood tree growing on the property within the architecture. It rose up through the floor and out through the ceiling, thus admitting a bit of the desert into the building.

Most of the architects working in the town, however, continued to deploy a strongly gridded modernist aesthetic where it seemed Bauhaus met the desert. The strong grids that had migrated from Europe presented architecture as evidence of the triumph of technology over the environment, a corollary to the spreading use of air conditioning in the desert, a development that encouraged the growth of cities across the desert Southwest. The backyards of even modest houses enclosed swimming pools, providing their owners an updated version of the paradise garden. The year 1947, however, marked the debut of a house by the remarkable architect Albert Frey. The Loewy House incorporated granite boulders from the surrounding land into the landscaping around the swimming pool. Looking out through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and over the backyard, no wall exclosed the reality–your gaze escaped over the boulders and into the desert. Frey had began to take down the walls of the garden and to readmit more fully the relationship between land and landscape. The chaotic boulder field around the house was brought into a dialogue with the architecture.

In 1963 Frey built his own residence in Palm Springs, a legendary structure set deeply, almost invisibly into a steep hillside. By this time, Frey was leaving the rocks in place and building around them, shaping the house to individual elements within the terrain. You weren’t just looking at a boulder, but literally sleeping with one next to the bed. This design philosophy would contribute to the increased use of xeriscaping in the American Southwest, and a growing acknowledgement that divorcing your garden aesthetic from the realities of the desert environment required an inappropriate use of an increasingly scarce resource, water.

The grid, however, that fundamental cognitive template, continues to dominate desert urbanisation in America, as in other arid countries. Las Vegas, which after World War II became the next refuge for celebrities fleeing the tabloid reporters of Hollywood, has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in America for almost twenty years–and it is a severely gridded city that only recently has begun to promote xeriscaping, streetscapes that follow the terrain and help prevent erosion, and water conservation. City officials now pay residents to rip out their water-thirsty squares of lawn and replace it with native flora and gravel. Slowly Americans are realising that the reflexive erection of a grid, and the inappropriate plantings that seem almost inevitably to follow, is an inappropriate response to the desert void. Local architects are beginning to advocate a return to the traditional Middle Eastern architecture: foursquare walls enclosing a shaded garden in order to provide both physical and psychological relief from the environment. At the same time, they are designing neighbourhoods that break the urban grid into smaller and more negotiable units that conform to topography.

By way of summary, then, in those extreme environments where our sense of human scale is deeply compromised, such as deserts, we find our evolved neurophysiology no longer able to cope and we are forced to develop cultural means to compensate. Our cartographic imperative–the assertion of a local grid and then a worldwide graticule–is a prime example. It is a way of projecting our dominant sense, our vision, over the world. While this allows us to successfully navigate across a space and even tax it, it does not necessarily enable us to live within a place, to convert land into landscape on a sustainable basis.

Gardens are where we experiment with how cultural and natural environments meet in what scientists increasingly call the “Anthropocene,” that geological era following the Holocene wherein humans become the most prevalent geomorphological force on the face of the planet. Consider: the water impounded since 1950 behind eighty-eight dams has altered the rotational spin of the Earth and altered the tilt of its axis. Not by much, to be sure, but enough that a geophysicist would measure the changes in 1996 using the Global Positioning System. We have come a long way from the simple quadripartite channelling of water in a Mesopotamian paradise garden–so far that we may have engineered our way permanently out of paradise. But if we are to overcome our fear of the desert as a hostile environment, and by extension acknowledge that we need to–and are able to–change our cultural relationship with arid environments worldwide, we could do no better than to start in our own gardens. They are analogue places for the larger spaces of the world, humanistic laboratories in which we can discover paths toward reconciliation of the cultural and the natural.


William L. Fox is a writer and was formerly at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles as a Visiting Scholar.

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