Landscape Architecture in the Image of God

I have questions. Before getting too deep in to the specifics, let me frame my concerns. According to Kabbalah and the axioms of Heschelian thought, the human experience is fundamentally limited. We can never know everything. Most of the time, we are too fragmented to grasp the fullness of God and too self-aggrandizing to pay attention to the intricacies of the universe. Nonetheless, we are all expected to intervene and to act, to live as an image of God (B’Tselem Elokim) without actually being a God.

As a landscape architecture graduate student, I am forced to grapple with these issues on a daily basis. A lot has been written about what landscape architecture is and is not, but from what I’ve gathered to this point it is about shaping earth, organizing plants, and working with ecological systems to generate a meaningful and embodied experience.

In a real and metaphorical sense then landscape architecture is an act of creation. In his book Inner Space Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains how the 5 "olamot" of Kabbalistic thought correspond to architecture and design. He states that Adam Kadmon is the decision of the architect (or landscape architect) to build and to know what he/she wants to build before laying out the blueprints. Atzilut is the comprehensive plan and design of the project. Beriyah occurs on site and is the adaptation and implementation of the design through Yetzirah, which is the transmission of design (speech) to the workers. Finally, Asiyah is the actual building and realization of the original plan.

The final product of the design process, however, is ultimately imperfect, a reflection of the limitations of the human experience. Poetic as that may be, I find myself searching for more. How can I, as a landscape architect create spaces that invoke what Heschel would describe as the ineffable – the mystery and wonder of God and the universe? How can I give form that speaks to the fullness of God and intricacies of life?

I have attempted to utilize the sefirot as an organizing principle in some of my projects (most notably a playground based on the Ari’s diagram of the sefirot). The triads and pairs of opposites embedded in Kabbalistic thought and embodied by the sefirot have been helpful in arranging and orientating space, but these explorations, fruitful as they may have been, have not yet provided me with satisfactory answers.

The history of landscape architecture is rife with methodological approaches to making and charging a site. I believe Jewish conceptions of creation are also laden with tremendous performative potential. As I continue to explore conventions of space making and landscape architecture, I hope to uncover new ways to shape earth, organize plants, and work with ecological systems that are meaningful and respectful of all life. So that one day I may not only be created in the image of God, but that I also learn to create in the image of God.

Note: This is the first essay in a series of essays that I will write as part of the Jewcology blog that explores the intersection of landscape architecture and Jewish thought. I hope you all enjoy the ride and please leave comments, suggestions, questions, sources to explore, and anything else that you think might enrich the dialoge. Thanks!

2 Replies to "Landscape Architecture in the Image of God"

  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    March 30, 2011 (4:40 am)

    Isaac, this is a fascinating project — midwifing the mystical, as it were, to give it shape and substance in this world of the five senses. It’s getting my mind working in terms of applying this to other areas of life as well!

  • Isaac Hametz
    March 30, 2011 (3:48 pm)

    Deborah, there are many ways that Kabbalah and mysticism can be integrated in to daily life. It is a question of intention and invention – though certainly not always an easy intervention. What areas of your life are you thinking about tying mysticism?

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