What makes a landmark?

According to the dictionary definition, a landmark is described as:

An object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.

At terra firma we undertake landscape assessments of all scales from district-wide capacity and sensitivity studies to site-specific opportunity and constraints investigations. One of the things which we try to determine is if there are any valued views either into or out from the site. If there is a particular view which is believed to be important then this is a feature which adds value to the landscape and we would try to safeguard. But who decides if it’s important? And who even decides what is a landmark in these circumstances?

Some are easy to determine- the view of a church spire breaking the horizon in the distance is an obvious one and almost certainly valued, either in aesthetic terms as part of a wider landscape composition or as a wayfinding device. Before GIS and Sat Nav these were obviously more important as our forebears walked or rode from village to village, being able to move with certainly from one church spire towards the next regardless of their ability to use a compass or read a map.  However, are they still valued today? And how were they perceived when they were first built? Salisbury Cathedral spire must certainly have been a ‘landmark’ when it was first constructed in 1320, but was it universally valued?

In more recent times our ability to build tall and distinctive structures can sometimes result in a proliferation of landmarks which may not be quite so valued. On a trip to Paris views of the Eiffel Tower, for example, are often an unexpected delight as it appears at the end of streets or across the rooftops and certainly and aid to navigation. However, when its construction was proposed it was met with some hostility, notably a letter in ‘Les Temps’ signed by 47 artists including Zola, Dumas fils and de Maupassant.

The Eiffel Tower, France
© Keith Baker

The recent proliferation of new towers in London has also not been without controversy, some are applauded, some are loathed, others are simply refused planning permission.  But even the most ugly tower block, if sufficiently prominent, would qualify as a landmark, especially if given a catchy nickname.

It is our role in these studies to ascertain if, in our professional opinion, the views are likely to be generally considered positive or negative and that ultimately is very subjective. We all carry a certain amount of ‘cultural baggage’ with us, based on our personal tastes, education and heritage. We can try and put ourselves in the position of ‘the general public’ and imagine if a landmark might be seen as positive by a certain community but short of undertaking an extensive survey, like so much of the work of a Landscape Architect it comes down to a personal judgement that we alone may ultimately have to defend. 

Landmark or eyesore?
A space receiver at RAF Oakhanger, Bordon
© Keith Baker
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