In June last year I was lucky enough to move to Dublin, the charming, boisterous capital of the Republic of Ireland. One of the most interesting aspects of a move like this is working out how one can visually interact and understand one's new surroundings. After living in South Africa for almost my entire life I feel a kinship to and understanding of our many landscapes. I have come to understand the social and physical processes that helped create the environments there. Ireland, needless to say, is a different kettle of fish.
Ireland and South Africa could not be more different. One is big, one is small. One is hot, the other is, if not cold, at least cool. One is dry, the other is wet. One is significantly populated but still surprisingly empty, the other has much fewer citizens but is comparatively densely packed. It is also very striking how homogenous the population of Ireland is both in population and in environments. All in all, I knew that I would need to look at things differently here in Ireland.
This begs the question, 'What does it mean to visually understand a place?' J.B. Jackson, a prolific writer on landscape theory, speaks of a sense of place. In his book, 'A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time' he mentions a number of ways one can think about this term.
He feels that most people would say that we build a sense of place as we grow accustomed to it and learn to know its peculiarities. I think there is some truth to this idea but I find the term 'peculiarities' a bit unhelpful. It is too vague a term to encompass such a wide variety of ideas such as history, climate, national culture, regional culture, even ideas such as global movement of people. In essence I feel that the term, 'peculiarities' shrinks down this concept of a sense of place to make it quite insular and regional, while it is actually a global system of influences that create this sense.
In some ways one could even point to a sense of place being interdimensional as time plays such an important role in its creation. Jackson touches on this idea in his second description where he describes a sense of place as something we create, '...in the course of time. It is the result of habit or custom.' I like this thought. As it makes clear that a space is lived in. The raising of 'habit or custom' makes me think that it is impossible to get a sense of place without engaging with how that space is used or negotiated.
Looking at this from a personal perspective, I find it very helpful to think that as I engage in everyday life in Dublin, not only are my habits e.g. the route I walk to work or the bakery I visit to buy bread, creating a sense of place but they are also forcing me into the fabric of everyday life within said place and this is sense of place is being reinforced by the constant ebbs and flows of the population around me. Thus, it can be argued that it is through participation rather than observation that one gains a more real sense of place.
Finally, Jackson mentions how others have argued that a sense of place comes from our response to features which are 'already there - either a beautiful natural setting or well designed architecture'. Again, this is a concept I partly agree with. It's hard to argue that one does not get a sense of Dublin when visiting the many churches or walking along the River Liffey. One interesting realisation of my living in Dublin is that in Cape Town one seemed to spend a lot of time looking up or down. This isn't a great surprise given how mountainous the region so you are often looking up a hill or down a hill as you move through the space. Yet it is also due to the grandeur of the city built at the foot of Table Mountain. It is very hard not to be distracted by the beautiful natural landscape of Cape Town. Dublin, once again, is quite different. It is a very flat city and even the skyline is not particularly high. There are very few reasons to lift one's gaze. So, this is one of the strange ways one can develop an idea of a sense of place.
Yet, I would argue that this concept falls short as it seems to regard a sense of place as being defined only by one's physical surroundings. I would argue that a sense of place is informed as much by intangibles as by tangibles. A sense of the place's history is essential in understanding it. We create our land and cityscapes whether it is through leaving them be e.g. nature reserves or intense construction e.g. cities and it is our shared histories that shape these places.
This is the jumping off point for the image included above. Ireland's history has been dominated by the Catholic Church. Today, the relationship between the two could be called 'fraught'. After scandal after scandal the younger generation has largely turned the back on the church but it's presence still looms large whether it is through unpopular laws such as the 8th Amendment banning women's rights to choose or, on the other hand, through the many austere cathedrals and churches that pierce city's low skyline.