Cultural Conversations 3: A Building or Landscape

The third Cultural Conversations event of term saw the Ertegun scholars gathering on Zoom to enjoy a series of presentations centred around the theme of buildings and landscapes. The three speakers, Stephan Nitu, Janice Cheon, and Claire Heseltine had interesting and varied interpretations of this central theme.

Stephan took us all on a journey to Hallgrimskirkja, or the Church of Hallgrimur, in Reykjavik, which at time of writing is considered to be the second strangest building in the world (by popular vote on Stephan happened across this tall, majestic church with its stepped, tapering tower when on holiday in Reykjavik. The night of the winter solstice, unable to sleep, and tempted outside by a reddish sky, Stephan happened across this church, looking truly otherworldly in the snow. This entertaining anecdote, accompanied by stunning photographs of this fine example of expressionist architecture, prompted us to consider the power of buildings to shape not only physical space but also the emotions of those who pass there.


Janice chose to focus not on one building in particular, but rather on a type of building, the ‘McMansion’, a kind of house design often associated with American post-war suburban neighbourhoods. In contrast to the Church of Hallgrimur, Janice discussed how McMansions are usually considered a form of bad architecture.

It is not uncommon for interested parties to talk of how these sprawling urban mansions are bad not only for the environment, but also the soul, a point which follows neatly from the reflections on Stephan’s discussion about both the physical and emotional impact of buildings. Yet despite their negative connotations, Janice confessed that she still had a kind of ‘craving’ for a landscape shaped by these mansions, since they represent ‘home’. Janice concluded her presentation by prompting us to ponder the German term Heimat or ‘homeland’, which is closely connected to this idea of a complex, mixed relationship with one’s homeland.


Claire took up this discussion of tensions in our associations with home in her discussion of the Yorkshire Dales.She celebrated the natural beauty of this stunning landscape, but soon encouraged us to consider the more troubled side of this hauntingly beautiful place. She spoke of the double-edged sword of nature itself, which shaped this landscape in the first place and yet which has in recent years (thanks to human-induced climate change) devastated the area with severe flooding. She spoke also of the poverty that is all too often masked behind the idealistic, carefully curated, tourist-oriented image of the area that outsiders usually have. In the discussion that followed, we considered the tensions that tourism can bring to places all over the world. Whilst it can be the backbone to many locals’ livelihoods it can also see their sense of identity lost at the hands of tourist boards and visitors.

All three presentations and the ensuing discussion demonstrated the emotional dimension to physical space. The event reminded us what immense power it is to be able to shape the space around us with architecture and agriculture, but let us not forget that nature will never be outdone in this regard.

Frances Dowle