The Highway Screen: an Historical Overview on the Construction of Highway Landscapes

Niklas Kuckeland, 2021

In the unceasingly relevant book Social formation and Symbolic Landscape from 1984, cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove writes: “[…] landscape constitutes a discourse through which identifiable social groups historically have framed themselves, and their relations with both the land and other human groups.” Additionally, he states that “this discourse is closely related epistemically and technically to ways of seeing.“ In these quotes, Cosgrove opens up for a proper reflection on the topic of this text, namely on the discursive construction of landscape as mediated through the highway. Let us start by looking at these quotes a little bit closer.

Eleni Ieremia, Ongoing project, 2021

On the one hand, Cosgrove suggests that the landscape, through its discourse – its representations and design – partakes in the construction of identities. By selecting what is part of the landscape and what is not, different spaces, or, perhaps, spaces of difference, form where cultural identities and values often come to expression and in return help to justify the spatial borders. The landscape constitutes a prime way of constructing identity in that it functions as a, in Cosgrove’s terms, frame inside which a culture defines itself in relation to the land and in opposition to something other, far away. The most obvious examples of how identities are constructed through landscape discourses are naturally regional and national identities. National and regional symbols like flags are for instance often designed to mirror qualities in the landscapes of the nation or region – “yellow stands for the golden corn fields” or “red is the desert”. Similarly, the postcard pictures of the Stockholm Archipelago in Sweden or the Alps in Germany often get to represent the entirety of the nation. They achieve as such the affinity between the culture of the nation as a whole and the culture connected to these places.

On the other hand, Cosgrove recognizes that the landscape itself is constructed and mediated by ways of seeing. To perceive and comprehend the landscape, I naturally require a certain kind of view that allows me to see wide horizontally. But what kind of situation does that imply and demand? 

In The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, from 2000, Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes a special way of seeing that arises when traveling by train. He calls this panoramic perception.[1] Panoramic perception, he argues, emerges out of a separation between the subject and the particularity of objects in the surrounding of the subject. This comes about through the interplay of velocity and foreground: the foreground of the perception in its usual form, in which the concreteness of things is palpable, disintegrates at the hands of velocity, to emerge again as a bodiless barrier between the viewer and the scene that rushes by. According to Schievelbusch, the result is a form of perception that is not intense and auratic anymore but ephemeral, impressionistic and, as suggested, panoramic. Instead of the particularity of single objects, the focus of perception must, under the mentioned circumstances, move to ensembles of objects that force the vision to perceive them as a unity.

While Schivelbusch’s observation is concerned with the railway journey, it is easy to see how this also applies to traveling by car on the highway. It is hard though to imagine, from today’s perspective, how new and peculiar this way of seeing must have felt to people in the 19th and 20th century who traveled with these new means of transportation for the first time. A hint to that experience, to the strangeness of this kind of perception, could perhaps be found in Gerardo Dotorri’s painting Il Corsa, from 1927.[2] The picture shows the line of a highway stretching over the land. It clearly tries to capture the feeling and visual qualities of how it is to travel by car, and we can sense how it must have felt at that time. The landscape close to the car around the lower half of the painting is stretched out and warped around the traveler, transitioning into a continuous landscape in the background of the picture.

At this point, one might wonder where I am going with this. By introducing Schivelbusch’s notion of panoramic perception and how it is formed, I want to suggest that traveling by train, or by car on the highway, constitutes a rare possibility to attain and behold landscapes, since the activity itself produces landscapes. Taking this affinity between landscape and car travel into account, along with the fact that landscapes often represent national and regional identities (among others), it should come as no surprise that the highway has played a key role in mediating the values and discourses of culture. In the overview on the construction of highway landscapes, that will now follow, I am going to look in closer detail at some of the mediating missions of the highway in Germany during the past century, starting with the Nazi era.

The Nazi Era: Highways and aestheticization of national landscapes

While the National Socialists in Germany were neither the first to use highways as political propaganda, [3] nor the initiators of using the landscape around the highways in the process of constructing a national identity,[4] they most likely make the most striking example of these attempts.

To look at how a specific perception of landscape was formed through the highway during the Nazi-era, one could study the Nazis landscape paintings that were specifically focused on the romance of the highway, or depictions of the highway in the Nazis highway-planning-institute’s magazine, Die Strasse.[5] The most important point to look at, though, is the involvement of landscape architects in the planning process and its surrounding discourse after 1933. Initially, landscape can be seen to be of no special interest in the planning process. Though Hitler mentions that the construction of the highway will be a “Milestone […] for the building of a German ethnic community” in his 1933 speech at the construction start of the first route, the role of the landscape in this process was not yet considered. Similarly, Fritz Todt (1891-1942) – the head of the highway construction and a close associate of Hitler’s – decides, after being invited to talk about integration of highways and landscapes at the convention of the Heimatschutzbewegung[6] in 1933, to not attend.[7] Only three years in the future, this position was turned on its head. Not only is Todt now head of the society for friends of the Heimatschutz, each planning unit for the highway construction also includes a landscape architect, among which, many are members of the Heimatschutzbewegung. Similarly, the German unity, which was addressed in Hitler’s speech, was no longer described as a unity of the people, but of the land which the highway will force into unity.[8] Within a few years, the highway attained a strong cultural connotation, and the landscape around the highways was suddenly bound up with cultural values. The idea was that the highway should be constructed in line with ideal beauty and in harmony with the landscape; the supposed profound beauty of the Viking ships, for instance, often figured as aesthetical inspiration for the construction of the highway.[9] The aestheticization of the highway-landscape in relation to cultural identity was thereby initiated in the National Socialist Germany.

Though there are surely several influences playing into this shift, one of the main ones came from the landscape architects that were to be involved. Following the convention of the Heimatschutzbewegung that was mentioned earlier, the landscape architect Alwin Seifert writes a letter to Fritz Todt and describes the highway not as an alien element to the landscape but as a means of influencing and constructing landscape.[10] Following this exchange Seifert develops a close contact with Todt and subsequently gains the mentioned position and influence. Therefore, and since the landscape is our focus here, it is of good use to take a quick look at what the landscape architects around Seifert were all about. The main influence, that was already mentioned, was the Heimatschutzbewegung many landscape architects were involved in. While the landscape was in focus here, it was nothing to be planned at this scale, but to be protected. Landscape, among this group, mainly existed in an idealized and romanticized state of landscape perception. Its background dates to the romantic period and its prototype landscape of the English Landscape Garden, together with the landscape paintings that informed them. Hence gardens were the scale of planning, as a localized and limited entity, and the self-perception of the planners was still that of garden planners.[11] With the highway, the task of the garden planners became largely delimited and following the route through the land expands over the entire landscape as a thing to be planned, the self-perception and field of the landscape architect forms, still with the idealized and romantic appreciation of landscape unimpaired.

The two main elements for creating an idealized German landscape were focused on integrating the highway into the landscape on the one hand and constructing the landscape on the other. First there was a move away from trying to build the shortest connections in space mostly consisting of long straight lines. Instead, the aim was to create “the most noble connection between two points”.[12] Following the aesthetic principles of the English Landscape Garden, the route started to curve through the landscape. Similar to a river, it was to naturally follow according to the terrain and nature’s authority.[13] Seifert put it as: ”he who allows the landscape to determine the route and to specify every curve will build the best and most beautiful road”.[14] At the same time there were large deviations from this aspiration, for the desire to direct the highway through and along specific culturally important landscape scenes and elements like lakes and mountain vistas.[15] Through this purposeful planning, the route and the driver alike, get integrated into a specifically selected landscape with which they form a unity.

In addition, there were efforts to not just present and look at these landscapes, already shaping their perception profoundly, but to also directly alter the landscape by means of plantation. The main criteria for this plantation were that it had to be bodenständig, meaning rooted in the native soil, creating a connection to the ground in accordance with the blood and soil ideology. Foreign plants were ruled out for usage, constructing a pure and clean German vegetation and landscape.[16]

Post-war: The anti-aesthetics of a neutral landscape

In the post war era, the close link between the highway-landscape and the national socialist ideology gave rise to a general tendency of trying to distance the infrastructure from the land surrounding it. This undertaking aimed to redefine the relation of highway and landscape by both dealing with past and ongoing constructions.[17] This was mainly achieved through a new discourse – a new set of attitudes and concepts – established as a framework for the highway.

Considering the previously sketched view of the highway-landscape during the Nazi-era, the discourse of the post-war-era formed a reaction that promoted neutrality and safety, established through scientific and technical reasoning that was supposed to lead to a de-aesthetization of highways and landscapes.[18] The curving route was suddenly justified not due to its beauty, but through the argument that it was safer for the driver, since it is less monotonous. Mathematically constructed through the Klothoide,[19]  the curvature no longer followed the “natural” route of the landscape but the route of abstract algorithm. The former connection to the landscape was reconstructed as a neutral connection, the specificity of place turned into the neutrality of space. Similarly, the plantation lost its connection to the specific landscape and the soil and was established as a safety measurement, though it would take until the 60’s before foreign plants would be allowed.[20] This shortly described neutrality of the post-war era, was mostly achieved through discursive changes and not in otherwise more substantial changes.

As the highway was established as neutral and disconnected from the landscape in theory, it was only a question of time and reason for this to turn into practice. This happened in the 70’s, when a broader consciousness of environmental and ecological concerns developed. While a new specific connection to the land arose, in the form of taking into consideration its specific needs for protection, the land starts to be seen less as a landscape and, through an environmental perspective, more as an ecological system. The view of the landscape from the highway diminishes accordingly by shielding it through acoustic barriers, thick shrubbery and the like.[21]

Today: Aestheticization of industrial landscapes along the highway

Since the 2000s, a noticeable countermovement to the post-war-era’s anti-aesthetical highway construction has developed, which tries, in many ways, to re-establishes the highway as a cultural and aesthetical object that should interact with the landscape.[22], [23], [24], [25]

The project of the Park-Highway (Parkautobahn) A 42 in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, will be assessed here in more detail. The project emerged in 2008 in the context of the Cultural Capitals of Europe RUHR.2010 development. Its goal is to help “open up the highlights of a unique Industrial-Cultural-Landscape”, along the 52 km route of the highway A 42 in the Ruhr area. For this it is proposed to integrate the highway into the Emscher Landscape Park, which is an already established project for the same purpose. The feasibility analysis for the Park-Highway first criticized the outcome of the environmental planning strategies of the previous decades as cutting off the highway from its surroundings, a seemingly common critique found at different places in the recent decades.[26], [27], [28] Instead, the analysis suggest to “make the relation of the users of the Park-Highway and the surrounding cityscape come to life”.[29] For this a “memorable landscape picture is to be composed”.[30] Like a piece of music, the landscape ought to be arranged, or rather composed, by elements such as landmarks and landscape features to form aesthetically appreciable scenes along the highway. These elements mostly consist of industrial ruins and industrial heritage sites which now often have an economic function, from culture – and art centers to educational and creative institutes and businesses, usually converted through renown architecture offices.[31] The landscape architects of the Park-Highway project compared these sites and other old industrial remains to the elements of the park and caste ensemble of Sanssouci.[32] The most striking examples of strategies that have been employed to achieve this are frames along the highway, that focus the view on one selected element along the route. Where this framing is not possible through the process of green space planning, the feasibility analysis advises to erect large frames along the route or cut frames out of the acoustic barriers.

Eleni Ieremia, Ongoing project, 2021

The combination of reframing of historical industrial sites as heritages and green space planning, that can be seen in the feasibility analysis of the Park-Highway A 42 in Nordrhein-Westfalen, follows precisely two of the three strategies for revitalizing old industrial sites, that culture theorist Susanne Hauser describes in her ambition to map out these efforts in Europe since the 60s. In the first strategy that Hauser identifies, where the integration of the highway plays an important role, she explains that the reframing of industrial sites entails first a detaching of the site from its former context and then a re-establishing phase, where the site is identified as an object worthy of preservation.[33] This corresponds with the general idea of the frames suggested in the analysis; the industrial sites are detached from its context as they are abstracted, limited and defined in the window of the frame and as such appreciated as a picturesque view that naturally motivates its preservation. In this process the highway becomes the place of the audience, a field where aesthetical appreciation takes place, where the landscape and cultural identities simultaneously are fixated and codified. In a larger international discourse, this tendency to use cultural institutions, that get designed by renown star architects, as iconic landmarks, to boost economical competitiveness goes by the name of  “city branding” or, when it comes to regions, “regional branding”. In 2003’s issue of the “International Journal of Urban and Regional Research”, London-based professor of Cultural Economy, Graeme Evans, comment this tendency as follows: “not since the nineteenth century has architecture been used so consciously to promote civic or national pride. “[34]

The second strategy for how old industrial sites are being revitalized, that Hauser sketches out,  is that of green space planning. This is more important, since Hauser, in this strategy, identifies a connection between industrial sites and nature. Here, Hauser writes that the strategy rest on an idealization of nature similar to that present in the ideas behind the English Landscape Garden, in which the industrial site ought to be viewed as embedded in nature rather than oppositional to it.[35] This goal is already obvious in the reference to Sanssouci; restored beauty for the industrial past through nature is the mission.   In effect, the industrial ruin makes one of the last residuals of romanticism.[36]

From the panoramic perspective at the highway, and through the singled-out frames along the Park-Highway, the view of Germany surrounding me today forms a new and unified landscape, with reference to a neo-romantic industrial past. As nationalism and far-right movements across Europe are spreading, I think about this neo-romantic past at the current highways that articulates a new aesthetic for the landscape, still without any clear cultural designation, and I ask myself what the future might hold.

[1]                    Schivelbusch, Wolfgang: Spuren in der Stadt, in: Ders., Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert, FISCHER Taschenbuch, Frankfurt a.M. 2000.

[2]                    Strohkark, Ingrid: Die Wahrnehmung von ‚Landschaft‘ und der Bau von Autobahnen in Deutschland, Frankreich und Italien vor 1933. Dissertation Architektur (unveröffentlicht) Hochschule der Künste Berlin 2001.

[3]                    For instance the Autostrada dei Laghi in Italy. Zeller, Thomas: Driving Germany, The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1939-1970. Berghahn Books, New York 2010. S. 48.

[4]                    Parkways, USA) New York City Department of Parks & Recreation: Eastern Parkway,

[5]                    Zeller, 2010. S. 63.

[6]                    The Heimatzschutzbewegung organization formed at the end of the 19th century and was concerned with the preservation of an idealized German culture in close relation to nature and the countryside.

[7]                    Zeller, 2010. S. 79.

[8]                    Speech Adolf Hitlers at the opening of „100 =km=Strecke“ Saxony, 25.07.1937, Printed in: Die Strasse, 4. Jahrgang Nr. 14, 2. Juliheft 1937.

[9]                    Todt, Fritz: Der nordische Mensch und der Verkehr. in: Die Strasse, 4. Jahrgang Nr. 14, 2. Juliheft 1937 S. 399.

[10]                  ib. S. 82.

[11]                  Rollins, William H.: Whose Landscape? Technology, Fascism, and Environmentalism on the National Socialist Autobahn. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 3, 1995. S. 504 ff.

[12]                  Emil Maier-Dorn: Die kulturelle Bedeutung der Reichsautobahn. In: Die Straße 5 (1938)

[13]                  Zeller, 2010. S. 135.

[14]                  Rollins, 1995. S. 499.

[15]                  Zeller, 2010. S. 141.

[16]                  Rollins, 1995. S. 509.

[17]                  Zeller, 2010. S. 181.

[18]                  Weimark, Torsten: Vardagstingens visuella brus: Mediala aspekter på teknologi- och designhistoria. In: Jüöich, Solveig; Lundell, Patrik; Snickars, Pelle: Mediernas kulturhistoria. Statens Ljud- och Bildarkiv, Stockholm 2008 S. 193.

[19]                  A specific constructed curve, actually invented by engineers during the Nazi era.

[20]                  Reitsam, Charlotte, Raumgestaltung im Autobahn- und Schnellstraßenbau, Leitbilder aus Sicht der Landschaftsarchitektur. in: Bayerische Akademie für Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege (ANL): Landschaftsökologie.Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendungen. 2011. S. 154.

[21]                  ib. S. 154.

[22]                  ib. S. 154.

[23]                  Kunze, Rolf-Ulrich: Autobahn-Landschaftsbild: Die Niederlande als geschütztes Landschaftsartefakt. in: Journal of New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts, Volume 2009, Universitätsverlag Karlsruhe.

[24]                  Planergruppe Oberhausen GmbH: Parkautobahn A 42 – Machbarkeitsstudie, Kassel / Oberhausen 2008.

[25]                  Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg: Kulturlandschaft Autobahn, Die Fotosammlung des Landesamts für Straßenwesen Baden-Württemberg, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2011.

[26]                  Reitsam, Charlotte, Raumgestaltung im Autobahn- und Schnellstraßenbau, Leitbilder aus Sicht der Landschaftsarchitektur. in: Bayerische Akademie für Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege (ANL): Landschaftsökologie.Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendungen. 2011. S. 154.

[27]                  Zeller, Thomas: Vom Landschaftsgenuss zur Schadensvermeidung: Straßen- und Autobahnlandschaften im historischen Wandel. in: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg: Kulturlandschaft Autobahn 2011 S. 12.

[28]                  Jain, Angela: Das Bild von der Autobahn-Landschaft In: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg: Kulturlandschaft Autobahn, Die Fotosammlung des Landesamts für Straßenwesen Baden-Württemberg, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2011.1 S. 34.

[29]                  Planergruppe Oberhausen GmbH: Parkautobahn A 42 – Machbarkeitsstudie, Kassel / Oberhausen 2008., S. 1.

[30]                  ib. S.1.

[31]                  Stiftung Zollverein: Standortentwicklung,

[32]                  Park Ensemble in Potsdam in the style of the English Landscape Garden.

[33]                  Hauser, Susanne: Ästhetik der Revitalisierung. In: Genske, Dieter; Hauser, Susanne: Hauser (Hg.): Die Brache als Chance. Ein transdisziplinärer Dialog über verbrauchte Flächen, Springer, Berlin 2003 S. 11.

[34]                  Evans, Graeme: Hard-Branding the Cultural City – from Prado to Prada. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 27.2 , June 2003, S. 420.

[35]                  Hauser 2003, S. 16.

[36]                  Hauser 2003, S. 20.