The artificial mountain is to the history of architecture what the porn movie is to the history of cinema.
The history of architecture overlooks realistic artificial mountains. Even Ulrich Conrads does not mention any of them in his Fantastic Architecture (1960), although he deals at length with artificial caves, giant spheres and other inhabitable elephants. Rem Koolhaas does not cite any mountain in his Delirious New York’s description of Coney Island (1978). One has to wait 1983 to see a few artificial Disney mountains appear as images (but without a description) in Charles Moore’s The City Observed : Los Angeles. Yet, even in the postmodern guidebook to the contemporary American environment Built in the USA : American buildings from airports to zoos (1985), written by Steven Izenour, Charles Moore and others, artificial mountains are again absent. Some artificial mountains finally surface in the 2010s, notably in Stan Allen and Marc McQuade’s Landform Building (2011).
Over the years, I have collected occurences of such artifacts across the world. I do not collect buildings that evoke mountain-like shapes – no semiology involved here –, but only constructions designed to frankly embody a realistic mountain.
The aim of this essay is to present key categories of my collection that relate to the metaphysical qualities of the mountains : the Chinese concept of vital force (qì) and its miniaturization ; the French Revolution religion of the supreme being (Être suprême) ; and, the domestication of the power of mountains in European aristocratic gardens, theme parks and zoos.
Many civilizations have built mounds or pyramids for cosmic purposes – but who, before the Chinese, built artificial mountains in the shape of mountains ?
Many Chinese residences possess artificial mountains in their gardens. Mountains are considered to be the source of the qì, the universal vital force that flows through all things, whether living or inanimate. Strangely (for those of us who were not raised in traditional Chinese culture), the presence of qì does not depend on whether the mountain is natural or built. A mountain (whichever it is) is a way to keep the qì flowing at home.
The mountains of the traditional Chinese gardens are made of sets of stones patiently collected for their shapes, and then reworked to look a little more odd, so that with every step through the mountain the landscape changes. « The artist thus manages to give their artificial mountains such imponderability that the stones seem to emerge from the void. » (Michele Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, « Jardins », in « Chine (L’Empire du milieu) », Encyclopaedia Universalis.)
The Lion Forest Garden in Suzhou (China), was built from the 14th century onwards by the monk Tian Ru and his disciples. The architect Ieoh Ming Pei lived there as a child. The mountain is also a labyrinth in which one can wander, as well as an island on a miniature lake. The main pavilion faces a miniature mountain range, which is accessed by crossing a stone bridge which opens onto several labyrinthine paths, which intertwine inside or above the mountain.
The need for artificial geography also applies to the Emperor’s residence, only on a larger scale. Jingshan (Prospect Hill), was built in 1240, north of the Forbidden City in Beijing, to protect it from the adverse yin. Entirely manmade, it is 45.7-meters tall and covers an area of 230,000 square meters.
If the Chinese tradition prefers realistic mountains to their symbolic representations, it is because they « should not be understood as mere comparisons or metaphors, they physically embody the fundamental laws of the Universe » (Stéphanie Boufflet, Conversation avec la montagne, Paris, École d’Architecture Paris la Seine, 2001, p.12-21.). These artificial mountains can be miniatures of small scale, as in the practice of keeping rockeries in basins, in which mountains are represented by carefully chosen stones.
The same tradition is also found in Japan, where it is called bonseki.
During the 18th century, fascinated by the exoticism of Chinese gardens, Europeans imported artificial mountains from China. English and French landscape architects reproduced the outward appearance of Chinese mountains (asymmetry, irregularity, a taste for the outlandish, etc.) The aristocratic gardens of follies (or factories) frequently included « mountains », which most often consisted of heaps of rocks. They share grounds with fake ruins, pagodas, Turkish tents, etc. But, detached them from their philosophical system of origin , they integrate themselves into another vision of the world, where exoticism often takes precedence over qì.
Carted from one vision of the world to another, the fashion of artificial mountains reached public pleasure parks and leisure parks in the 19th century, such as the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris (open in 1867), built by Jean-Charles Alphand on the site of a former quarry, which he turned into a landscape of artificial hills and mountains. The Buttes-Chaumont Park is one of the most delirious expressions of the Second Empire, and one of the best preserved. The cliff is 30 meters high.
The mountain is the symbol of the most extreme of the French revolutionaries (among whom were Danton, Marat and Robespierre). Historians are still debating why they decided to call themselves « montagnards » (mountain dwellers). Is it only because they were seated on the highest benches in the Parliament, while the members of the « Plaine » occupied the lowest benches ? In propaganda images produced at the time, many allegorical mountains embody revolutionary power.
In another 1792-94 engraving by Pierre-Michel Alix, Le Triomphe de la République, is clearly stated: « The cruel despots whose rage we brave, have caused the storm themselves, on their heads. These furious monsters, born by the crime, are finally precipitated from the mountain ; and the lightning-fast features they throw at their prey, are for us, today, the most beautiful bonfire. »
Anyway, they took the metaphor seriously enough to build a colossal artificial mountain to celebrate the first Festival of the Être suprême (Supreme Being), the patriotic deity of a « natural » – yet created by them and state-approved – « substitute religion ». The feast took place on « Decadi 20 prairial de l’an II » (revolutionary calendar date June 8, 1794), in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.
Several other projects of artificial mountains were imagined during this short period. The architect Alexandre Théodore Brongniart (who, later, would conceive the building of the Paris Stock Exchange !) planned to erect a mountain in Bordeaux Cathedral, on the occasion of the Festival of Freedom and Reason in 1793. This would mark the transformation of the cathedral, as many other churches in France at the time, into a temple for the cult of the Être suprême : « This project, intended for the worship of nature, reverses the topography of the sacred building [in order to show that it has lost its Christian status] : the apse is transformed into an entrance and the nave welcomes the mountain. » (Bettina Laville et Jacques Leenhardt, Villette Amazone. Manifeste pour l’environnement au XXIème siècle, Arles, Actes sud, 1996.) The means used are those, very « 20th century », of collage, diversion and play. By turning the scenario of entering the cathedral upside down, the usual symbolism of the building is put back in its place : one enters through the divine, to reach the material, rather than the other way round. This is the literal (and premonitory) illustration of Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialistic conception of the sacred : the divine is replaced by what it had taken its place in : nature. But nature itself is reduced to a few essential elements, in a condensation which in turn constitutes a symbol.
Modern amusement parks have their origins in 19th century Paris (see Gilles-Antoine Langlois, Folies, tivolis et attractions. Les premiers parcs de loisirs parisiens, Paris, Délégation à l’Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris, 1991). After the French revolution, many aristocratic parks were transformed into a new form of leisure garden, inheriting from both traveling carnivals and aristocratic forms of leisure. Some of them include artificial rockeries. They also welcomed an invention : the roller coaster, aka « montagnes russes » (Russian mountains in French).
Artificial, realistic mountains became a recurring figure of most amusement parks, whether in their naturalist form or in the mechanical variant of the roller coaster, or a combination of both.
The Tivoli theme park in Copenhagen (named after the famous Tivoli of Paris, which was itself named after the Italian city where emperor Hadrian chose to build his famous villa) also contains an artificial mountain built in 1914, around a roller coaster.
Luna Park was very popular with the surrealists. Ivan Chtcheglov (alias Gilles Ivain, author of the « Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau ») and Guy Debord inherited this taste. Debord declared : « The future is in Luna-Parks built by great poets. »
The mountain built as a decor for the Swiss village of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris is another example of the same fashion.
The trend for artificial mountains might have reached its absolute peak if had been built this project by Charles Samson who, in 1895, proposed to improve the newly built (and not much liked at the time) Eiffel Tower by hiding it under a giant mountain complete with roads, bridges, trees, villages, and a waterfall whose water ends up in the Seine river.
At the very beginning of the 19th century, Molinos had proposed a project for a large rock (not realized) for the beasts of the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. A few years later, the Madrid Zoo inaugurated an artificial mountain. In 1860 Barillet-Deschamps built a Chinese-like fake rock made of concrete and stone, to host the deer of the Jardin d’ Acclimation in Paris.
In 1907, with the help of the sculptor Urs Eggenschwiler, the controversial Carl Hagenbeck built artificial mountains in his Hamburg-Stellingen Tierpark (Zoo). (A strange representative of the climate of the time, Hagenbeck was a trainer, animal importer, circus and zoo director. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he decimated hundreds of exotic animals. He also helped popularize « human zoos », which presented « savages » in reconstructed villages, in the same fashion as fairground animals.)
It is the first « zoo without bars », where the animals are separated from the public by a ditch rather than a gate, in an illusion of freedom, defining the modern zoo as a space of indifferentiation, an environment which blurs the boundaries between animal and human, as well as between between local and exotic. The animals live in an environment that evokes their natural habitat, reclaimed in a landscape treatment of artificial rocks embellished with picturesque exotic architecture (pagodas, bridges, arches, temples, etc.). In this eclectic atmosphere, the artificial rockeries still have the status of an English garden folly.
The fashion of artificial mountains in zoos spread quickly during the beginning of the XXth century : a Great Rock is built in the Budapest Zoo as soon as 1912.
Vincennes zoo in Paris (designed by architect Charles Letrosne) continues this tradition of artificial rockeries, but is this case, « no human architecture is present » (André Hermant, « Le nouveau zoo de Vincennes », in L’architecture d’aujourd’hui, n°8, 1934). No pagodas, no Japanese bridges... More generally, it is the constructive logic of the outside world that disappears behind the concrete. The entire natural environment is symbolized by a unique material. The artificial concrete rock is supposed to symbolize, on its own, all the living environments of animals, and melds in a single movement coasts, forests, steppes or mountains.
The Vincennes Zoo is inspired by both the Tierpark in Hamburg and the Buttes-Chaumont mountain. The architect Charles Letrosne built the rock between 1932 and 1934. It is entirely made of reinforced concrete, from the frame to its 5cm thick skin.
Charles Letrosne erased an recognisable trace of architecture. The environment he created is very perplexing. No architectural eclectism, no curiosity competes with the moutains. The totality of the nature is symbolised in a single basic element, rock, a free natural form whose multiplication ad infinitum renders it abstract. It alone expresses the supposed environment of all the exotic species. Rock is a habitat unit for animals that is splendidly indifferent to the species that it accomodates (which undoubtedly feel as uncomfortable as the penguins of London Zoo in Lubetkin’s pool) and that represents in an identical way coasts, forests, steppes or mountains.
Being neither architectural nor organic, rocks are situated in a vague zone. Whereas in Hamburg, Budapest and London accumulations of different rocks have been represented, here the surface is continuous, as though there were one single cast block – a continuum of reinforced concrete on a bed of wate – reminiscent of the abstract plastic space of the Endless House by Frederick Kiesler (1958). The visitor moves around an integrated, reconstituted environment that unites, in a single cosmic space, moutnains, water, animals, plants and humans.
The omnipresent matter seems to trickle through the entire site from the summit of the Grand Rocher, invading the entire space like a grey powder, a continuous monument whose architectural structure would be substituted by the development of an inexhaustible stone. The Zoo de Vincennes stands as a kind of conclusion of the logic of concrete. A uniformising powder, resulting from a chemical process, it spreads with indifference. In appearance, the rocks develop with total freedom thanks to a material that adapts to fit any form, constituting a shapeless and continuous blob in which no construction demand can be distinguished.
This free artificial material multiplies infinitely, giving rocks a quality of abstraction. While the Chinese tradition spiritualizes the material, the thin concrete skin of the Vincennes zoo achieves the utopia of a total synthesis of the natural world in a single chemical aggregate. It is a place that obliterates matter. An inert, reconstituted, homogeneous and integrated environment unifying mountains, water, animals, plants and humans into a single cosmic space. A uniform grey powder, the result of a chemical process, spreads with indifference, invades the entire space, like a continuous monument, an endless house, pushing the logic of concrete to its limits.
The Zoo of Vincennes fuses two contrasting ways of being in the world: the hyper-presence of the qi of the mountain and the absolute dissemination of its materiality through the infinite deployment of grey goo. This results in a paradoxical place, that seems to simultenaously give life to animals that it houses while reducing them to a powdery state.
Long closed for renovation, it reopened in 2014, massacred by a renovation that caused it to lose almost all of its artificial rocks. The Great Rock has been preserved, but without the ensemble that surrounded it, it has lost its meaning.
Walt Disney visited Copenhagen’s Tivoli (as well as Coney Island’s attractions) before he conceived his famous theme park in Anaheim. The mountain at Disneyland is a a small-scale reproduction of the Swiss Matterhorn. A roller coaster goes in and out of it, while visitors pass through it in a cable car, called the Skyway.
Disney’s theme parks include many artificial mountains : The Matterhorn, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Grizzly Peak, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, Mount Mayday, Mount Rushmore, Cadillac Mountain Range, Mount Prometheus, Forbidden Mountain. It fully participates in the Disnean conception of space, which is based on the construction of « small worlds » (to use, in a different context, Rolf Stein’s expression).
Mountains by architects
The artificial mountain became a recurring motif in radical architecture from the 1970s onwards. Very few of these projects were built.
Artificial mountains and rockeries abound in modern day China. They can take spectacular forms, such as this 15 stories high mountain facade in a residential area of Putuo District, Shanghai.
In 2013, the image of this artificial mountain illegally built by a doctor on the roof of a building in Beijing for his personal use is all over the Internet. Surprisingly, even as it fascinates the whole world, everyone seems to be of the opinion that it should be demolished. Yet it is not so common in China to see interesting architecture being built&nsp;: rather, we should mobilize to protect it. Zhang Lin, a Chinese doctor and university professor, took six years and spent $ 130,000 to build this artificial mountain of fake rocks and real trees, upon the 1,000 square meter roof of the top floor of a 26 stories high building in the Park View apartment block in Beijing. Unfortunately, he had to tear it down in 2013, since he had not asked any permission from the local authorities, nor from his neighbours, who began to notice cracks in the structure of the building and were afraid for the integrity of the plumbing.