Artificial Mountains Metaphysics

Stéphane Degoutin


2009 -

The history of architecture overlooks 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).

The artificial mountain is to the history of architecture what the porn movie is to the history of cinema. It is more than time to give it the attention it deserves.

This collage-essay does not deal with buildings that evoke mountain-like shapes – no semiology involved here –, but only with constructions designed to frankly embody a realistic mountain. Over the years, I have collected occurences of such artifacts across the world. The aim of this essay is to put light on the metaphysical power of the artificial mountain, focusing on some of its occurences : the Chinese concept of vital force (), the miniaturization, the power, the French Revolution religion of the supreme being (être suprême) and the domestication of this power in zoos and theme park attractions.

Mountains are a fundamental element of how the Chinese conceive space, since they are the source of the qì, the universal vital force that flows through all things, whether living or inanimate, as shown on the illustration (1), « The cosmic energy, flowing from the Tibetan Plateau towards Korea». The qì also flows through the human body, which can be represented as a mountain. For instance, this painting depicts the cinnabar Fields (2), «three loci in the human body that play a major role in breathing, meditation, and Neidan (internal alchemy) practices ».

Conversely, to give importance to an immortal, the painter Liang Kai (13th century) has represented him using the technique normally applied for painting landscapes (3). Strangely (for us), the presence of the qì does not depend of the fact that the mountain is «natural» or built.

Many Chinese residences posess artifical mountains in their gardens. It is a way to keep the qì flowing at home. In the Lion Grove Garden (狮子林园) in Suzhou, the mountain is also a labyrinth in which one can wander, as well as an island on a miniature lake (4).

The mountains of the 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 »

Jingshan (Prospect Hill), Beijing, was built in 1240, north of the Forbidden City, to protect it from the adverse yin. « The artificial mountain was entirely constructed through manual labor, hence it can be called a truly man-made mountain. The structure is 45.7-meter tall, covers an area of more then 230,000 square meters. »


Mountains and Megastructures conference, Newcastle University, architecture department, 2016