Weitzman News

Posted September 9, 2022

Excerpt: Dümpelmann on the Design of Sport Landscapes

Sport is deeply embedded in human nature and culture, and it is central to human well-being. Outdoor sport and physical exercise have had considerable impact on how we design, live in, and understand landscapes. A new book, Landscapes for Sport: Histories of Physical Exercise, Sport, and Health (Harvard University Press, 2022), edited by Professor of Landscape Architecture Sonja Dümpelmann, focuses on outdoor spaces that have been designed, built, and used for physical exercise and various competitive and non-competitive sports since the early modern period. In this excerpt from the introduction, Dümpelmann lays out the ways that the volume uncovers the relevance and meanings of sport landscapes, which are frequently overlooked and taken for granted, despite constituting significant areas of open space in and outside our cities.


The chapters in this volume explore the intersections of landscape and design cultures and the cultures of movement and the body. As a form of play, sport is deeply embedded in human nature and culture, and throughout history, sport and physical exercise have had a considerable impact on how we design, live in, and understand landscapes.(1) Vice versa, designed and premodern “natural” landscapes have contributed to the formation and development of new sport activities, cultures of movement and of the body. As sport sociologist and historian Henning Eichberg stated in 1990, sport could be described as “interaction between body and environment.”(2) Furthermore, sport in this volume is understood as a voluntary, more and less competitive physical activity for health and pleasure that involves exertion and skill and often follows established rules. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the word “sport” was used in the English language especially to describe diversion or amusement. In the sixteenth century, the term also began to be used occasionally to depict recreational games. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “sport” was often employed with reference to hunting, shooting, and fishing. The organization of soccer, rugby, cricket, and athletics in the nineteenth century reinforced the notion of sport as physical competition.(3)

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Landscapes of Sport and Sport Landscapes

The Native Americans’ appropriation of riverbanks for running-intensive ball games, which demanded the erection of temporary goalposts on the one hand and the labor-intensive earthworks of the chunkey yard on the other hand, suggest a differentiation between landscapes of sport and sport landscapes. Whereas sport landscapes (such as stadia and arenas) are intentionally imagined, designed, and built for sport activities, landscapes of sport are more or less spontaneously and incrementally appropriated for sport activities, such as Native American ball games and European skiing. Landscapes of sport have consequently been turned into intentionally designed sport landscapes, and both can be described as landscapes used for sport.

Although addressing both landscapes of sport and sport landscapes, this volume focuses on spaces and landscapes designed intentionally for practicing sport. It sits at the intersections of landscape and sport history, two interdisciplinary fields that have developed alongside each other, without much contact, since the 1970s. The design of sport landscapes and the meanings of their physical form, appearance, and use over time, as well as their relationship to the development of cultures of movement and the body, has only rarely been the subject of in-depth explorations

One possible reason for the relative disregard of landscapes that include grounds for sports of a more or less agonistic kind is that many sport landscapes are of a hybrid character. Often it is not clear whether they should be described as architecture, or landscape, or both. While architects and engineers have most often been the leading professionals in the design and construction of large stadia, they have recently also been the designers of iconic buildings doubling as outdoor sport landscapes, as, for example, the rooftop ski slope on BIG’s Copenhill power plant in Copenhagen and MVRDV’s Couch, a tennis clubhouse with a roof that is also the stand for the adjacent courts. A second reason for the relative neglect of sport landscapes in landscape historiography is that not all sport landscapes accommodate world-class sporting events like the Olympic Games. Rather, they tend to be vernacular landscapes that we take for granted in our daily lives. Landscape and other design histories have in the past predominantly dealt with aspects of designed landscapes of high culture, therefore largely neglecting the vernacular and everyday landscapes designed and laid out for sport.

To fill this lacuna, the chapters in this volume spatialize and localize sport practices. They analyze and interpret the specific forms, designs, and uses of sport sites and grounds that have been found, envisioned, designed, built, and used, contextualizing them in time and place. The volume seeks to foreground the spatial aspects in sport history and to further sport history’s engagement not only with space but also with material and visual culture, and especially with the aesthetics and material quality of the spaces played in by sporting bodies.(4) At the same time, it addresses the neglect of spaces for physical exertion and exercise in landscape history, where they have long been considered too commonplace or aesthetically unspectacular to merit further exploration.


1) See, for example, the seminal works on the cultural history of play: Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938; New York: Roy Publishers, 1950); and Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (1958; New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).

2) Henning Eichberg, “Race-Track and Labyrinth: The Space of Physical Culture in Berlin,” Journal of Sport History 17, no. 2 (1990): 245.

3) Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “sport.”

4) For sport and visual culture, see Jörn Eiben and Olaf Stieglitz, “Depicting Sporting Bodies–Visual Sources in the Writing of Sport History: An Introduction,” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 43, no. 2 (2018): 7–24; Mike Huggins and Mike O’Mahony, eds., The Visual in Sport (London: Routledge, 2012); Robin Veder, “Seeing Your Way to Health: The Visual Pedagogy of Bess Mensendieck’s Physical Culture System,” International Journal of the History of Sport 28, no. 8–9 (2011): 1336–52; John Bale, “Partial Knowledge: Photographic Mystifications and Constructions of ‘The African Athlete,’” in Deconstructing Sport History, ed. Murray G. Phillips and Alun Munslow (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 95–115; and Michael Mackenzie, “The Athlete as Machine: A Figure of Modernity in Weimar Germany,” in Leibhaftige Moderne: Körper in Kunst und Massenmedien 1918–1933, ed. Kai Sicks and Michael Cowen (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2005), 48–62.