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Cahokia: The Symbolic Language of Landscape Architecture
A pre-Columbian site in Illinois still evokes a universal response.
By Sally A. Kitt Chappell

"Cahokia by Moonlight" painted by Susan Watson

What elevates the art from the craft of landscape architecture? Like good gardeners, landscape architects must master the technical aspects of their medium, but they must then go on to express something higher, something universal in human experience. In Egypt, it is the life cycle: the river of birth, the courtyard of childhood, the walk to adulthood, the pyramid of death pointing to eternal life. In the Moss Garden of Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto, it is a feeling of oneness with all living things. At Versailles, it is a monarch’s absolute dominion over nature expressed through tight geometry and fountains so luxuriously exuberant they make the river run dry. The list could go on and on—Kashmir, Teotihuacán, Tivoli, Prospect Park. All of these places are familiar to us, and each evokes both a unique and a universal response; this paradox is at the heart of art.

North America is also home to another one of these great works of landscape architecture, Cahokia, located in a six-square-mile area near Collinsville, Illinois. What is the unique/universal response evoked in this work? Or to put it another way, what is the meaning of its symbolic language?

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