CAMBRIDGE — Architecture, at its most basic, is the arranging of a man-made mass. Mountains, the most notable masses on the planet, aren’t man-made. This lends them a special fascination, perhaps, for those who arrange masses for a living: architects. Out of that fascination comes “Mountains and the Rise of Landscape,” a bracingly varied exhibition at the Druker Design Gallery (it spills over into the Loeb Library, too) in Gund Hall, the home of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It runs through March 10.
It’s not just architects who feel the pull of mountains. As fact and metaphor they range throughout human history: as sacred place, as challenge, as barrier, even, yes, as vacation spot. There’s a reason Thomas Mann didn’t give his most celebrated novel the title “The Magic Sanatorium.” “In the mountains, there you feel free,” T.S. Eliot writes in “The Waste Land,” a poem otherwise lacking in evocations of freedom. Even there, mountains rise above.
The show consists of some 150 items. Most are smallish reproductions of paintings, prints, and other artworks. Some are famous, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel” — a man-made mountain, if ever there was such a thing, and anything but a success — or Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Many more are obscure, odd, or both. There are designs from the visionary early-20th-century architect Bruno Taut for “Alpine Architecture.” Or images of gardens inspired by Mount Parnassus and others inspired by Mount Fuji. Solidity being a defining condition of mountains, there are half a dozen three-dimensional renderings of some of the designs hanging on the walls.
That all sounds straightforward enough. But what’s been put together by Michael Jakob, the curator, and his cocurators, Anita Berrizbeitia, Pablo Pérez-Ramos, and Edward Eigen, is much stranger, and happily so. The exhibition’s range of reference extends from Aesop and Hannibal (Napoleon wasn’t the only one to cross the Alps) to Robert Smithson and Alfred Hitchcock (recall where the climax of “North by Northwest” takes place). Seen in this context, Hugh Ferriss’s spooky-majestic architectural drawings — like Art Deco Piranesis — seem like nothing so much as a hybrid of ziggurat and urban mountains. There’s even room for Karl Lagerfeld, who used a small iceberg — icebergs are mountains at sea, no? — to accentuate the catwalk at the showing of Chanel’s 2010 fall line.
There’s a nifty paradox at the heart of “Mountains and the Rise of Landscape”: something so concrete generating an avalanche of abstractions. Intellectually, the exhibition is all over the map. That’s OK, since mountains are all over the map, too. Put another way, those gridded unframed and unmatted reproductions may be of relatively limited visual interest but are extremely stimulating intellectually.
The three most striking things in the show are among the most unusual. They’re also very large, if not quite mountainous, in scale. On a wall colored burnt yellow, spidery dark lines show elevations and locations for major mountain ranges. (Does English boast a more beautiful word than “cordillera”?) A kind of infographic, it nicely balances delicacy of appearance with robustness of fact.
Nearby, two curtains bearing mountain scenery form a circle. One passes through them to find a darkened space, with a half-dozen chairs and a circular image of a glacier rotating on the floor. Scritch-scratch sounds, a kind of insect electronica, can be heard. Recorded by the composers Olga Kokcharova and Gianluca Ruggeri, this soundscape comes from the grinding of the Mont Miné Glacier, in Switzerland. It’s nothing short of magical, an aural architecture all the more transfixing for having nothing to do with human handiwork.
A few feet away, Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, the documentary short “Opération béton (Operation Concrete),” from 1955, is projected on a wall. The image is far from crisp — the fault of the print or projection? — but the content justifies squinting. The film follows the building of a dam in the Alps. So the structure is at once defined by its mountainous surrounding and is itself a sort of man-made mountain.
With canted angles and shots from high above, Godard emphasizes the sense of vast space; and throughout there’s the visual contrast between human scale and geological scale. Nothing shows this as clearly as the sight of workers traversing valley-spanning cables. This may not have been Godard’s intent (not that anyone ever quite knows what Godard’s intent has been), but in the context of “Mountains and the Rise of Landscape” the point is plainly made: Even as humans shape mountains, mountains shape us.
MOUNTAINS AND THE RISE OF LANDSCAPE
At Druker Design Gallery, Gund Hall, Harvard Graduate School of Design, 48 Quincy St., Cambridge, through March 10. 617-495-1000, www.gsd.harvard.edu/exhibitionsMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.