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On Site, Culture, Beauty, and How to Give a Damn

Homework Essay

Before heading to landscape school, I considered osteopathy school. Entrenched in the somatic world, I wanted to up my game. I was intrigued by osteopathy’s historic focus on addressing the roots of human suffering instead of its symptoms, which contrasts with the allopathic symptom-focussed medicine prevalently practiced in the US. I wanted to deal with source, not with consequence.

James Corner, in his essay “Recovering Landscape as a Ritual Cultural Practice,”1 agrees with me. He says if we want to improve human understanding, behaviour, and connection with the natural world, we have to go to the source. We have to redesign human culture, not redesign where to put the trees. Elizabeth Meyer's beliefs harmonize with Corner's, and she echoes Olmsted in her essay “Sustaining Beauty, the Performance of Appearance: A Manifesto in Three Parts”2, where she says that if you design intentionally and noticeably beautiful spaces, you change people's understanding of and relationship with the natural world. Finally, in their essay “Why Sites Matter”3 Carol J. Burns and Andrea Kahn draw our attention to how site is not so much a boundaried piece of land as it is a rich social relationship between the people and culture beyond the site and the designed site itself, and how this relationship is mutually influential.

I am working on a studio project whose site lies between the Montlake Cut and the old Oceanography building and the hospital. Because of its proximity to water, to a building that used to be for studying water, and to a building for physical healing, I wanted to create a place that reconnected people with site in a physical, kinesthetic way that referenced both water and therapeutic healing. How could I, like Corner, impact the thoughts, behaviour, and culture of the people using the site? How could I, like Meyer, use beauty to rewire people's relationship with place? How could I, like Burns and Kahn, create a space that was a state of mind that travelled with people into their lives beyond the site?

Theory Summary

Corner says that “the continual patching over of problems is a...praiseworthy effort...that fails to adequately address their source.” (4) He says you have to deal with the root of the problem, not its symptoms; you have to change people’s understanding of their relationship with landscape in order to change their behaviour, which in turn affects how a site evolves through time. He warns us that “the practice of building landscapes will only become more marginal and irrelevant in the face of time if the culturally critical dimensions of craft are forgotten or ignored.” (no page number) I would express this as, unless we are principally designing the people who live in the landscape, not the land itself, our efforts at influencing man's relationship with nature and how we live in the world are doomed to frivolous marginalia that won't impact sociocultural interfaces with nature and with our fellow men. For Corner the word “landscape” implies a cultural as well as physical definition of place. He sees “landscape as both spatial milieu and cultural image. As such, the construction of landscape space is inseparable from particular ways of seeing and acting.” (5)

This expansive understanding of landscape as a cultural construct ties in with Burns and Kahn, who believe that site is defined by vocabulary, history, and practice, and is a rich hybrid. Like Corner, they believe that site is not just location, it is also context and culture and extends beyond the boundaries of the terrain to be designed. I extrapolate that like Corner they believe culture, not ecology, is the first-priority issue to be addressed. Burns and Kahn say that since we define site based on many elements including “direct material physical encounter,” which Meyer calls “haecceity” (xvii) and through “abstract concepts, material conditions, and structuring practices,” (xvii) and vocabulary, we need to use the vocabulary of beauty, and beauty is the far-reaching cultural influence that will change our behaviour. They say it is process driven, and “involves detailing physical particulars” and “specifying spatial locations.” (xvi) According to Burns and Kahn, the definition of a landscape site includes an area of control, an area of influence, and an area of effect. “To be controlled, the physical site needs delimitation; however to be understood in design, it must be considered extensively in reference to its setting.” (xii)

Corner and Burns and Kahn all harmonize with Meyer, who says that beauty and aesthetics must coexist with ecology, because intentionally designed beauty is how you’re going to catch the public eye, get people out of themselves, and shake them into awareness that will change their behaviour. “Nature is not out there but in here, interwoven in the human urban condition,” (16) she says, drawing our awareness to the fact we too are natural beings. Corner says we need to care enough about our environment to want to make changes, Burns and Kahn say we need to have a vocabulary of beauty in order to include beauty in our design approach, and Meyer shows us how. “It...will take more than ecologically regenerative designs for culture to be sustainable...what is needed are designed landscapes that provoke those who experience them to become more aware of how their actions affect the environment, and to care enough to make changes.” (6) Meyer argues that designed landscapes have to look more heightened and more beautiful than simply untouched nature, so that they will draw people's attention to the fact that they have been designed, that they are worthy of time and attention and care. She says designing truly naturalistic landscapes can be counterproductive. “Natural-looking landscapes may not be sustainable in the long term, as they are often overlooked in metropolitan areas. They are assumed to be found, wild conditions not needing care.” (16) Instead we need to design an “….immersive, aesthetic experience can lead to recognition, empathy, love, respect, and care for the environment.” (7) We need to get people out of their cell phones and into the land around them, an experience she quotes Scarry in referring to as “radical decentering. ” (18) (Scarry 1999: 3, 24, 111-112) Instead of focussing on putting a tree in a certain place on a plan, Meyer says we have a key responsibility to design “….somatic, sensory experiences of places that lead to new awareness of the rhythms and cycles necessary to sustain and regenerate life.” (15)

Application of Theories to Design Project

I believe, like Olmsted, that “the experience of that appearance…altered one’s mental and psychological state.” (Meyer 6) If my primary design responsibility was to affect my fellow man's understanding of their relationship with the natural world by creating a far-reaching vocabulary of beauty that expanded our understanding of site to the culture beyond the specific land parcel in question, and that “beauty” refers to a heightened, direct, physically immersive experience of a consciously designed site, what did that mean for my current design project?

My site had once been a salmon pond next to what had once been the University Oceanography Building and near the Hospital, and faced the Montlake Cut. I saw my job was not to organize the space but to organize the experiences of the students, teachers, and hospital visitors who visited the site. I needed to give them a conscious awareness that this was a designed space, so they would pay attention to the site and actively register their experiences within it, and I needed to physically immerse them in the site. So I designed an Italianate formal garden with a natural swimming pool in it. The natural swimming pool would provide a direct and literally immersive physical experience while connecting with the closest building's past as place for studying water ecosystems and with the hospital as a place for therapeutic healing. The strong axes and geometric organization would soothe and heal people's agitated and disconnected monkey-minds. They would calm down, reconnect with their natural environment and with themselves, and when they left the site, they would take with them traces of how they had felt while experiencing the site. When designing my project, I designed people first, I consciously drew their attention to the heightened natural beauty around them, and I created an experience that would influence people's lives beyond the realm of the specific terrain being designed.

Corner, Burns, Kahn, Meyer, and I, all worked together to create “cultural products with distinct forms and experience that evoke attitudes and feelings through space, sequence, and form.” (Meyer 10) In so doing, we all did our part to raise collective cultural consciousness of the natural world inside and outside the individual and to enhance “new awareness of the rhythms and cycles necessary to sustain and regenerate life.” (15) We did our part to shape culture, because we know that in exchange culture invariably shapes landscape—so we as designers of the human experience have a responsibility to help create a culture that will foster a natural world that is ultimately both supportive of us and supported by us, that is beautiful, that is therapeutic, and that brings us into harmony with the universe.

1Corner, James. “Recovering Landscapes As a Ritual Practice.” Corner, James (ed.), Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, 1999, pp. 1-26.

2Meyer, Elizabeth. “Sustaining Beauty, the Performance of Appearance: A Manifesto in Three Parts.” Journal of Landscape Architecture, Vol. 5(1), 2008, pp. 6-23.

3Burns, Andrea, and Kahn, Carol J. “Why Sites Matter.” Burns, Andrea, and Kahn, Carol J. (eds.), Site Matters: Design Concepts, Histories, and Strategies. Routledge, New York, NY, 2005, pp. vii-xxiv.

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