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Phenomenal Place, Place of Phenomena

By Jessica Matteson

Signs are prevalent in our lives. They help us navigate territory and efficiently gather large amounts of information. On the surface, what could be wrong with more information? At their best, icons, signs and other visual rhetoric are personal consultants helping us navigate our lives while we occupy our minds with more important concerns. But a problem arises when signage holds more credibility than our own senses. I recently read an interesting article about towns in Germany, England and the Netherlands that suspected drivers’ reliance on signs was contributing to an unacceptably high level of accidents. So they took dramatic action, removing road signs, lane markings and even curbs in some cases. Remarkably, they saw a decrease in accidents. Apparently, our senses provide us with more accurate and reliable information than signs do.

Our roadways aren’t the only places that could benefit from less overt telling. Many of our personal and public landscapes are little more than messages imposed on the landscape – “Modern and Edgy” or “Cottage Gardens” for example. These semiotic landscapes are imposed on the site rather than generated by it. Because of this they will always be stand-ins for the real thing. They will always make us tune out rather than tune in. A sign can make us blind to our senses.

Sensory involvement with our surroundings is the way places engage us. Fully engaged senses bring us into the present moment and lead us to fully participate in our environment. This awareness not only makes streets safer, but also intensifies our relationship with our surroundings. When places require us to participate in order to understand them, we become part of them instead of merely being an observer. It makes our experience of place dynamic, personal and highly individual.

The art of creating engaging places means embracing a different set of materials. Instead of thinking in terms of stone, wood and plant material, we need to think in terms of movement, light, ephemerality, memory and phenomena. Instead of hardscape and plant material supporting a program of terrace and pool, light and movement should support an ephemeral moment in the late afternoon in July.

A friend of mine bought a sliver of land on a tidal marsh in Georgia. On the site he set up poles with flags at different heights and a chair. For a full year he observed the air movement, the light and the tides before hiring an architect. The result is an elevated, three-story sliver of a house that allows the marsh and tide to sweep under it. One has to cross a bridge to get to the front door. A vertical core of screened porches runs from the lower entrance to a sleeping porch on top. The wind accelerates through each porch opening at a different speed; the higher the porch, the greater the breeze. The result is a home that sets the stage for sensory experience by measuring the phenomena of the site. Every visit is a unique encounter with the environment. It is fair to say that the house is designed as much with marsh, wind, tides, shade and prospect than with wood, glass and hardware.

The challenge of designing for an infinity of unique moments is immediately obvious. When one designs for a moment, there is a lot more to understand, consider and ultimately design. In my opinion there are three critical components to making a landscape that compels us to participate:

Site resonance: The process begins with sensitive observation and interaction with the site. Sites have an organizational force of their own. It is worth developing a personal method to measure sound, views, light patterns, air movement, animals, topography and other phenomena. There is art in the way one measures and interprets phenomena that is ultimately translated into the design.

The event: “Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on” was John Steinbeck’s observation that time is measured by events. Creating the circumstances for an event has less to do with painting a picture than setting the stage for an occurrence that brings about awareness. Design for the meaningful moments in our lives, such as eating, playing, arriving and socializing, with phenomenal materials such as light, movement, reflection and water.

Memory: Engagement happens suddenly and then gradually. After the initial encounter a memory is created that colors each subsequent interaction. A place becomes imbued with meaning from the ritual of daily living and memory becomes yet another sense with which we experience our surroundings. This furthers a personal relationship with our environment. If the designer is successful in creating a place that sets events in motion, the place will be memorable. There is another aspect of memory to consider: A visitor comes to a new experience with the baggage of their previous experiences – considering this will make a more successful design.

Innisfree in Milbrook, NY, is a good example of a garden that uses site resonance, sensory engagement and participation to create vivid encounters. It is interesting because it embraces a gardening tradition but is also intensely local. The fact that I am writing about it now, after only two visits seven years ago, is evidence of its engaging nature.

Innisfree could not exist in any other site but its own. Set in a lake hollow, the garden employs an organizing strategy that the creator, Walter Beck, called a Chinese Cup Garden. The garden is made up of numerous three-dimensional compositions of rocks, landforms, paving, sculpture, water and plant material. The compositions orbit around one another to create spaces of tension and dynamic energy. The circular energy of the orbiting compositions is a reflection of the organizing energy of the site. This adds legitimacy to the design that the visitor feels intuitively.

Although many parts of the garden don’t have paths, the compositions instigate movement around and through the garden. Depending on the season, the weather or the visitor’s mood, a new garden is created by each visitor at every visit. The participatory experience of being a co-designer – of setting the terms of one’s own experience – makes it highly personal. The design doesn’t exist in its best form without the action of moving through it. Understanding comes from participating, not from standing and looking.

Full sensory engagement with the environment is the original human experience. In a modern world where information is processed and displayed in virtual reality people need places to come to their senses.  

Jessica Matteson is a landscape architect with James Doyle Design Associates in Greenwich, CT. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture and a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Cornell University.

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