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Experiencing a Garden – Atmosphere, Physicality, and Being Present


I found in the experience of the perceived world a new type of relation between the mind and truth…We experience in it a truth which shows through and envelops us rather than being held and circumscribed by our mind.


*Maurice Merleau-Ponty

To experience is to live; to live is to experience. To experience an amazing space can change our interaction with the world.


Just Phenomenal

Previously, we explored the philosophy of phenomenology, which strives for a rigorous science of consciousness. Its founder, Husserl, sought to analyse objects of consciousness, or phenomena, and reduce them to their essences. Phenomenology, as we can apply it to design and the modern day, entails putting the philosophy in action in such a way that’s thoughtful and methodical, that considers experience and uses essences in the creative process, all the while gaining small insights into our consciousness.

experiencing space garden design

The experience of inhabiting space, a medieval courtyard in Girona 

experiencing space garden design

To perceive and be perceived, an experience that envelopes

What We Mean by Space

Our understanding of space and how we consider it for designing has changed significantly in recent times. For architecture, space was traditionally considered geometrically, dominated by straight and practical lines, with the perspective being that people were simply bodies occupying this space. When buildings and infrastructure were designed it was thought of in terms of constructing objects (the skyscraper and the bridge) occupied by other objects (the office cubicles, the cars). The emphasis was far from that of experience but on movement, function, and structure.

Nowadays, the direction has shifted from that of objects existing inside of other objects, to that of spaces to be experienced. This historical and conceptual transition is adroitly observed by Gernot Böhme, who also develops some crucial ideas in response, ideas that hold our perspectives as key to approaching space.

Gernot Böhme was an acclaimed intellectual who derived his philosophy from a ‘general theory of perception’, in a phenomenological vein, and sought the coexistence of humans and nature, arguing that we are a part of nature.

Time and Feeling – Experiencing the Flow of a Garden

To investigate how we experience space, let’s remind ourselves of the difference between the objective and subjective. The objective is what we measure by rational or scientific means, whereas the subjective is what we feel or think. Both the objective and the subjective can refer to the same idea, let’s say time. Objectively, we measure time in seconds, minutes, and hours. Subjectively, we feel time as being short or long, fast or slow.

Our sense of time can vary dramatically depending on the circumstance, even if scientific measurements indicate complete consistency in the flow of time. You only spend a certain amount of empirical time in a garden, half an hour every evening or full days in summer, but these measurements do not tell the full story. Regardless of what the clock says, our experience of time can feel anywhere from almost infinitely long to infinitesimally short. The space we’re in may be constructed such that a peaceful half hour spent in the shade feels like two minutes. Alternatively, two minutes contemplating a scholar’s rock in a Chinese garden may feel like half an hour. The garden design can alter something as fundamental to our consciousness as our perception of time!

Atmosphere – We Feel the Vibe

Like the ‘felt’ sense of time, ‘atmosphere’ only exists as a phenomenon we experience. Böhme’s idea of ‘atmosphere’ is likely familiar to us, it’s like the colloquial idea of a place’s ‘vibe’. A space’s atmosphere is a vibe that augments how we understand and feel where we are. Considering atmosphere is not just for special occasions or event spaces but for the everyday too; the atmosphere engineer is not just the concert organiser or party host, but the architect and landscape designer.

Sometimes we can pin down why somewhere has a certain atmosphere and sometimes we cannot. Sometimes we can point to ‘generators’ of atmosphere, like the sound of Desafinado by Stan Getz playing softly on the speakers, and we may reason that its why the atmosphere of the garden party is particularly relaxed. Yet sometimes we cannot put our fingers on what it is that makes us feel a certain way, we cannot determine if we feel on edge at the party because there are too many people or because the unkempt shrubbery is casting menacing shadows.

Mindfully Physically Present

Being ‘mindfully physically present’ is another idea from Böhme and speaks to the nature of experiencing space. Being mindfully physically present relies on our sensitivity of the space we’re in, our awareness of the space’s qualities.

Let’s not forget, however, that what we call the atmosphere of the space can be the space mirroring the mood and expectations we have brought with us; we can find what we feel and see what we’re looking for. Regardless, that atmosphere, even considering our own mood, is still a phenomenon for us to analyse. That’s our consciousness.

Being present, as Böhme describes, means thinking about phenomena (being mindful) as well as having physical awareness (remembering the body). Think of it this way: what we have awareness of is the phenomena, but the way our consciousness is made aware may differ; it may be through a dream, through looking, through imagining, or felt by the body. The body can be the source of awareness, the experience is felt in the body.

In contrast, we may not feel in the body what one might expect if we looked solely at the facts of our physical circumstance. Just as there’s a difference the between time measured on a clock and the time we feel, so too can there be a disjunction between the sensations we feel and what an objective aspect might indicate we should feel. It may be a cool day, but if the garden features lots of tropical plants, some bamboo plants or palm trees, and you’re drinking exotic cocktails in deckchairs, then you might feel rather warm.

Balancing Bodies and Phenomena – What We Can Learn for Landscape Design

Phenomenology reminds us to deeply consider our experiences and Böhme provides us with important ideas when considering the atmosphere of a space. He also emphasises a balance between considering the body (and objects) in combination with considering the mind (and space). Awareness of spaces, awareness of our bodies, awareness of ourselves. By reflecting on phenomenology in the process of designing spaces, we can create spaces that resonate with us on a deeper level; when we experience spaces phenomenologically, we can learn about ourselves. With these insights, our landscape designs are elevated in harmony with our experiences of them.



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