How Does it Feel to Sculpt Space? The Experience of Landscape and Garden Design
To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness.
Landscapes have feeling. Gardens have atmosphere. Our experience of space is essential to our creation and evaluation of it. In these regards, the philosophy of phenomenology provides a salient perspective.
What is Phenomenology?
The term comes from the Greek phainómenon, meaning “that which appears”. As a movement, phenomenology was founded by Edmund Husserl, who represents the ‘pure’ version of the thought-system compared to later developments.
According to Husserl, there’s one thing of which each of us is certain: our own conscious awareness. It’s from this starting point that we begin our understanding. When we begin there, we realise that consciousness is consciousness of something. We have a conscious awareness of the screen in front of us, the words we’re reading, these things that we have access to as ‘objects of consciousness’. A phenomenological approach analyses these things that are given in direct experience – phenomena.
Husserl saw that science had provided us with a better understanding of the empirical world than of our own minds. Consequently, we are not only ignorant of ourselves, but our objective knowledge is led astray. The phenomenologist says that if we give more thought to things in subjective terms, the world will be a better place.
The feeling of landscapes, the Mediterranean coast of Spain
A beautifully moody landscape, Long Island Sound, Connecticut
How can Phenomenology Inform Our Landscape and Garden Design Practices?
Phenomenology in its original form is the rigorous science of consciousness. Husserl strove to analyse phenomena with the exactitude and diligence of a scientist investigating the physical world. He would question phenomena, say dreams, until they were reduced to their essence.
So, if we’re thinking of crafting a space to be experienced, we may ask: what will its essence be? Not an eternal, perfect essence, or something reductive in the sense of being derivative or minimalistic. Rather, we must ask what the most salient and fundamental feature of the creation would be, what’s key to its identity and one’s experience of it.
We can use this essence as our guiding creative principle. The designer can focus on the essence as the central point they want their space to express, as the primary element for their client’s experiences. A garden designer may choose, for example, an essence of intrigue.
By weaving a plethora of features into a site, with various hidden complexities ready to be discovered, a sense of intrigue would become indispensable to the project’s identity. One’s experience of the space would be layered, both within one encounter and across time, when one detail would be revealed another would be obscured. No single gaze or touch, no one snapshot of awareness, would capture the whole scene. There would always be more to find. Thus, intrigue would become its essence, without this quality it would no longer be itself.
Subjective and Objective in Landscape Design
To consider phenomena and experience is not to forget the objective. That is to say, to use the feelings we have and insights we gain from our personal perspective, our subjective information, does not mean we ignore facts independent of our perspective, the objective information that’s measurable by scientific means. The adept designer needs their scientific frame of mind, they need their mathematics and their physics, from trigonometry to Newton’s laws. A landscape designer needs to know their botany, horticulture, and climatology. Such empirical and rational knowledge is essential when creating a space that functions practically and artistically.
But, in combination with these considerations, we must not forget experience. We must not forget the experience of forging that space and that of the space’s future occupants. Our understanding of the science behind sustainable plant communities, for example, will naturally inform the outcome of the project, if not be the main driving force. Form, as both appearance and what is to be experienced, will follow function in this sense. Thus, science can be the means for achieving a certain experience or the guiding force behind the project, or a mixture of both.
The relationship between the scientific and the experiential can be reciprocal in the creative process. The garden designer may begin with the idea of an essence we want our client to experience and turn to science to bring it to life. In doing so, we may discover a horticultural principle that achieves a certain atmosphere in the end product and then utilise it. Our perspective on the project may, in turn, continue to evolve as we draw up our plans.
Furthermore, allowing feedback between the experience of making and the experience of what is made will serve to unfold the great potentials of a project. An authentic process, like this, allows for a harmony between the objective and subjective, preventing both vanity and ugliness, ensuring places for people and nature. In practice, this would mean revisiting projects over time and adjusting landscapes as they evolve naturally. Ongoing relationships between designers and landscapes foster changes that are felicitous with subsequent experiences flowing from the same creative processes.
Since consciousness is always consciousness of something, it really is a privileged position for something you create to be that phenomenon. For those moments when a given thing is the object of our awareness, what it means to be conscious, what one’s consciousness is, is bound-up with that phenomenon. Phenomena have monumental importance.
If we take the significance of experience and the character of our consciousness seriously, then we can’t help but make better choices when it comes to crafting space, be it architecture or landscape design. When someone contemplates the essence of their garden they should find only the most glowing authenticity – the product of a phenomenal mind.