Designed places need four characteristics to ensure we enjoy them: mystery, complexity, coherence and legibility. So say Rachel and Steven Kaplan, in their book, Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, which draws on research-based analysis to understand which types of natural environments people prefer. This concept was just part of a fascinating article by Harry Wade that I stumbled across whilst researching the natural vegetation of New York.
Having visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last month and taken a guided tour, I found myself not drawn to the guide’s favourite Japanese garden, nor the impressive, brand new, $17m water garden or brightly coloured herbaceous borders, but instead, to the Native Flora Garden.
Regular readers of my blog may not need to sit down in shock at this point. But I did struggle to work out exactly why I loved the native section so much. I really know nothing about New York natives, after all. So why did it feel so right?
I started looking for clues by researching the two plant communities that the garden is based on: the coastal plain meadows of Long Island and the cultivated pine barrens that once existed in metropolitan New York (and still remain today in neighbouring New Jersey). It was interesting enough to read about the barrens’ acidic, sandy soil that had refused to grow European settlers’ familiar crops (despite supporting over 850 native plant species) but it didn’t tell me why this part of the Botanic garden held my attention for so long.
But reading Harry’s captivating article soon enlightened me. Harry had met with the hugely talented Darrel Morrison who designed the Native Flora Garden and all immediately became clear. If you have time to read the article, I’d highly recommend it, although at some 3,500 words, I’ll try to summarise some of the key messages more briefly here.
Complexity was a biggie. Darrel describes how the best classroom of all for developing an eye for complexity was his time spent in the field, particularly in native prairies. It is immediately clear just how well he understands wild plant communities: it is staggering to think that the garden was only planted three short years ago. Perennials are so well woven together, you’d think many of them had been there 300 years.
It is the complexity that grabs you. Just so many different plant species, some familiar, some less so, but all growing together with such a natural look. I found it surprising that it could feel so natural to me when I’d never seen wilderness like this. It just goes to show that nature always looks right.
And whilst there was immense complexity, it was an extremely unified, or coherent design. The two, quite distinct but disparate, plant communities seamlessly merged at the interfaces, with a handful of common species and wonderful flowing pathways. Vantage points allow you to see the two communities simultaneously, as meadow flowing into woodland.
And so if we return to the Kaplans’ theory on design, we have seen complexity and coherence at the Native Flora Garden. Is there mystery? Perhaps part of the mystery to me was discovering a whole new type of plant community. But there was also an element of suspense, with narrow pathways twisting through the grasses leading you to who knows where. And I think complexity itself adds to the mystery. There are so many layers of plants and insects, birds and other animals. You keep looking, unsure of what you might see next.
Which leaves us with the final element of Kaplans’ theory: legibility. Harry describes this as “the reassuring perception that there is a clear and safe way through and out of a place we inhabit”. I think about legibility more and more as my thoughts on design develop and I often consider how easy a design is to ‘read’. To me it is the making sense of lots of disparate parts; of seeing clear patterns and shapes that enable us to break something down into manageable and definite chunks rather than simply observing a single, overwhelming, indistinguishable mass.
The Native Flora Garden has this readability in spades. The delicate, vertical forms in the meadow can all be read as one; the regularly punctuated barrens with its distinctive pines also as one; and the wonderful, softly flowing organic curves of the pathways and pond enable your eye to quickly decipher the overall layout of the garden. It is at once complex and simple. We can make sense of the space almost subconsciously, enabling us to fully relax, unconflicted, which in turn enables us to more fully take in the extent of the layers of complexity beneath this legible surface.
Harry also goes on to describe ‘aspect seeing’: a posh way of saying that we can view things in different ways. For example, I might look out and see the whole design in front of me, whilst a friend right next to me might be all consumed with the plant tag of one particular species. Do we simply see something ‘pretty’, or do we see something we associate with our childhood, or do we see a mature Symphyotrichum oblongifolium? The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, argues that if we ask which it is, we destroy the experience, which is all of these associations held together at the same time.
I’m particularly fascinated by the impact that vivid associations from our past can have on us many years later. Personally, I’ve only just learned to love silver birches, after a particularly badly placed, solitary tree in my neighbours’ 1980s garden put me off them for years; I’m very conscious of allowing for seemingly irrational dislikes of clients in their designs.
But this idea of letting our interpretation of a garden be influenced by so many factors is one that I’m very drawn to. I certainly feel more emotionally moved by the essence of a design as a whole, than by focusing on its component parts (identifying those is for after the visit!). I like the idea that Harry articulates so well, of viewing gardens as abstract design dynamics which allow us to become absorbed in their complexity, just as a beautiful piece of music may engage us. It also suggests that the more gardens you see, the better they get…as if I needed any excuse.
Finally, Darrel Morrison describes the misperception that designing with native plant communities is not sufficiently artful and perhaps abandons aesthetics and established design principles. He considers it, in fact, to be a new art form appropriate to the twenty-first century: ‘ecological art’ which is simultaneously aesthetically rich, ecologically sound, evocative of place and dynamic.
How very melodic that sounds. No wonder I love this garden so much!
PS For those of you in the States, happy Thanksgiving!