AESTHETICS OF LOCALE: The Use of Vernacular Aesthetic to Enhance Residential Landscape Design and Preserve the Intangibles of Place
The vernacular aesthetic of a region’s botanic array is one of the chief means by which humans connect ~ emotionally, psychologically and spiritually ~ to the places they inhabit. That array, particularly in the residential landscape, is often stripped out and replaced with a hybridized, standardized confection, doing disservice both to the site’s human occupants and to its biotic community. I claim it further a disservice to the human community as a whole, since these landscapes are part of the common visual and are therefore a shared aesthetic wherein the diminishment of one is the diminishment of all.
Designers are under the imperative to act, but until we begin to value the inherent aesthetic of locale as much as we value the right of property owners to impose upon the land whatever design they fancy, residential landscapers will continue to favor homogeneity over diversity to the detriment, not only of native flora and fauna, but ourselves. The ‘blank slate’ approach to design, although sustainable in the sense that hybrid plant varieties will continue to be available, comes at too high a price; once lost, vernacular aesthetic will be impossible to recover. UNESCO’s drive to preserve intangible cultural heritage reminds us that vernacular, the visual as well as the verbal, has societal value.
It is time to step away from this impositional methodology, take the landscape as a partner in the process and create built environments in harmony with the totality of their natural surrounds. It is time for us to put the vernacular aesthetic foremost in the design brief; time for us to consider the intangibles of place a bona fide value; time for us to recognize the whole pie and not merely our piece. The whole is the landscape of the everyday, what the environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan calls ‘near nature’ and that very nearness contains within it the opportunity for daily connection, person to place. Person to generic anywhere lacks the power of connection, which also means it lacks the power to provide the emotional and psychological benefits which accrue from such contact. Further, maintaining the visual connections between the botany of the specific design site and the botany of the broader region enables design cohesion by effecting subtle repetition of color and form. These more delicate connectors, often not consciously recognized but nonetheless registered, contribute to the feeling that the property remains intact despite the incorporation of the built landscape.
The aggregate of land in the residential arena is huge, and as designers we have a responsibility to see the broader impact of our actions on the health and well-being of all the players. Designing to the vernacular aesthetic is a direct and immediate exercise of that responsibility.