DESIGN IN THE ROUND

It will come as no surprise that I did theater as a girl and I mention that here because the typical stage production is entirely linear, actor to audience and back again.  Theater in the round was designed to break that fixed arrangement and provide an alternate experience, more visceral, more involving.  It’s a different dynamic, and it’s precisely what’s needed in landscape design.

The model most designers use adopts a ‘painterly’ perspective very like the linear view of traditional stage.  Stand here, look there, create little outdoor rooms and paint them with flowers.  This is landscape as scenery, as decor and, pretty as that decor may be, it lacks the feel of a robust show.  It lacks that because we are quite literally standing in the wrong place.

Designing from the outside-in keeps you separate from the play and, yes, I am going to say it, the play’s the thing.  Not to catch the conscience of a mind, but to catch the conscious mind itself, to fully imagine the theater of landscape in the round.  Designing from the inside-out gives you multiple perspectives and multiple opportunities to see a property as fluid, something that changes as you move through it.

Standing inside requires more from the designer, perhaps, but it also offers more in terms of design cues.  There’s more to be seen in the round than can be perceived from an outside vantage, and that increased awareness offers us an expanded range of response.  There’s something additional at work here, though, and that’s sheer physical volume.  The volume of space, and the volume of things in that space, elicit a bodily response from us that the painterly approach cannot generate.  We react, we mere mortals, to the size and shape and age of things; we react to light and to the pace of our steps as we move from A to B.  Sight alone cannot give us this visceral response.  Space requires our presence to be understood, requires us to stand within, to feel whatever we can.

I’m tempted to say feel whatever we can in relation to the objects inside that space, but our response isn’t limited to the objects.  We also respond to the visual weight of the space itself.  If you’re a fan of high ceilings, you’ll know that a small room with a low ceiling feels cramped; with a higher ceiling, that same footprint could feel positively airy.  In cases like this, perception is reality and the only way to get the perception is to put yourself in the middle.  You won’t get every observation, or every bit and bite that others get, but you’ll comprehend more than you would by standing outside and merely looking at the scene.

One more point:  the impact of shapes within the space is also registered bodily; sharp things actually feel sharp, soft things feel soft, and the way we move around those shapes, the way we engage them, is a function of that bodily perception.  That perception is at work in relation to age, as well.  Standing alongside a ten-year-old tree will evoke an entirely different response from standing by one that’s been around for a century.  Ancient trees like the giant redwoods in the Northwest will elicit, from most of us, not only a sense of reverence, but also a feeling of kinship.  That kinship, albeit to a lesser degree, is the emotion in play with grand old trees of all kinds.

Old stonework has an ethos all its own, as well.  So does architecture, in equal measures because we envision its history and because it invokes our own.  These things have a weight that goes beyond the object’s true dimension, and that weight is only apprehended by putting ourselves into the mix, by physically engaging with the space and all the elements within it.  Only after that do we have enough information to begin the design process.

That process is a matter of putting the visual cues together with the physical cues to establish the design equivalent of a neural network.  That’s another 3-D image, which again takes us out of the purely linear, to-and-fro of either standard theater or standard landscape design.  Using all the cues gives us a complete picture and allows us to draw that picture in reality, on the ground.  Establishing these mental, visual and physical links allows us to produce a design which will evoke, for visitors to the property, a rich, round experience.

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