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What is an experiential landscape?

Landscape design and aesthetics should work to enhance a particular experience. To achieve this, I focus on two aspects of landscape: sensory engagement and eventfulness.

Sensory involvement with our surroundings is the way places engage us. Fully engaged senses bring us into the present moment and lead us to fully participate in our environment. Landscape can hold our attention without exhausting us – giving us a break from our normal preoccupations. The dynamic natural environment also enables a feeling of constant discovery. These states are incredibly restoring to the mind. Landscapes that are dynamic with natural phenomena are the most engaging, the most restorative, and the most memorable.

The art of creating dynamic landscapes means embracing a different set of materials. Instead of thinking in terms of stone, wood, and plant material, we think in terms of movement, light, ephemerality, memory, and phenomena. Instead of hardscape and plant material supporting a program of terrace and pool, light and movement should support an ephemeral moment in the late afternoon in July.

Alongside of natural events which promote our mental well-being, social events promote our social well-being. Designing for specific experiences and sequences adds another layer to landscape. There are thousands to choose from and we sometimes combine them into ‘hang out areas’. Reading in a hammock swinging over a planting of sweet-smelling herbs, socializing in lounge chairs under a shaded pergola positioned to catch the breeze, playing bocce with friends on a green lawn overlooking a meadow. These are some points of inspiration – when we add these events to a sequence of a perfect day and the states of mind we are trying to inspire, the physical aspect of the design starts to reveal itself.

The challenge of designing for an infinity of unique moments is immediately obvious. When one designs for a moment, there is a lot more to understand, consider, and ultimately design. There are three critical components to making a landscape that completely engages us:

Site resonance: The process begins with sensitive observation and mapping. Sites have an organizational force of their own. Sound, views, light patterns, air movement, animals, prospect, and other phenomena are mapped on a plan. There is art in the way one measures and interprets phenomena that is ultimately translated into the design.

The event: “Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all” was John Steinbeck’s observation that time is measured by events. Creating the circumstances for an event has less to do with painting a picture than setting the stage for an occurrence that brings people into the present moment. We design for the meaningful moments in our lives, such as eating, playing, arriving, and socializing, with phenomenal materials such as light, movement, reflection, and water.

Memory: Engagement happens suddenly and then gradually. After the initial encounter a memory is created that colors each subsequent interaction. A place becomes imbued with meaning from the ritual of daily living and memory becomes yet another sense with which we experience our surroundings. This furthers a personal relationship with the environment. If the designer is successful in creating a place that sets events in motion, the place will be memorable.

To give you an example of this method of design from the architectural world:

My friend’s father bought a sliver of land at the edge of a tidal marsh in Georgia. For a full year he observed the air movement, the light and the tides before hiring an architect. The result is an elevated, three-story sliver of a house with a core of three screened porches that run up the center with a sleeping porch on top. The marsh and tide sweep under the house. One has to cross a bridge to get to the front door. The rainwater is channeled down a chain and is deposited on a pile of oyster shells, replenished after every roast. The marsh breeze accelerates through each porch opening at a different speed; the higher the porch, the stronger the breeze. The result is a home that sets the stage for sensory experience by measuring the phenomena of the site. Every visit is a unique encounter with the environment – often shared with friends. It is fair to say that the house is designed as much with marsh, wind, tides, shade, and prospect as it is with wood, glass, and hardware.