Wholly pleasing venues? A tricky business!

Landscape styles of the 19th Century—here the picturesque—linked manmade and natural forms in harmonious clusters.

Landscape styles of the 19th Century—here the picturesque—linked manmade and natural forms in harmonious clusters.

To provide the harmonious settings strollers seek requires broad, yet site-specific cultural understanding, attention to details, and—dare we say it in these oh-so-post-Miss-Manners days—good taste.

A rose garden may offer a broad, flat strolling path yet remain empty because thorny branches flop across the path. Strollers shun not only abandoned buildings and litter-strewn lots, but also blank, modern walls and scruffy meadows.

Meanwhile, the same landscape elements in different locations or different patterns prompt different reactions, so harmonious design requires subtlety. For example, most people react positively to trees, but negatively to tree plantations in rural areas.

Natural areas are naturals for strolling as long as they appear accessible and not too “scruffy.” Being a calmative, greenery contributes to all aspects of an ideal stroll area—absorbing sounds and screening views while offering mystery, invitations to explore, and seasonal interest. Thus, it’s no surprise that studies from residences, prisons, hospitals, and workplaces conclude that a view, “especially one that includes vegetation, has positive implications for health and well being.”

There’s little doubt that adding river stones to a railing links it to its site in the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix… (Photo: Theresa Mattor)

There’s little doubt that adding river stones to a railing links it to its site in the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix… (Photo: Theresa Mattor)

It’s also no surprise that designers have traditionally concentrated on natural areas for strolling. “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done,” Olmsted wrote about city parks, “and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them.…”

The 19th Century landscape styles of the Formal, the Beautiful and the Sublime (or Picturesque) were based on coherent clusters of mostly natural elements.

Asian designers seem particularly attuned to creating naturalistic stroll settings. Over several centuries the Japanese have developed a whole class of stroll gardens designed to induce serenity, which they call “windows on the soul.” An excellent example is the Japanese Way of Tea we posted about last week.

Cities can be harmonious, too

Despite their diversity of mostly manmade scenery, cities too can be harmonious wholes–“100% places,” William Whyte called them”—suitable for strolling. “For people walking through the city, beautiful space, carefully planned details and genuine materials provide valuable experiences on their own merits and as a valuable extra layer to the other qualities the city has to offer,” Jan Gehl notes.

…but do Dale Chihuly’s glassworks complete a harmonious ensemble or prompt a smile of surprise with a boat in a desert  garden? (Photo: Theresa Mattor)

…but do Dale Chihuly’s glassworks complete a harmonious ensemble or prompt a smile of surprise with a boat full of oversize baubles in a desert garden? (Photo: Theresa Mattor)

These coordinated urban wholes are more likely to be found in historic cities, aesthetically unified because they employed traditional materials and forms and responded more fully to site and climate than modern cities.

Beyond the engineering and machinery that permits buildings unresponsive to site or need, the creed of Modernism has intensified the contemporary urban disconnect by focusing on the design of individual buildings surrounded by open space instead of creating structures along streets as part of the city fabric.

As a result, creating uniformly handsome, pedestrian-attracting urban scenes forces cities to focus consciously on that goal through policies, planning, and design review. Forward-thinking cities are responding, scaling signs and lights for walkers, not drivers; adding trees and public art, fountains and uncovered streams. All of these contribute to amped up strolling.

Still, harmony can be overdone. Consider the unrelenting homogeneity of a sprawling residential suburb. Landscapes need the contrasting accents of landmarks and focal points.

As for disharmony, pastoral and natural terrains are more vulnerable to the jarring monument than a city. A single modern tower can destroy the feeling or meaning of a rural landscape, as was proven by the modern tower at the Gettysburg battlefield. In undeveloped settings, cultural objects should be few, carefully crafted, and subordinate.

Olmsted saw unwanted impacts in his day, even in the odd plant. “I design with a view to a passage of quietly composed, soft, subdued pensive character…, screen out discordant elements and get suitable vegetation growing.” But he often returned to find this effect destroyed. “Why? ‘My wife is so fond of roses;’ ‘I had a present of some large Norway spruces;’ ‘I have a weakness for white birch trees—there was one in my father’s yard when I was a boy.’”

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