Any aesthetic experience which leads to a loss of sense of self, a stepping out of time and just being – this is beauty to me. We speak of being absorbed in an experience and it’s as if our self – right down to the molecules – is blending with what we encounter.
Blending into our habitat
Beauty is as much about giving ourselves the time and head space to simply ‘be’ as it is about our surroundings being rich enough for our absorption. However our places don’t need to be very complex; a single tree shading an ordinary sidewalk suffices. Only yesterday walking during a hot Nor-Wester (a föhn wind) into the shade of a plane tree, there was a sudden stilling of time within the tree-space; I had to turn around and walk back in again to feel the coming together of filtered green light, soft foliage fragrance, and the hot wind accelerating beneath the tree’s canopy.
This was not an ‘experience’, certainly not an ‘environment’ (not even really ‘designed’, just a sidewalk weed-tree), more a sense of becoming the space for just a few seconds. When spaces are thoughtfully built into our habitat this sense of kinship with our animate and inanimate world gives us our sense of place and is a great motivator to argue for beauty in our cities.
Lower Princes St, Dunedin NZ Oct 2017
Every day we should all be able to catch hold of such events. If our spaces so completely lack ‘absorbability’ we need to advocate, agitate and cultivate to bring the natural world in. We need to ensure authorities’ give us the time and space when urban places are designed. We are natural too – we’re natives to these places of stone, steel and asphalt although without seeing nature – even if only a single tree – we are incomplete and become disconnected from our own self, between ourselves, and separated from nature.
But urban beauty should have deeper roots than mere pretty green fuzz – the stuff of planners’ formal drawings and cold legal external terms like ‘environment’. Real beauty comes from allowing a space to show time and depth, stories and experiences. Bringing some of the past into the present, solving problems in-situ (e.g. with rain gardens), genuinely seeking locals’ input into design, construction, planting – these nurture real beauty and allow us to experience joy, delight and our human nature within the city.
Rain garden – 8401 National Blvd & Eastham Drive – SPAR City – Culver City, Los Angeles
We found this cool enlivened space one hot day in 2011 while walking around Eric Owen Moss’ designed Samitaur Constructs SPAR City complex in Culver City LA. Rain gardens are one component of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and act to retain, detain and filter stormwater flows, taking pressure off the urban reticulated system, as well as creating self-sustaining urban gardens and cooler spaces for human species.
Spar City is really worth a visit and you need at least half a day for absorption into a well-designed human habitat. The place is more avant garden than Avant Garde.
Rain garden – 8401 National Blvd & Eastham Drive – SPAR City – Culver City, LA
In 2011 we entered the garden from the right side of the dark wall (above) but we must’ve entered by a wormhole as it appears all closed off now. Spar City is ever-changing tho’ and new routes appear all the time as the complex develops.
Elephants’ foot trees (Beaucarnea recurvata) in parking lot behind Stealth building
The elephants’ foot trees appeared to have been underplanted with Dymondia margaretae Compton aka ‘silver carpet’ (Asteraceae) – link goes to SA nursery with helpful info – an extremely tough South African native very supportive of insect life.
Nigel Cowburn is a Landscape Architect based in Dunedin, New Zealand and Director of Growplan. His particular interests lie in large-scale site design, especially in the rural sector. He travels extensively in Otago and Southland working on farms, subdivisions and public spaces, and large-scale industrial projects. He has a particular interest in sustainable, long-term stormwater solutions – SUDs in preference to the conventional and costly engineered approach.