WHY LANDSCAPE | WHY BEAUTY MATTERS
Beauty. The word has become something of a taboo when it comes to designing public spaces. For many architects and planners, the concept of beauty is too messy and subjective – but the WHY Landscape Workshop offers a different perspective. Beauty is typically described purely in terms of visual experience, but what if the definition was expanded to encompass something larger and more impactful? What if we understood beauty as a fully embodied feeling of health and generativity, a momentary alignment with the natural processes all around us?
Scientists, artists, and poets have long understood beauty in these terms, and WHY Landscape’s philosophy of Art & Wilding seeks to bring that particular sensation to the built environment – the recognition that natural growth patterns and human creativity are part of a living continuum. Through techniques of wilding to increase biodiversity, combined with intuitive, contextual gestures to shape and curate, Art & Wilding is a way of revealing the natural world as inherently compelling. In this context, beauty becomes more than fleeting visual stimulation – it’s what we feel in environments where we can grow.
All the same, if beauty is to be understood as something more than mere prettiness or aesthetic dusting, it needs to make room for the less comforting sides of life. Mark Thomann, Director of the WHY Landscape Workshop, is an advocate for a radical beauty which celebrates the passing of time, the presence of decay, and the inevitability of change – factors which define the process of landscape design. Here he selects a series of images to illuminate his interpretation of beauty: images which evoke themes of transformation, activism, history, ephemerality – and an essential delight in the feeling of being alive.
“For me, the experience of beauty has to do with an instinctive recognition of unseen living processes – a sense of the patterns of transformation which sustain life on earth. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to this photograph from a series documenting the aftermath of a fire at the Deyrolle taxidermy shop in Paris. Other images show the remains of fur, tusks, and horns, but there’s something about the sight of these charred butterflies which strikes me as staggeringly beautiful. These creatures were collected, and categorized, and preserved in a state of suspended animation – and here they are, after passing through another state of change.”
“Of course, the life of a butterfly is itself a metaphor of transformation. In this instance, it’s the fire which has caused the butterfly to take on its next form, allowing the process of change to continue. So in a strange way, the fire is generative rather than destructive – which makes me think instinctively of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, not far from where I live. The surreal form of the straggly pitch pines is due to the natural forest fires which have shaped the ecosystem over time. Paradoxically, the pine forest only exists because of those fires; competition is eliminated, so fire becomes the pines’ source of survival. Their form hints at that underlying process, just as the form of a butterfly suggests its transformation. And though it might sound contrarian, there’s something about a singed butterfly or a burnt tree which is just as beautiful as its integral form.”
“I’m very interested in how activism can be successfully incorporated into design, and Vivienne Westwood’s work really appeals to me – particularly the messaging around climate change in her No Man’s Land manifesto. She’s always challenged conventional ideas of beauty, and several of her couture collections make use of recycled waste and unwanted materials – showing that even the banal and the throwaway can be combined into a new aesthetics. That said, this particular image (from No Man’s Land) suggests that not everything can be resurrected – there really is a point of no return when living processes can’t continue. In aesthetic terms, that experience could be described as ugliness – one step towards extinction.”
“Landscape design can also be a form of activism in the way that it communicates and expands conventional interpretations of beauty – even embracing apparent contradiction. Perhaps because I grew up working for my family’s asphalt business in Buffalo, NY, I’ve always appreciated the coexistence of the green and the grey, natural growth and human industry – and that necessary coexistence informs the Workshop’s emphasis on “wilding” rather than “re-wilding.”
Wilding isn’t about trying to turn back time or eliminate human presence – instead, we’re trying to reveal the fact of interdependence, generating urban landscapes which interweave the green and the grey, plantlife and civic infrastructure, ruination and re-adaption. When working on urban planning projects, we often argue that nature is the best developer. But at the same time, our role as landscape architects is to act as stewards of those growth patterns, framing them for perception – essentially allowing human beings to recognize the inherent beauty of the natural world. There’s an implicit activist component to this, too – because when people find something beautiful they’re willing to take a stand to protect it.”
“I love this image because you really get a sense of the layers of time – it shows a map tracing the evolving meanders of the Mississippi River over millennia, drawn up by the cartographer and geologist Harold Fisk for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. The data for the map was collected by analyzing layers of soil and sediment deposits, creating what is essentially an image of the unseen: a map of the river as a living process. It’s a process which has informed other unseen processes; over time, the course of the river has impacted the placement of settlements, the trajectory of migration patterns, and the development of civilizations.
The map makes me think of the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, where you get that same sense of the layering of time and the implications of history, expressed as the material surface of the painting. I’d argue that the depth of meaning we feel in the presence of an artwork, or a natural landform, or a designed landscape has to do with an underlying recognition of those multiple layers working together. So it’s the task of the landscape architect to uncover and deconstruct the layers which constitute the life of a particular site – whether historical, geological, meteorological, cultural, political – and fold them into the form of the design.”
“That’s what’s really driving the Workshop right now – the possibility of capturing a sense of those unseen processes by methodically researching, analyzing, and recombining the different layers. And like Fisk’s map with its tangled meanders, we’re interested in exposing the apparent messiness of those interrelated processes, preserving a degree of rawness and wildness.
When designing a project, we’ll typically draw from the context of the surrounding landscape – as we did with the cliff formation for Rees Ridge Street Park, inspired by the Scarborough Bluffs. But modelling a design on living processes is more than just borrowing a form. It’s important to dig deeper, investigating the weather patterns, the soil quality, the relationship between cliff geomorphology and plant species. In the same way that the form of a feather is the result of its functionality, we’ve found that a design will generate its own particular aesthetics if we follow the visual language of a natural process, investigating how something works rather than just what it looks like. And that’s when things become incredibly exciting for us – that moment when a design communicates the relationship between multiple layers, capturing the presence of a living process and generating a wholly new site-specific aesthetics.”
What would our cities feel like if we understood beauty in terms of a conscious connection with the natural world? Greenwashing would no longer be a viable option. Wildness in city parks would be associated with care, cultivation, and sustainable maintenance. And ultimately, urban landscaping would be integral to the urban experience, allowing city-dwellers to align with thriving natural processes – processes which come to light through attentive design.
Perhaps most importantly, this alternative understanding of beauty has profound implications for the way we collectively address the ecological crisis. If the built environment encourages us to think in terms of deep-time and complex networks, we’re move likely to make choices based on long-term consequences. We are conditioned to protect whatever we recognize as essential to our survival, and a feeling of wellbeing in a beautiful urban park is more persuasive than abstract threats and warnings. In short, we are unconsciously motivated by beauty – whether or not the word enters into design conversations. This is a type of beauty which extends beyond visual preferences and the eye of the beholder. It’s the feeling we have wherever we know we can grow.
You can find out more about Mark Thomann and the WHY Landscape workshop here.