The present condition
Needless to say the Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on many fronts. Being in good health is an essential backdrop for any type of lifestyle or even basic survival. Given this basic need the other inconveniences, such as curtailment of activities, social gathering and the ability to communicate only at a distance or remotely, makes living somewhat unpleasant.
News channels constantly having to ply stressful news have decided to include 30 seconds to satisfy the mind, showing scenes of waterfalls, stepped paddy fields and similar calming scenery.
Students follow studies concentrating on the computer screen. Parents also ‘work from home’ in order to avoid the crushing commute and danger of infection. Even while we can proceed to work, one has to remain socially distanced, avoiding face to face encounters. Thus, even though not isolated by lockdown each person has to maintain a personal bubble and is literally in isolation. Humans are naturally gregarious and being isolated means stress for most.
Soft fascination is a relief to this condition. Nat King Cole’s song ‘It was Fascination’ comes to mind. ‘Just a passing glance’ identifies a fleeting pleasant encounter ‘seeing her alone with the moonlight above’ was found fascinating. Nature’s endowments always have the ability to soothe and relax.
Fascination is a neurological state of intense focus, one that creates an irresistible feeling of engagement. When one is fascinated they are in the moment. Emotionally fascination evokes a feeling of confidence and clarity. Fascination is more engaging than mere interest. The Latin word fascinare means to bewitch. It is to be in the flow, with the brain in a semi-euphoric state. Although delight is somewhat similar, it differs in being more sustained.
One of the attributes of attention restoration therapy (ART), soft fascination is balm to the relentless continuity of concentrated activity of the mind. ‘Being away’ or removing oneself from the work station and moving away to another location of different encounters is another such cognitive attribute. While the psychotherapist would recommend such remedial alleviations for long hours spent staring at a screen or other form of concentration, it is for the landscape architect to provide the material for such fascinations. Plants, vegetated areas, water and open sky may be Nature’s provisions but in increasingly inhabited environments such natural elements have to be manipulatively made available to engage with.
The Mind or the Matter
Claus-Christian Carbon, Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan are psychologists who have contributed much to the understanding of human perception and linkages with nature. Landscape Architects have to necessarily know how to assess and design with nature to provide for human comfort and the human psyche. Unlike other more stable attributes, fascination is transient and even fleeting. Further investigation into an object of fascination would make it more coherent and the moment of euphoria is gone.
What landscape elements can be fascinating? Is it the overall scenery or a minute element within it? The element when sensed and perceived perhaps evokes an exclamation, a deep breath or widening of the eyes in delight. It may be the fresh smell of rain on parched ground, water dripping off a glossy leaf, glinting sunlight off rippling water, the patter and pattern of raindrops in a puddle and many more. On a dry breezy day, the rustling of bamboo, or a sudden cool waft of air in the dryness can trigger fascination. It is an interest that grabs attention. A butterfly sailing by or a shadow pattern may evoke fascination. Most often the element is ephemeral or has mesmerizing movement. Other such elements may be the movement of mist, the curling rise of smoke from a bonfire far away, the onset of rain or movement of clouds. The pattern is in flux against a steady backdrop.
I recollect teaching a class on the ground floor with a window facing me while the students sat backing it. Outside was an old Kaha mara (Peltophorum inerme) tree of considerable stature with its branches high above unseen in the frame of the window. Suddenly an unexpected breeze on the hot dry day shook the branches sufficiently to bring down a rain of the small leaves with an exclamation from me to the students to experience the moment of fascination. Next was enquiry as to what caused the phenomenon, was it actually a breeze or did the branches get disturbed by a bird taking off. All this in the realm of conjecture and the fascination was gone. Not everyone present captured the moment. Some were unconcerned. Thus, like beauty, is fascination only in the eye of the beholder?
The sudden notice of a new shoot on a plant or new uncurling frond of a fern can be fascinating. A trail of ants or discovery of a birds nest too. Why do some find these boring? This is where fascination is backed by perception, sensitivity, awareness and background knowledge.
Mystery is another aspect of stress relief. Here the mind moves from fascination to wonderment. Again, many such experiences are ephemeral. A passing thunderstorm, with a sudden thunderclap or rolling thunder has discernible variety, the lightning strike momentary. A planned fireworks display also brings ‘oohs and aahhs!’ of delight. The quiet study of the night sky has its own spectacular moments. The upcoming conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st.
Distant layers of mountains shrouded in mist with changing visibility provides for fascination. But the mountainscape itself will only provide coherence.
“There is no sight more provocative of awe than the night sky’ from Nightsky Watch. It is for the designer to ensure that such a view is not impeded by the ugliness of wires, posts or structures of poor outline to be silhouetted against the starlit sky vault.
Fascinating Designs for outdoor space
Designing for fascination is rare, with functional attributes taking precedence. However a skilful approach if well achieved can bring delightful experiences. So, what is the role of the Landscape Designer? It would be the provision of landscape elements that have the potential to provide such moments of fascination. A well-designed outdoor space may have many elements providing structure and form forming a coherent landscape but does it allow for fascination? American artist Thomas Kinkade is known as ‘the painter of light’. His depictions of landscapes have elements that fascinate. Was it the painting, or the painter who was fascinated by the landscape? Skillful design, with a deep understanding of the heavenly cycles and precise placement of a designed pond, may serve to capture the limpid reflection of moonlight. This scene may relieve the late night worker or student with a moment of fascination as they glance out of the window or step out on a balcony for fresh air. The choice of plants has great opportunities to provide for such moments – glossy leaves contrasted with matte, or the choice of bamboo for rustling sounds for that moment when attention from the work-screen is diverted by the promise of a breeze outdoors. Careful selection of materials and plants may result in eco-sensitive moments as food sources, nesting materials provide for the cycles of life in the garden, whether bird, insect, reptile or mammal. The fascinating song of an oriole or magpie-robin is a refreshing distraction from the mundane. Even the man-made and controlled computed patterns of water curtains have a mesmerizing and fascinating quality as it goes through cycles of many patterns.
The act of watering a garden can bring relief from stress. The sprays and flow of the water, the prescribed quantity of water applied to each type of plant requires a different type of attention. The sweeping of dry leaves can be therapeutic though not fascinating. Inadequate management can lead to dreary scenes of damaged or spindly plants which only adds to stress. Well cared for and well placed plants can even ‘glow’ like elements in a Kinkade painting.
So the next time you need a break away from the computer, tablet or television screen, or glance out from your ‘isolated’ seat in public transport, ensure that you have adequate well-designed scenery to gaze upon for those fascinating moments.
Author – Archt. / L.Arct. Shereen Amendra
Professional in charge – Landscape Architecture
Chartered Architect / Chartered Landscape Architect