Take me back home

What makes any garden satisfying? What fills our hearts with joy, sets us at ease, gives comfort, and a sense of anticipation? The answers are of course as varied as you would expect. But it turns out that a very modern trend and a very ancient land, together, give us some fascinating insights into what may underly our love of gardens.

What makes any garden satisfying? What fills our hearts with joy, sets us at ease, gives comfort, and a sense of anticipation?

The answers are of course as varied as you would expect. But it turns out that a very modern trend and a very ancient land, together, give us some fascinating insights into what may underly our love of gardens.

From the typical English garden to Capability Brown’s sweeping landscapes there seem to be deep themes in common. Where do they come from? Why do they hold such a strong attraction for many of us?

Heard of Neuroarchitecture[i]? Me neither. But stay with me. Let’s agree to glide over the indigestible name, and take a peek, it’s quite fun.

The central tenet goes like this: For too long architecture has tended to focus on aesthetic style, shaped by a relentless succession of -isms, rather than the people who embody it. It seeks to understand why people enjoy one space and feel uneasy in another.

By using VR (Virtual Reality), measuring brain activity and physiological responses such as body temperature and pulse rate, proponents of Neuroarchitecture such as Dr Ellard (he’s the one you need to have a word with about that clunky name) are trying to get some kind of empirical baseline for what people do and don’t like in buildings. So far so trendy and also so daft. I mean we all know that people’s responses to buildings are incredibly diverse and basically a personal thing, right? Kind of. This is where it gets interesting. This is what Dr Ellard says his research has revealed;

“We prefer locations in a space where we experience both high refuge (protection of some kind) and high prospect (the ability to sense our surroundings, to know what’s going on, to have vistas),” he says. “Even something like the perennial popularity of a wingback chair might be related to this. In home settings, small alcoves set into larger spaces are often the places people gravitate towards.”

There are lots of other preferences they’ve identified; complex surfaces rather than plain, a view of nature, curvature rather than straight lines, and, perhaps the most poetic – a sense of mystery – where a situation has an aspect of ‘unveiling’ such as a pathway that disappears, that you have to follow to find it’s resolution.

So far so modern. But what’s interesting is that this reminded me, in a foggy kind of way, of something I’d read a good while back. Dr Ellard had actually alluded to this when he talks of play of these preferences being driven by ‘the further reaches of our evolutionary history’. 

Take me back home

In 2006 I read a recently published book; “The Art Instinct” by Denis Dutton[ii]. A strong thread in the book was summarised in an article in the New Statesman[iii] as;

‘the desirability of the original savannahs is an innate idea that lies deep in the human mind. We remain emotionally attached to them today because having an emotional predisposition toward such landscape types was a ­survival advantage for our prehistoric ancestors, not unlike a liking for sweet and fat, or sex.’

So here we have a cutting-edge theory and a look back into a our far distant ancestry sharing the same insight. That our time on the African Savannah, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, has indelibly shaped our preferences for a certain kind of landscape, or natural environment.

So we like grassland, with trees, with paths and water. We like gentle undulations that give us just enough height to get a good view of potential predators, food or shelter. We like the edges of forests but aren’t that keen to be fully inside one. We like sheltered places but with clear views out over larger aspects. We are keen on paths that don’t reveal their destination, curving out of sight and leaving a sense of anticipation and mystery. And all this can be traced back to the eons of time we spent on the vast Savannah’s of Sub-Saharan Africa!

It’s a charming theory, as yet pretty much unproven. But true or not it really helps when thinking about designing a garden. If you or your designer can play with those elements, you’re almost certain to achieve a garden that will delight you, your family and friends. But of course, we left the Savannah rather a long time ago and humankind has lived in many different environments since then. So it would be a mistake to think of these preferences as hard rules and to dismiss any other types of design.  Our blog can help you discover the advantages of using a garden designer.

North Leeds Garden Design can help you make the most of your garden so it’s summer ready!

 

[i] There’s a great article about Neuroarchitecture here:

https://bit.ly/2rGUMAD

 

[ii] This is still available, although its star has waned after a strong backlash against what were seen as conservative euro-centred views about what ‘good art’ is.

[iii] A fascinating article about our preference for Savannah landscape:

https://www.newstatesman.com/arts-and-culture/2009/02/landscape-human-art-savannahs

 

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