Event was stimulating, educational and fun
The Landscape Institute’s conference in Sheffield, held at the start of this month, proved conclusively that however tough the times may be, talking about beauty in the context of landscape is still important and not an indulgence.
Presentations on Thursday 3 March were stimulating, surprising and showed that while we may all think we know what beauty is, it is in fact a more difficult and tenuous topic than we may have believed.
Noel Farrer, president of the LI, introduced the first day by showing a really depressing photograph of a young girl selling bread in a derelict street in Syria. “Landscapes that are not beautiful, that are of low desirability, still seem to work,” he said. But he cited the work of Jan Gehl, who showed that while essential activities will still take place in the worst surroundings, optional and social activities are almost entirely dependent on having a high-quality environment.
Noel also discussed ideas of beauty, saying that there were some universal ideas for what comprised beauty – a landscape with a certain amount of complexity, with a clear focal point, some greenery, some movement and some water.
James Hitchmough, who heads the landscape department at Sheffield, said that although beauty “is just an electro-chemical mediated sensation manufactured in your brain, psychologically, these sensations are really important to our species.”
He talked about the ‘dopamine drip’ that we receive from the pleasure that beauty gives us – that this property that we may struggle to understand intellectually has a visceral effect that cannot be denied. Sometimes its creation may not even be conscious. “As designers,” he said, “sometimes ecological processes we initiate lead to future magical moments of experience, without us even having to be conscious of this.”
This was echoed by Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough’s colleague at Sheffield and collaborator on many projects including the Olympic Park. But Nigel was worried that an obsession with beauty may be a distraction from what should be the main concerns of landscape professionals if their role is not to suffer attrition from urban designers on one side and garden designers on the other. He believes that instead landscape professionals should concentrate on the major issues such as climate change, city pollution, water supply and biodiversity – and just let the beauty follow. Really this is just the other side of the same coin.
Where designers do deliberately set out to create beauty, James Hitchmough believes, there are a number of tools that they can use, which James divides into intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic are those over which the designer has direct control: colour, texture and line, for example. The extrinsic will be there more by association: light, time, memory, narrative, scale, knowledge and mood.
Thresholds of pleasure
One of James’ particular interest is in flowers and their colours. He warned that while landscape professionals may value the rare and the austere, most members of the public will be more delighted by colour, and a lot of it. He gave examples, showing the existence of ‘thresholds’. Most people see the joy in, for example, a meadow of wild flowers only once there is a certain number present. Below that threshold, they will just not be impressed. In the case of beauty, it seems that more really is more.
Clare Rishbeth, also at Sheffield, talked about beauty and ‘superdiversity’ which she defines as a wide range of variables including ethnicity, immigration status and rights.
It is, she said, almost impossible to predict what will evoke memories and nostalgia in people who have come from other countries. Interviews in Sheffield found surprising connections. For example, there was one woman who found the rocky hills on the outskirts of the city reminiscent of her home country of Rwanda.
But you do, she said, need to be aware of genuine concerns around safety and hate crime of people who are visible as different and/or have good reason to be uncertain or wary. So, for example, there was a man who found the countryside reminded him of Sierra Leone, and he loved being there, but would not go on his own.
Beauty is a social-equity issue, Clare said. Some people have little access because of where they live and poor in time/ transport.
She concluded: “Generalisations are usually unhelpful and trying to respond to any one particular groups (age, gender, ethnicity) usually ends up dealing with stereotypes. Contact with nature in cities (trees, flowers, birds, long views) highly valued across all groups.”
Landscape tours of Sheffield
There were other fascinating speakers as well, looking at the contrast between the sublime and the picturesque, and discussing the regeneration of Sheffield and the importance of beauty in everyday life. The following day there were interesting landscape tours of Sheffield (only marred by driving sleet) and CPD sessions, of which a highlight was Edward Hutchinson talking about the importance of drawing.
The conference is set to become an annual event. While there is much to learn, particularly in the CPD sessions, which could prove practically useful in working life, the real strength of this event lay elsewhere. It lay in the meeting between practice and academia, in the opportunity to think about ideas beyond the everyday problems to be solved, and simply in the ability to interact with a vast number of interested and interesting people.