Transitive Experience

Transitive Experience (work in progress)

Similar to the discipline of fine art, landscape architecture is caught in a protracted debate surrounding the issue of climate change.  One aspect of the debate centers on whether the discipline of landscape architecture should reflect contemporary culture and work within established policies, or whether it should take a leading role in promoting a dramatic shift in the way urban environments are conceptualized.  Since climate change is altering environmental patterns and the environment is the medium of landscape architects, this thesis argues that the discipline should take a formative position in helping to communicate and mitigate the effects of climate change in urban environments.

An important component in promoting sustainable landscape designs will be shifting cultural values to promote an awareness of the vital role ecological services play in our survival. In The Ethics of Sustainability, Ian Thompson argues that it is more difficult to “change attitudes and life styles than it is to implement sustainable technologies and design strategies.”  (Benson and Roe 2007) The urban public realm is an important place for promoting a sustainable ethic because it is typically highly accessible by a diverse set of people and its immediacy to the adjacent context means that it can be part of a daily routine.  Therefore the urban public realm is paramount location to inspire critical thought and foster a sustainability ethic.

In Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination Marsha Meskimmon, an art theorist stressed an important aspiration for contemporary art is its potential to stimulate political change.  She recognized the potential of art to initiate conversation on controversial topics and through the discussion help to lessen the importance of differences and therefore open the door for political activism.   She argues, “. . . art does not simply represent or communicate this (relationships) to a mute spectator, but engages participants in the events that it unfolds.  The participants complete the through, undertake a passage, as they become part of a transitive economy.” (Meskimmon 2011, 63)  Translating the value framework that Meskimmon sets up for contemporary art, landscape architecture has the potential, through the design of the public realm, to initiate transformative experiences that help to reveal and develop links between global issues, local concerns and personal behavior.

Responding to stimulation from the environment opens the possibility for experiences that transform behavior.     Edouard Glissantin, a French writer and literary critic, believed that the development and engagement of human imagination could inspire new understandings that could lead to political change.   In Poetics of Relations Glissantin argues that, imagination changes mentalities however slowly it may go about this . . . [And], if the imaginary carries us from thinking about the universe, we can conceive that aesthetic, by mean of which we make our imaginary concrete, with the opposite intention, always brings us back from the infinites of the universe to the definable poetics of our world.(Meskimmon 2011, 41) The design of a meaningful aesthetic in an urban environment should inspire critical inquiry about the environment from users engaged in the place.  The critical inquiry could affect an individual’s perception of the environment and develop a greater understanding of its function.  The change in perception facilitated through the design of the environment would therefore have created a transitive experience.

In the CABE study on Ideas about Beauty, participant’s perception of beauty prioritizes the importance of experience of beauty over the act of seeing beauty.   The qualitative value of beauty seemed to be grounded in personal experience and “(t)his is important for thinking about how the role of place impacts people, as their immediate association of  ‘beautiful places’ go beyond simply the built structure and objects they encounter. Anything that had emotional resonance for people was something they were likely to call beautiful.” (CABE 2010, 2) Understanding beauty as an experiential quality opens the door for rethinking the potential and value of the built environment.  Experiences create memories and memories help to create meaning and value for an individual.   Therefore thinking about the values that can be embedding in the design of a place provides fertile ground for designing places with the potential for kinesthetic experiences.

Landscape architecture should focus on initiating a transitional state that provides a method for helping to promote an understanding of the connection between climatic shifts and our current unsustainable environmental ethic.   Marsha Meskimmon argues that we “act when we are moved to do so and while art cannot determine action, it can compel it in the most extraordinary ways.” (Meskimmon 2011, 68) Designing meaningful aesthetic that establish and strengthen emotional connections between humans and nature could become important stepping stone for expanding a sustainable environmental ethic.  In urban environments that have already been designed latent potential exists for promoting transitive experiences.    By retrofitting urban environments landscape architects can develop environments that instill an understanding of the unique qualities of place and foster a sense of stewardship towards their environment.

In order to inspire behavioral change innovative and imaginative spatial constructs need to be implemented into urban environments.  Landscape architects bring a unique perspective to the complex issues of climate change because design can initiate a discussion in the everyday spaces of urban environments that could lead to behavioral changes within an individual. Directly engaging with nature in urban environments is an opportunity to develop personal experiences that help develop an understanding of our dependence on ecological services.  By utilizing natural phenomena to animated aspects of the designed environment transitive thought about the environment could contribute to a meaningful aesthetic experience.

The design of urban landscapes should be understood as a political act not an act of passive representation.  Climate change is a pressing issue and the urgency caused by its potentially devastating effects means that design experimentations must begin immediately.   As philosopher Kelly Oliver has argued, “(t)here is a direct connection between the response-ability of subjectivity and ethical and political responsibility.” (Meskimmon 2011, 35)Urban residentsshould take a position of stewardship towards the environment, which would demonstrate that the importance of environmental responsibility has been internalized.  Designing environments that motivate response, ideally responses that instill a responsible environmental ethic, should be a goal of a meaningful aesthetic.

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