Digging Deeper: Thomas Rainer on Nostalgia

“For me, garden design isn’t just about plants,
it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation”
Piet Oudolf

I do my best to shy away from all forms of nostalgia.  The very word makes me cringe.

Thomas Rainer in his blog, grounded design (, redefines nostalgia.
NOSTALGIAThe idea that a plant or group of plants can evoke certain emotions based upon an evolved memory of the landscape they are associated.

He continues… “Ive been thinking a lot lately about our emotional experience of landscapes.”  So have I.

Rainer: “For me, understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes holds tremendous potential for those who design or garden.  First, it pushes landscape design past the endless (and tiresome) pendulum swing of geometric vs. naturalistic (or formal vs. informal) design.  This fundamentally formalistic concern has distracted us from exploring the full potential of landscape as a dynamic art form.  Second, it offers designers a framework for understanding how to create emotional experiences within gardens and landscapes.”

Rainer theorizes that all landscapes have vestiges of memory and emotion.  On some level,  our emotional response to landscape evolves from a collective unconscious memory. 

He says “Nostalgia is my attempt to describe a design strategy that uses plant combinations to evoke larger landscapes.  By nostalgia, I do not mean that gardens should be backwards-looking.”

This idea of a “design strategy” to enhance the landscape experience on a emotional level for the visitor is something I have been playing around with, since I returned from the University of Sheffield in September.  There are a group of graduate students in the landscape department, who call themselves environmental psychologists creating metrics that hope to test the emotional responses of people to created landscapes. 

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I was listening to Moth Radio, specifically a story by Laura Albert, author of Sarah.  In describing her reason for writing, Laura asked the question, “how do you get people to see what they never saw before?” 

This is the question I have been struggling with and has become the focus of my current work.

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