by Elizabeth Fowler
Of course, people don’t always take up the invitations gardens issue to practice body techniques — we are rebellious, wild creatures just like rabbits and deer. In a truly great garden, I think, we are not taught the meaning of our sensory practices in a doctrinally strict or punitive way, but by an opening up of our body techniques to wonder, pleasure, and creativity.
At its best, the medieval cloister is a brilliant support for many body techniques that aim to control the degree of our relative openness and closedness to the world: prayer, music, study, meditation, and gardening itself. A cloister is, naturally, open to heaven but closed to the business of the world. In this way, it’s a kind of epitome of major form of landscape architecture. I’m interested in how the gardens on Randall’s Island interact with the people who use them. They have a special role, it seems to me — one different than, say, that of Central Park — in inculcating body techniques for the people of New York. What do we want our gardens to help us do?
Of course the invitations of built space need to work in concert with body techniques in order for sensory practice and architecture to coexist happily. The steps into lapping water at the World War II Memorial on the Washington mall speak directly to the human body of feet in the fountain, so that many rather loud signs were added insisting rather punitively “PLEASE RESPECT THE MEMORIAL NO WADING, NO COINS.” Visitors who see throwing coins as a mark of respect are told one thing by the pool but another by the signs, an unhappy experience for many of being jerked around. Then again, altering people’s postures with respect to the War was in fact what the memorial was designed to do, and some seem to have taken pleasure in precisely that punitive teaching. I like to think that getting our feet wet is in the U.S. public’s interest and respectful in a way that grandiosity that instructs us to kow-tow to it is not, but perhaps that’s an index of a gap between generations, just as telling as the “elbows off the table” technique of eating. I love that the Randall’s Island Phish concerts this summer had a long list of do’s and don’t’s — if any one wonders whether gardens teach us how to listen, those prescriptions are an easy proof.
I expect that my analysis of the cloister garden will be easily understood by both landscape architects and users, at least at the level of bodily experience. It’s my hope that designers will think of the cultivation of body techniques through gardens not just as an issue of making sure that people don’t wreck gardens and parks, but also as a larger ethical issue, even an issue of social justice.
How does your garden design support the habits, mental life, and physical behaviors that you most want to inculcate in the people around you? How can it inspire and encourage us to be better people and citizens? Public parks do have a special responsibility to shape us for the public good, though we might not always like the way that shaping works.
More and more research shows that engaging in the natural world of living plants, soil, and weather is a crucial support for mental, physical, and social health. Landscape architecture is more important now than ever, giving us a green prospect on the hardscape of the city and allowing us to temper its 100% reflectivity and sensory overstimulation.