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Aesthetics in the landscape

The translation of aesthetics into design has the power “to change people’s responses to their environment.” For landscape architects, understanding two components – the aesthetic experience and aesthetic objects – is important.

The term “aesthetics” is commonly used by landscape architects as a synonym for style or form. However, aestheticians, designers and psychologists recognize that aesthetics have the power to change how we perceive the world around us. Therefore, a deeper understanding of aesthetics – its underlying philosophy and its translation into design – has the power to change people’s responses to their environment.

Modern Western aesthetic theory has its roots in Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) philosophy of beauty. However, German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) introduced the term “aesthetics” into the contemporary lexicon to describe what he conceived as the “… science of what is sensed and imagined, in contrast to the science of what is known through rational thought.” 1 Following Kant, the concept of beauty shifted from being understood as a sensed objective quality to becoming known as a subjective attribute of the human mind. This shift in focus led to the concept of the “aesthetic attitude,” which was considered fundamental to the aesthetic philosophy of art.

The increasing importance and worth attributed to the aesthetic qualities of nature in the twentieth century led to a more inclusive understanding of aesthetics. Susan Feagin defined modern aesthetics as the “branch of philosophy that examines the nature of art and the character of our experience of art and of the natural environment.” She described four components important to aesthetics:

  • aesthetic attitude – special kind of attituderequired to aestheticallyappreciate art or nature
  • aesthetic experience – special type of experience that can be differentiated from other types of experiences
  • aesthetic value – distinctive value different from other types of values such as economic, religious or moral
  • aesthetic object – special object that can be called aesthetic. 2

For landscape architects, the two components that are important to understand are the aesthetic experience (or the response a user has to a designed landscape) and the aesthetic objects that provoke the aesthetic experience.

Contemporary theories of aesthetics can be divided into two groups. The first is the cognitive group, which maintains that an objective knowledge of something is required for a true aesthetic experience. For example, an understanding of botany, ecology, geology and the natural sciences are considered important for a true aesthetic experience of the natural environment. 3 The second is what Brady referred to as the non-cognitive group. 4 This group of theories focuses on the subjective side of the equation and recognizes that intellectual expertise is not essential for someone to have an aesthetic experience. Whether an aesthetic experience is based on a cognitive or non-cognitive footing, it is clear that it is a human response to something perceived.

To the four components described by Feagin, Marcia Eaton contributed the concept of an “aesthetic property.” Eaton’s definition of an aesthetic property implied that a perceiver must be consciously aware of the property to give it attention. She therefore defines an aesthetic property thus:

A is an aesthetic property of a work, W, in a culture, C, if and only if A is an intrinsic property of W and A is considered worthy of attention in C, that is, in C it is generally believed that attending to A (perceiving and/or reflecting) upon A will reward attention. 5

However, Rudolf Arnheim proposed that an aesthetic object may not require conscious recognition to create an aesthetic response or experience within an observer. 6 Therefore, this proposition must also apply to any potential aesthetic properties of an object.

A naturalistic path through a London Park.

A naturalistic path through a London Park.

Consider the two photographic views presented here of the same London park. Both of these views can be described as aesthetic. But what is the overriding aesthetic?

The second photograph exhibits a very linear form with strong one-point perspective. The primary visual properties here are the rigid linear path, the evenly spaced deciduous trees of the same size and species set on either side, the clipped hedges and the neat grass. All of these properties enhance the strong perspective. There can be no doubt that this is a designed and constructed landscape. The first photograph shows a different path through the same park. Here, the placement of the trees appears more random; their size and species differ and jonquils are growing in the grass. The path is curvilinear, hence the vanishing point is less dominant. A visitor might easily imagine that they were walking through some remnant woodland. Of course, both these sections of the same park were designed and constructed.

In this simple example, the properties described for each of the two landscape views must be considered as potential aesthetic properties inherent in that landscape. Whether visitors are consciously aware of these different aesthetic properties as they walk down the paths is unknown. However, if Arnheim is correct, these properties will provoke some kind of aesthetic response within users of these landscapes.

A linear path, in the same London park, with a strong one-point perspective.

A linear path, in the same London park, with a strong one-point perspective.

It must be recognized that an aesthetic experience, or response, is multifaceted – it involves all our senses. However, this experience is interpreted and modulated through such things as our cognition, emotions, memories and imagination.

Robert Thayer has argued that sustainability can only be achieved through the “perception and comprehension of the ordinary people.” 7 To achieve long-term sustainability, landscape architects must understand and learn to use aesthetic theory to help reinforce a positive aesthetic response to the environmental forms and processes essential within all our landscapes – even those forms and processes considered as “messy” or “unattractive.” To this end, one of the most powerful properties embedded within a landscape is its underlying geometric pattern, as it has been shown that people have a preference for the self-similar patterns of nature over the linear patterns of the urban environment. 8,9

To just describe a landscape as aesthetic is simplistic – every landscape will provoke some form of aesthetic response. The question that needs to be answered by the designer is: What is the primary aesthetic I am trying to achieve through this design?

1. N. Carroll, M. Moore and W. P. Seeley, “The Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Studies in Literature, Visual Arts, and Music,” in A. P. Shimamura and S. E. Palmer (eds), Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
2. S. L. Feagin, “Aesthetics,” in R. Audi (ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 13–14.
3. A. Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment (New York: Routledge, 2002), 247.
4. E. Brady, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 287.
5. M. M. Eaton, “Where’s the Spear? The Question of Aesthetic Relevance,” British Journal of Aesthetics,
vol 32 no 1, 1992, 1–12.
6. R. Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).
7. R. L. Thayer, “Gray World, Green Heart,” in S. Swaffield (ed.), Theory in Landscape Architecture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 189–196.
8. T. Purcell, E. Peron and R. Berto, “Why Do Preferences Differ Between Scene Types?” Environment and Behaviour, 2001, vol 1 no 33, 93–106.
9. B. Spehar et al., “Universal Aesthetics of Fractals,” Computers & Graphics, no 27, 2003, 813–820.



Published online: 28 Feb 2013
Words: Stephen Perry


Landscape Architecture Australia, November 2012

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