As Baudelaire once said “The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform.”
Nobel prize winners (1973) for their work in animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen worked with “supernormal stimuli”. A supernormal stimulus refers to an exaggerated version of a stimulus. Lorenz, for example, discovered that birds would prefer to incubate artificial eggs to their own – if the artificial eggs were identical but larger. More recently (2011) similar Nobel prize-winning research has demonstrated that beetles will copulate with the supernormal stimulus of discarded beer bottles. In an evolutionary and adaptive sense animals seem hard-wired to go big or go home.
Human animals are no different – we also tend to move toward supernormal stimuli whether one is considering a cheeseburger or aspects of human anatomy. Think of Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” which, despite it’s source of inspiration being liquid mercury, is most often referred to as “the bean”. Or Hapa Collaborative’s gigantic bright red “bendy straw” in Vancover’s Mid-Main Park, that references the history of the site. Given the grounding of landscape architecture in the natural sciences, our professional mandate for stewardship, and the current state of ecological crisis how might such scaled up truths serve clients and users and the environment?? And is going “big” the only approach? Is additional thinking required?
In my recent work with Schollen & Company Inc. Landscape, some of our discussion has centered on bi-directional scaling of stimuli – taking big things and making them small and small things and making them big – all with the goal of providing landscape users the opportunity to “notice” and connect with ecology.
As Senior Designer and Project Manager of the newly opened Rouge Crest Park in Richmond Hills, Ontario, we took great pleasure and pride in going both big and small before going home. In this park the sun and its rays manifest as scored elliptical tree pit grates which shrink both light and the cosmos under the shade of a tree while eschewing the traditional forms of round or square.
Where a significant boundary to movement is required the innate attraction of humans to maintained grass is scaled up in a towering weathering steel fence, its rust colours punctuated by vibrant green, its upper limits shorn as if mown. Pathways have transformed to giant birch trunks; movement along the path is akin to scaling the tree’s bark. Tiny snowflakes drift as giant benches in the shade of trees.
Those exploring the scale of the park at its fullest scale will discover a spiral hill where an elliptical stone bench ensures direct in contact with a quote from Burroughs: “ I go to nature to be soothed and healed and have my senses put in order”. In the world of landscape architecture both big and small can appeal to the senses and perhaps this is central to putting our world back in order.