The Paradigm Shift and Spaces of Meaning

»Paradigm shift« has been, for at least a decade now, one of the most used phrases in landscape architecture. We use it mainly to address the need to focus on design with natural processes in mind. This is important as it concerns our core values, attitude towards nature, the understanding of natural processes and the cycle of life. In other words, our view of nature as an untamed, wild, mysterious world out there has shifted to an increasingly more scientific view of the multitude of human-induced problems threatening the ‘natural balance’ if such a thing ever existed. We are now aware of the threats of the human impact on the planet and its systems, and we named this era of Earth’s history Anthropocene. It is not possible to talk anymore about the meaning of places without realising this problematic global dimension. 

Some fifteen, twenty years ago, the image of the Wanderer Above the Mist (Caspar Friedrich, 1818) was widely shown in lectures, papers and publications, and it seemed that its metaphorical charge was at the time appropriate and relevant. Today it seems obsolete or at least outdated. It was replaced entirely by the title image of the movie The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). At a landscape architecture conference I visited, the image on the right was shown in three different papers on the same day.

The nature observed by the Martian is far from a mysterious, untamed and endless spring of life. Science warns Earth may end up quite like those deserts on Mars, should we trigger enough of the irreversible natural processes, leading to the climate breakdown and loss of ecosystems. In front of the Martian, we observe our own future where the margins of nature’s capacity are all too tangible. This nature is exhausted and damaged. The problem is clear, and the threat is very literate. It is in the solution and hopes where mystery resides.

The old nature, the romanticised one where humans are considered aliens, is today, in the professional discourse at least, considered merely an inappropriate illusion or a lamenting memory of the times before the industrial revolution. The old nature is dead, long live new nature!

To illustrate the impact of this paradigm shift on the meaning of place, let’s look at the typology of cemeteries and private gardens. In these two typologies, our relation to nature usually gets expressed more clearly. 

All open public spaces can be, of course, meaningful, but they are at the same time incredibly messy as they have to respond to a multitude of interests and other complexities. In terms of meaning, they are as messy as society itself. Gardens and cemeteries are less so. In the history of landscape architecture, both typologies have a clear purpose and share a reference to a world outside. They extend between ‘here’ and another, much more abstract coordinate of ‘there’.

When it comes to gardens, this other space is pristine nature. Gardens have been sort of portals, urban avatar landscapes or better pocket Arcadia, grown in backyards and mixed with the personal preferences of the landowners. As such, gardens reflect an individual’s attitude towards nature.

More and more in the profession, gardens are being designed as small units of urban wilderness. Biodiverse gardens as spatial cells may together form an ecological tissue often squeezed between urban cores and the ecological desert that is an agricultural landscape. Studies find that the ecological value of clusters of biodiverse and flowery gardens is significant. With the increasingly blurred lines between social and environmental issues, owning a private garden is becoming more and more of a political situation. The notion of responsibility is coming into focus.

Owning a garden in some cities and communities, you still need to abide by strict rules, demanding specific limitations such as cutting grass to a certain height, eliminating overgrowth, weeds and so on. We will need to overcome this misunderstanding, this collision of the concept of neglect and a natural process of growth and biodiversity support. 

LILA 2019 for Private Gardens went to such a garden. Essentially a ‘friendly assault on Canadian Lawn‘, it reveals the paradigm shift perfectly. Dietmar Straub and Anna Thurmayr designed a garden for a Winnipeg suburb, and in their own words, the garden “cleverly bypasses the city bylaw that insists on a maximum height of six inches for grass. With the monoculture of trimmed lawns cultivated on neighbouring properties, the community bylaw inspectors are perplexed by our atypical garden. The grass cannot be decreed a neglected lawn. No rule is broken. No ticket issued.

In the case of cemeteries, this other world references the ‘beyond’, the ‘afterlife’. Cemetery landscapes serve the individual, but their structure, of course, manifests the collective, Big Other’s relation towards nature, life and death. French philosopher Jacques Lacan used the term Big Other to describe the symbolic order, which encompasses the social, cultural, and linguistic systems that structure human reality. It represents the shared beliefs, norms, and values of a given society. The symbolic order is characterized by a network of meanings, rules, and signifiers that shape how individuals perceive and experience the world.

It is the way the collective facilitates the intimate, inner discussion of the individual with the absolute. As designers, landscape architects are a major party in this process. 

Landscape architecture-wise, this translates to physical landscape situations that bridge spatial facts and the symbolic order. Usually, at cemeteries, tall trees will extend towards the sky, as other vertical structures, walls, enclosed spaces, and monumental vistas that seem like airports for the departing souls. These structures are supposed to offer a platform for reflection and dealing with the feelings that come with loss.

Landscape architects have been trying to capture something larger than us, some kind of ‘divine presence’ in whatever scale they had at their disposal, and they mainly used the usual tools to achieve these effects: morphing topography and curating vegetation and light. This ‘curation’ was, of course, more possible when designing for the forest, where playing with volumes and light is more possible. 

Special attention is dedicated to the notion of emptiness in order to emphasise void, nothingness that would host the gravity of feelings that come with loss. Presence by means of absence. German philosopher Martin Heidegger stressed that existence is not merely the presence of beings but is fundamentally intertwined with nothingness. He argued that the experience of nothingness or emptiness is an essential aspect of human existence, as it allows for the possibility of meaningful engagement with the world.

A recent example that ‘builds’ on the void would be the extension for Loenen Cemetery by karres en brands, 2021. 

So the main component of the paradigm shift is the knowledge that nature, untouched by human activity, no longer exists and humans are an inherent and growing part of it. It seems the notion of Anthropocene directly acts against the idea of an ‘other’ place. There is no other nature; there is only one, the one outside your door, inside your door, and the one involved in the production processes of your door. It is as if we owe this sobriety and disenchantment to the sheer possibility of getting out of the mess we managed to get ourselves and every living body into.

In light of this paradigm shift, some cemeteries have already gone through a transformation. The intensity of this shift varies from culture to culture; there are numerous progressive and ecological approaches to burying practices in the Western world, and most of them involve processes of biodegradation and revolve around the notion of the cycle of life. In general, cemeteries have been changing relatively slowly up until now. A wave of new ecological approaches to burial, such as water cremation and human composting, is gaining traction in the US. 

New burial solutions are being developed with the aim of using less space, getting rid of the environmentally unfriendly embalming process, concrete structures and cremation. The disintegration of embalming fluids can poison the soil and underground water. The carbon footprint of an average cremation is between 150 to 200kg of CO2, depending on the efficiency of the crematorium. FYI, a diesel car with a consumption of 6l/100km on a distance of 700km outputs 197 kg of CO2. Even though you can only get one cremation per life, the CO2 output is not insignificant. But let’s not get lost in technicalities.

In Spain, Batlleiroig Arquitectura  (winner of this year’s LILA Office of the Year) continue to work on their long-term cemetery project in the Roques Blanques, with the recently completed stage of the project Forest Path

At the Forest Path, the ashes of the deceased are, together with a wooden urn, put into a Krainer wall structure, where they will disintegrate together with the logs and give organic matter to the vegetation to emphasise the cycle of life. In the words of Batlleiroig, “the common interest in respect for the environment and nature, have made it possible to propose a cutting edge proposal in the new forms of grave, ecological and 100% biodegradable.

There are no tombstones, the habitat is the memorial. Turning one’s remains into fertilizer after the last voyage is becoming more and more popular. The link to the divine or that ‘larger than us’ moment is no longer found in monumental designs but instead in the processes of disintegration, decay, nature taking over, flowers, butterflies, beetles and worms. 

The knowledge that there is only one nature, the immediate nature, touched by human activity in its absolute entirety, is signalling the shift of the spiritual from the outer worlds to the very immediate surroundings, manifested through technicalities of natural processes. Also in the case of cemetery landscapes. After our eventual demise, we are, after all, ecological and 100% biodegradable.

On the other hand, cemeteries designed the ‘old way’ offered some of the most inspiring landscapes. As they are full of the above-mentioned abstract charge, contrasts, isolation and visual effects, they not only serve as vessels for grief and remembrance but also for all kinds of reflections that concern the inner and outer worlds. If you are burdened by the painful loss of a loved person or not, cemeteries are, in general, powerful experiences, right? In other words, the intended ‘presence of the divine’ works on a more universal level. It engages a specific mindset. You don’t need to be religious to pick up and emotionally respond to abstract suggestions of the architecture of a church. Or an old abandoned factory, for that matter. It is about spatial facts, isolation, and proportions that will boost your imagination or address your feelings. These are powerful moments, like crossing a bridge, standing on the edge, or seeing a crowded city from the enchanting secrecy of roofs.

Dealing with the loss of a loved person through the emergence of habitat seems in sync with our understanding of nature in the Anthropocene. But we have yet to see if looking at nature at work, worms and butterflies, decaying wood, along with the remains of the deceased, will give us a strong-enough platform for dealing with death. 

In an increasingly pressured world where we are implementing green and blue infrastructure, it’s worth remembering that landscape architects also deal with infrastructures of other colours that refract through the prism that is the landscape.

Both gardens and cemeteries have been very intimate spaces in terms of meaning and reflection. Due to the paradigm shift, this intimacy now interacts with nature as the absolute in which the individual is immersed. There is a new, global dimension to the once-long-distance relationship between the individual and nature. 

written by Zaš Brezar

Published on July 5, 2023

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