Contemplative Garden

What is a Contemplative Garden ?

Artists have often lauded the role of art as a medium for contemplative experience leading to the experience of the transcendent. A landscape architect is an artist whose medium is the earth, plants and hard materials etc.

Landscape architecture can be considered as art, albeit one that often goes unnoticed, despite its presence in every city street, public park and residential garden.

If you accept the proposition that landscape architecture is an art form and art is a medium for contemplative experience leading to the experience of the transcendent, then contemplative landscapes can be designed specifically with this in mind.

For thousands of years humans have designed spaces that specifically aim at stimulating the intellectual and spiritual aspects of our lives. Cathedrals, mosques and the synagogues of Europe, the temples, shrines and gardens of Asia are all rich in design symbolic of the indivisibility of man, nature and the Divine. ”

Of course times have changed as they do.

The pragmatics of the technological revolution as an outcome of capitalistic enterprise and scientific endeavour has given the contemporary consumer access to many wondrous, previously undreamed of things in terms of quality of living e.g. health and education.

Yet, there has been a cost. We have been turned into consumers of material consumption and consequently we have become disconnected to who and what we are as human beings.

In daily life we have become prisoners of our own making. We dissociate ourselves from our ground in nature, each night in front of our televisions, passive participants in the human lusts and violence perpetrated on the screen. At the end of the evening, we go to bed, empty and dissatisfied by the life we lead.

We will do well to remember that we are more than economically driven consumers of technology and that the discomfort we feel is indicative of a disconnection from our intrinsic selves, a self that arises from nature and is inseparable from the Cosmos.

Kathryn E. Sonntagg (“The Role of the Transcendent in Landscapes" 2014) suggests that the design characteristics of a contemplative landscape would include:

  • the creation of a sense of vastness (external and internal)

  • use of archetypal design elements

  • reduction of outer, distracting stimuli

  • orientation within a larger order

  • the harmonious integration of spatial qualities

In addition to this list I would propose a number of other characteristics:

  • the feeling of imminent arrival upon entering the landscape

  • the encouragement of interaction with the landscape

  • the facilitation of ‘stillness’ within the min of the user

  • a repeated return to that landscape

So, as you will have gathered, designing a contemplative garden is not necessarily as straightforward as ‘putting a Buddha in the garden’, or ‘building a pile of rocks’ to look at.

How then do we create a contemplative garden in the modern, small garden, one that fits the above criteria ?