Nature and aesthetic are essential terms in our understanding of cultures, landscapes and ourselves, even though, we cannot describe them by the use of our language. The two terms have as many interpretations as the number of humans on the planet, and still we are using them as they only have one universal definition – ours. This leads to many unnecessary confusions and discussions that could be prevented through an understanding of the varieties of the terms. Professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT, Anne Whiston Spirn (1947-) has a great focus on the problems with humans losing their ability to understand the landscape.
“Losing or failing to hear and read, the language of landscape threatens body and spirit, for the pragmatic and the imaginative aspects of landscape language have always coexisted. Relearning the language that holds life in place is an urgent task.”
Anne Whiston Spirn (Spirn 2005)
In this essay, I reflect on the terms nature and aesthetic with the hypothesis that it is all about the atmosphere created in the interaction between subject and object – the physical context and the sensuous environment. It is something that in many ways rely on identities, narratives, imaginations and memories. The human beings are the centre for my examination of the two terms, through a reflection of their effects on the human mind and body.
Landscape is, according to the professor at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Kathryn Moore, more than the physical environment. It is something appearing in an interaction between memories, senses and environment.
“… it [the landscape] reflects our memories and values, the experiences we have of a place – as citizens, employers, visitors, students, tourists. It is the material, cultural, and social context of our lives.”
Kathryn Moore (Moore 2011, p. 468)
If landscapes reflect our memories, the individual understanding of nature has to do with more than the physical environment. It must be the atmosphere of the area, the sensuous impact on the human body, which makes nature undefinable; it is everything and nothing. The definition depends on many parameters such as professional, cultural and social identity of a person. The understanding of the nature is closely connected to human identity, which makes the philosopher Hans Fink (1944-) postulate the term nature as ambiguous. Culturally, the humans are the opposite of the nature because of the free will, consciousness, sense, science, technology, art, moral and religion. Scientifically, the humans are a part of the natural system as mammals living from resources of the nature (Fink 2003). Fink introduces seven ideas of the nature; the untouched, the wild, the rural, the green, the physical, the earthly, and everything. The first six ideas of the nature sees it as something different from the human beings, whereas the last works with nature as everything. Spirn defines nature as everything. To her, the nature is life-sustaining and creative processes connecting everything in the biological world and the physical universe, which also means humans.
“For me, nature is not a place, not a location in space, and not a particular feature like a tree or a mountain. I am always taken aback when someone says that they are going to ‘go out into nature’”
Anne Whiston Spirn (2005, p. 9)
Spirns statement is essential as it broadens the term nature and starts a discussion of the natural processes in the cities. Nature seen through Spirns eyes cannot be divided into natural and artificial. It is not the opposite of cities, but something present everywhere. Nature is not a question of an antithesis; city versus land, manmade versus natural and so on, but when I am on a football field or green flat lawn in a modernistic dwelling area, I do not feel the nature. I do not imagine me as being in the middle of the nature, even though I am aware of being in the middle of many physical and biological processes. The nature is something more to me. It is the atmosphere created in the intersection between the physical environment and sensuous impact on my body and mind. The nature activates all my senses. Through stimulations of my body, it sets my mind free. I can relax in the atmosphere of the nature. It fills me with positive thoughts and energy, making me happy. Just thinking about the nature activates my senses; I can smell the summer rain, hear the birds, feel the sand under my feet, I can even taste it. The visual imagination of the nature can actually be the most difficult, as the nature has so many faces. To me the nature is an atmosphere, which appears many different expected and unexpected places.
The many definitions of nature and aesthetic became clear to me this morning as I was visiting my hairdresser. As I was sitting on the chair as static as possible, I was partly pondering the terms nature and aesthetic, and partly flicking through the pages of a living magazine. The magazine had an article about arrangements with nature. The article started postulating that the beauty of the nature cannot be discussed, as nature is aesthetic. The article followed by showing many still lifes with arrangements with wallpaper, trophies, rustic wooden furniture and plastic. The nature in this magazine has gone from being everything (Sprin) over my definition of the atmosphere the physical and biological world creates to be the atmosphere alone only created by dead things. I can agree on nature having aesthetic elements, but I would not categorised the still lifes of the magazine as either aesthetic or nature, but that is just my definitions.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote large books reflecting on the term aesthetic. He sees aesthetic value as everything not having its beauty or truth in objects, but rather in definition. A landscape itself is not beautiful – it becomes beautiful when one decides it as such and society in general agrees, making beauty a property rather than an opinion (Ford 2015).
“But if we call anything, not only great, but absolutely great in every point of view (great beyond all comparison), e.i. sublime, we soon see that it is not permissible to seek for an adequate standard of this outside itself, but merely in itself. It is magnitude, which is like itself alone. It follows hence that the sublime is not to be sought in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas; but in which of them it lies must be reserved for the “Deduction”.”
Immanuel Kant (1790, p. 88)
In the definition of Kant, aesthetic becomes a term of intellect relating itself to the world of ideas instead of the physical world. This is easily seen in the history of art and architecture, where styles, fashion and ideas of beauty changes through times, but some works of architects and artists manage to travel through time keeping its status as beauty – as works of aesthetic. When I seldom experience something I will characterize as aesthetic, all the senses of my body are activated – it has a special atmosphere. The philosopher Gernot Böhme (1937-) talks of atmosphere as a concept of aesthetic saying the atmosphere is something between subject and object mediating between the aesthetic of production and that of reception (Böhme 1993).
“The aesthetics of atmospheres shifts attention away from the ‘what’ something represents, to the ‘how’ something is present.”
Gernot Böhme (1993, p. 114)
My experiences with aesthetic is closely related to emotions – it is when spaces gives me goose bumps. The atmosphere creates an identity telling something about my own identity – I am just a small piece in a bigger world. There is something greater, which is both frightening and comfortable. The atmosphere gives me a mixed feeling of fortune and sadness.
Working with the notion atmosphere in creating spaces means working with the intersection between the subject and object. Nature, aesthetic, art and architecture are just words – static structures build of many elements. It is in the world of ideas created of humans it become something more. Art and architecture live in their interaction with humans.
Böhme, G. (1993) Atmosphere as an Aesthetic Concept, Thesis Eleven 36: pp. 112-115.
Fink, H. (2003). Et mangfoldigt naturbegreb. In: P. Agger, A. Reenberg, J. Læssøe and H. Hansen, ed. Naturens værdi -vinkler på danskernes forhold til naturen, 1st ed. [online] Copenhagen: Gad. Available at: http://www.byplanlab.dk/sites/default/files2/Et_mangfoldigt_naturbegreb_Fink.pdf [Accessed 19 Mar. 2015].
Ford, P. (2015). What is Aesthetics?. [online] Paul Ford. Available at: http://paulford.com/what-is-aesthetics/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2015].
Kant, I. (1790). The critique of judgement. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Moore, K. (2011). Nature Culture. In: M. Mostafavi and G. Doherty, ed., Ecological Urbanism, 1st ed. Karlsruhe, Germany: Lars Müller Publishers, pp.468-471.
Spirn, A. (2005). Urban Nature and Human Design. In: The place of nature in the city in twentieth-century Europe and North America.