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Landscape Zen at the University of Oregon

“To plan or make decisions about something that is being built or created.”

This is one of the definitions of the word, “design.”

In Landscape Architecture, this has always been a primary function. Forward-thinking. Imagining and then producing what may be, can be, ought to be. It is envisioning the future. It is filling a void.

What if, however, just for fun, we were to embrace the void? What then? Perhaps, just to switch things up, design became about removing substance rather than creating more. Can we learn from the negative space? Can more be created with less?

Yes, yes, and a resounding yes!

At LandCurrent, such a process is underway. A Zen-inspired courtyard at McKenzie Hall on the University of Oregon campus has been the focus of a desired revitalization project. The usual introductions were made on site, naturally, in order to become better acquainted. Photos, measurements, and a brief history all commenced. Questions were asked. What is the present relationship this space has with its day-to-day visitors? What can be done to improve this relationship through the vehicle of design? You know–the usual form and function drill that is vital to design decisions.

However, something was very different here. Specific attention to Zen Design principles surprisingly afforded an unexpected perspective towards this little rectangle of concrete, plants and rocks. The results, magically, somewhat reversed that usual process.

The concept of “ma” is about emptiness. It is focusing on that negative space where energy flows. Ma is an essential component of Zen Design. Delicately removing elements from the existing garden, one at a time, until only the most minimal of frameworks remained was task one. A small island of plantings, and a solitary basalt column were all that remained. Seating, edges, pathways–all removed. How is energy flowing in this space? Energy, naturally, included both mental energy, from a strictly visual perspective, as well as the physical energy of bodies moving in and through the space of the courtyard. How is this energy maximized and flowing positively? How is it lost and wasted within the framework of the space? Understanding this flow of energy was crucial.

Secondly, the Zen mind embraces the concept of “wabi-sabi.” This is the balance of perfect and imperfect, new and old, pristine and worn with age. The brutalist architecture of McKenzie Hall has developed a distinct patina over time. This is shared equally by the concrete surface of the building and the long wall that separates the courtyard from the outside flow of the campus. This stained surface also resonates in the solitary basalt column that demands attention in the current design symbolizing the Three Sisters in Oregon’s Cascade Mountain Range. The design decision that followed was to continue to embrace the weathered, richly textured components of the garden, and then juxtapose them with clean, new elements. Wabi-sabi at work.

Together, the future McKenzie Halls lies poised and ready to begin breathing again. The stagnated energy flow will be re-opened. The story of what was will be clearly visible alongside the new layer of what is. Minds will ponder, bodies will flow, and balance will be restored.

Yes, embracing the emptiness is a great way to start. Less is, truly, often the most one could possibly want or need. Perhaps, in the design world, it may just be everything.

(To be continued…)

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