Rituals of Place: Measure and Meaning in Ephemeral Landscapes

Carley Rynar, Bradley Walters, and Adeline Hofer

Site mapping, by Carley Rynar. Time, atmosphere, and itinerary interact with recordings of native flora and fauna encountered. The following journal record was recorded: “As my camera is fixed in one direction, I roam, I move about the landscape as my mind moves from thought to thought. I catch myself in an unfocused gaze, not looking at anything in particular, but looking. It’s almost when my vision becomes out of focus I can see more, the birds flying from tree to tree, the bushes every so slowly moving with the wind.”

When we engage the physical world outside the studio, site and landscape become more than passive tableaus or inert media within which we operate. The lands within which we work are, in fact, complex and nuanced fields marked by overlapping and competing systems. When we consider the human condition within these natural systems, there are a number of new issues that arise. Culture, history, belief, social structures, psychology, reason, passion, and memory enter.  

Each singular human encounter with a place is unique, since both the physical environments and the people that engage them are continually evolving and changing. Many of these changes are so small—or so slow—that they are often undetectable. It is imperative to consider both the human condition and the landscapes that we occupy, embracing intersections that initiate conversation, and reading both to uncover aspects about them that may not be readily legible.  

James Corner frames these as “eidetic” operations:

“Whereas imaging is central to forging landscape, the tendency of many contemporary landscape architects to assume that this prioritizes visual and formal qualities alone significantly limits the full eidetic scope of landscape creativity. I use the term eidetic here to refer to a mental conception that may be picturable but may equally be acoustic, tactile, cognitive, or intuitive. Thus, unlike the purely retinal impression of pictures, eidetic images contain a broad range of ideas that lie at the core of human creativity.”

Corner, James. “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes.” In Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, edited by James Corner, 152-169. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Discrete sensory perceptions co-mingle with personal memories, gradually replacing direct perception and precise singularities with broader generalities and/or preconceived notions. The shared natural landscape yields to the personal, constructed landscapes of distracted bodies in motion around one another. Our individual experiences are tempered and framed by our own lived experience, prohibiting us from seeing and experiencing through an unbiased lens. An individual’s mental tool kit speaks to the particular ways in which we, as individuals, perceive cognitively and respond to stimuli, through the present, the imagined, and the remembered.

For the beginning design student, it is hard to understand the complexities of place, especially place as shaped by our human condition. This paper proposes a ritual process of regular field visits, rigorous data collection, and reflection that allows one to draw out the tangible and intangible facets of place. Data collection includes photography, in-situ drawing, journaling, sound recordings, and calibrated annotations, providing vehicles for the (re)construction of itinerary, narrative, and place. It is the ritual, implemented over an extended period of time, that allows for a gradual slowing down, giving one an opportunity to be more acutely aware of changes in the physical environment. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the phenomenal, physiological, and psychological aspects of site, and our individual body’s role in the shaping of space. While the work begins with a series of personal experiences, we seek to distill those spatial conditions that transcend our own authorial selves and become meaningful to others.

Serial site photographs, by Carley Rynar. Note the atmospheric changes apparent over time. The following annotation was recorded alongside these images: “Wetlands was dry. The dock that once balanced over the gloomy reflective water was now rooted in the ground only two feet below. I felt like I was trespassing, like I should not have seen her like this. Erasing all ambiguity and wonder about what lies below her surface, she felt exposed.”

This essay was co-authored by Carley Rynar, Bradley Walters, and Adeline Hofer. It was presented at the National Conference of the Beginning Design Student (NCBDS) at Ball State University on 1-2 April 2022 as a part of NCBDS 37. It was subsequently published in the proceedings, as follows:

Rynar, Carley, Bradley Walters, and Adeline Hofer. 2022. “Rituals of Place: Measure and Meaning in Ephemeral Landscapes,” in Proceedings of the National Conference on the Beginning Design Student 2022, edited by Sean Burns & Kristin Barry, Muncie IA: Ball State University.

NCBDS 37 features 98 authors from 57 universities in five countries. The published abstract book can be downloaded from the following link: NCBDS 2022 Abstract Book.