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A Meaningful Landscape: Not a Matter of Size or Complexity

Ruozhu originally wrote this pictorial essay on Labrador Park for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student at the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning.

Figure 1: Rain Tree at Labrador Park (Ruozhu Xu, 2022)

It was an ordinary tropical night and it was just beginning to get dark at Labrador Park. I had changed into sports gear and decided to take a short jog along the water. Something caught my eye. I saw a big tree standing in an open field, away from the walking path. Few people were sitting underneath the tree, chatting and chilling. I slowed down my pace and eventually stood still to look at the whole image. There was something about the scene that felt familiar and made me feel calm.

Then I had an epiphany. Landscape design may not always be grand and innovative gestures that give people new experiences. Sometimes, a simple landscape setting like this big tree beside the water could inspire associations with memories, which would encourage people to stay and enjoy the landscape.

What triggers the impression?

In many movies, when a big tree or a large body of water is present, it’s usually rendering a peaceful and loving scene that most people would enjoy. For example, in the movie Forrest Gump, the “happiest time” of Forrest’s life is narrated in the scene with tranquil water in the background and he is seated together with his most important person in the foreground. When Jenny, his wife passed away, Forrest buries her under a big tree, the same tree that the couple loved and played under since they were little. The tree is a witness to the couple’s growth. With Jenny’s death, it becomes a protector to guard their treasured memories.

Figure 2: Forrest Gump, together with his most significant people in his life, is sitting next to a peaceful lake. (Reddit)
Figure 3: Forrest looks back to the tree with his wife Jenny’s tomb next to it. (Pinterest)

When a similar scene occurs in real life, people would naturally picture themselves as the protagonist and would want to experience the peace and love embodied in the scene. Such a stage-actor relationship has formed and inspired a lot of garden designs since the early times. Landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes the relationship between art and nature: “these gardens were arranged as theaters…human visitor was both spectator and actor” (Rogers, 2001). I find interesting the idea of gardens arranged as theaters. Similar to the human body, landscapes provide the physical torso, whilst theater and art create soul and emotions within the body, together creating the human experience of being alive.

Soul-Making of a Landscape

Soul-making is about creating a meaningful landscape or a meaningful story. And when we write a story, we usually use techniques to make the story compelling and memorable. For example, in the movie Forrest Gump, the same lake setting is used in different scenes with various characters to signify the evolution of Forrest’s life. The lake remains the same, Forrest remains the same, but the people accompanying him change. This inspires a sigh at the brevity of life but also expresses the continuation of it. Like the big tree in Figure 3, everything is the same except for the people.

The water and the tree in the movie are being used to emphasize and hint at the actual meaning of the scenes and the story. In addition to emphasis, allegory was also used in the movie. The lake, to me, is a metaphor for Forrest’s safest and happiest home, and the tree is the protector that safeguards him and Jenny from Jenny’s violent father and their treasured memories since childhood.

Though different people might have interpretations of the meaning of the scenes, “the inclusion of many interpretations may allow a more generous understanding…” (Herrington, 2007), which enriches landscapes with meaning.

Less is More

My mind returns to the original site at Labrador Park. A simple landscape setting like a big rain tree, a log for sitting, and a large body of tranquil water can provide a rich space for imagination, and allow people to be the protagonist in their own stories. Moreover, such a setting could be created elsewhere to make people feel secure and calm.

Considering its surrounding context, Labrador Park is a neighborhood nature park situated in a highly urbanized area. It is a place where people like to go and relax after a long day’s work or to sit quietly alone. So, I see the tree and water as a therapist, silently inspiring the calming of frayed nerves. This is meaningful enough to me to revisit this place over and over again.

A landscape can be meaningful no matter its size and complexity. A complex landscape can provide new experiences and inspirations. A simple landscape can offer a breathing opportunity in this complex world and let the people decide what their story is and will be.


Ruozhu Xu is a story-telling landscape designer passionate about the urban built environment and its relationship with user groups. She is also an amateur grooming assistant who has successfully given her cat four enjoyable baths.

Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong

Rogers, E.B. (2001) Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. 1st Edition edition, New York: Harry N. Abrams. pp. 236
Herrington, S. (2007) Gardens Can Mean, Landscape Journal, 26, 302–317.
Herrington, S. (2017). Landscape Theory In Design. Routledge.
Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1994). Forrest Gump [Film]. The Tisch Company Productions.

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