Updated: Sep 2, 2020
It is February 2019, a cold winter’s day in the state of Arizona, United States. We arrived at our destination a little later than planned, into the village of the celebrated Grand Canyon south rim. The ground, spare with trees, is white with snow, the chill air dry and icy.
We drove towards Yavapai Point, one of the most popular viewpoints dotted around the cliffs of the south rim. As we stopped in the carpark that serves the outlook, I could not help but observe the space, the design of which is typical United States national park style, if there is even such a style to speak of. The dark grey of the asphalt driveway extends into the carpark, which holds as many as 50 lots. There are no kerbs, and the asphalt meets abruptly with the snow-covered ground of the landscape surrounding the space. All these is contained by an unbroken line of balustrade, made up of three rows of timber logs and a series of vertical posts, natural and unfinished. A visitor toilet, directory and shed are some of the structures in here, and they are finished in a leaf green and beige colour scheme, in an attempt to match the natural surroundings. Beyond these barriers, our view is blocked by a heavy forest of trees.
As naturalistic as it seems to be, the carpark is a bland, infrastructural space designed to meet the needs of tourists coming to Grand Canyon in droves. Millions of carparks exist around the world, and none of which I have encountered are particularly memorable. This carpark, despite its best attempts, is no exception.
We walked up the path guiding us to the edge of the rim. As we reached, the view of the famous landscape, our true destination, is unveiled to us.
It is true, that the more celebrated a place is, the more difficult it is to fully articulate about it. Many others must have waxed lyrical about the canyon’s uninterrupted, breathtaking view: The way your eyes can wander across an invisible, but discernible flat plane all the way to a straight, distant, hazy horizon line, and under that plane, dropping at vertiginous heights of as much as 1.6 kilometres, the majestic fissures, crevices, plateaus and even peaks carved by the mighty Colorado river into the deep, shadowy recesses of the earth.
At the height of summer, the rusty-red tinge of the soil, exposed in horizontal stratums that tell of their ancient geological history, would have been spectacular against the sky-blue background. When we were there in winter, the sky was overcast and the peaks were dusted with snow. The red of the earth, while still visible, intermixed with the snow, portraying a view that is much more subdued.
We were eager to see more, and walked into the neighbouring Yavapai Geological Museum, a small building perched on the edge of the cliff, provided with wide glass panels for the visitor to fully embrace the view without hindrances of cliff-hanging vegetation.
As I take in the view, I imagined myself in one of those deep, dark recesses, with literally cliffs and mountains towering over me. It was then, retreating from this shuddering thought, and back into the bounds of the warm cabin, I came to a sudden realisation: I have not truly experienced this landscape and all it has to offer.
The truth of the matter is, I am looking at this landscape from the safe, protected distance of a tourist. To be sure, I was captivated by its majestic terrain, the colours of its sublime beauty, and its sheer massive scale. However, my experience is reduced to mere visual appreciation, taken in a series of camera-like snapshots to try to “see” as much as possible in the limited time spent here. Such is the trappings of modern-day tourism.
At around three o’clock, after an hour of walking and exploring another viewpoint, the sky began to darken. The temperature dropped rapidly, and the winds shifted. An ominous cloud began to push in from the horizon. We were told that a snowstorm is approaching and the viewpoints will be closed. We left hurriedly back to our hotel in the village and stayed for the night.
Wanting to see more of the canyon, we returned to the same carpark at 8 o’clock in the morning.
The carpark was magically transformed overnight. Morning light failed to penetrate the thick fog that had covered the sky, which rendered everything a pale shade of white. The green and brown colours were replaced with the pervasive snow, which laid 30cm over the ground, sinking the feet as we walked around. An incredible silence has descended upon the landscape empty of tourists, while the hubble and bubble of yesterday was replaced with the chilled breeze of the wind blowing on the continuing snowfall. I walked around, with freezing hands and an icy breath, and reflected to myself, humorously: The experience of this carpark is going to stay with me.
It seems rather comical that I would remember this carpark. After all, snow must have been nothing special, even considered a burden, to the locals. Perhaps it is the tourist mindset, or the fact that Singaporeans are not blessed with a similar climate? Maybe a bit of both influenced my thoughts.
But upon further reflection, I came to a deeper understanding: It is my direct and immersive experience in this simple, everyday space, previously forgettable but now elevated to something sensual and poignant, that makes it moving, and particularly memorable.
I am recounting the above narrative a year later, in the midst of Circuit Breaker measures. I write my experiences of Grand Canyon as an analogy to the public perception of local landscape design in recent times: Spectacular, majestic, even awe-inspiring at times, but ultimately – akin to experiencing Grand Canyon through the eyes of a tourist looking-glass – maybe a little bit removed from our mundane, everyday lives. This perception has been helped by a number of landmark public projects, amongst which, Gardens by the Bay, the recently completed Changi Jewel, as well as the upcoming Founder’s Memorial, stand out as prime examples.
The immense contribution of these projects in expanding our public domain is undeniable and worth every commendation. However, during this unprecedented crisis, we are not likely to enjoy these spaces. Instead, we are confined to the restrictions of our immediate surroundings - the neighbourhood of our homes, our commute to work, even the walk to the supermarket - urban landscapes which many might have taken for granted during a pre-crisis period, that is, referring to the analogy of the carpark in Grand Canyon.
This crisis has exposed all levels of human vulnerability. Our relentless pursuits for progress and achievements have left grave consequences on our use of the earth’s resources. As we gradually emerge into a post-crisis era, what role can landscape design take on to demonstrate its responsibility to a world humbled by the ravages of COVID-19? As we start to operate under a “new normal”, is it time for landscape design to rethink its priorities?
Like that bland carpark transformed overnight into a magical experience, can landscape designers elevate our ordinary, everyday urban environments, not into a spectacular “high design”, but rather something that is decidedly simple, multi-sensory, but ultimately, deeply moving?
Every day on my way to work, I walk through a lane wedged in between two buildings. The lane is long and narrow, at least 100m long with the bus stop visible at its end but 6m wide at most, the ground concrete-lined, but unfortunately broken in some places. Put in place for the conveniences of commuters, it is a simple, practical piece of infrastructure – bright, safe and pleasant, yet somehow, I feel, seems to be lacking in something.
I often thought: What if a row of trees were to be planted along this lane? It is a simple gesture. Yet the feeling of dappled sunlight on your skin, filtered through the trees from the intense afternoon sun, or the cool breeze that blows through the canopy – maybe a little cliché, and most might not notice it anyway, except being grateful for the shade – would it not give a particular “spirit” and improve our everyday experience of this common space: A subtle, consoling reassurance to help us trudge along in our mundane lives?
We experience our everyday environments not as tourists; On the contrary, these immersive environments participate in and impact our daily lives. Post-crisis, perhaps this is something landscape design should return to.
Author: Yeo Jiahao
Jiahao is a thinker, writer, designer, and a firm believer in beauty being synonymous with the good. Trained in both architectural and landscape design disciplines, Jiahao currently practises architecture in Singapore.