Wonder is a process, beginning with an encounter with the unexpected and extraordinary, and continuing into the search for understanding beyond the immediate and well-worn context of daily life. This gives us a new perspective that takes us out of ourselves and opens our minds to new possibilities and new connections with those around us.
As an experiment in creating wonder, I propose a series of interventions that incorporate metal surfaces into overlooked bits of urban structure in downtown Seattle. The surfaces are folded, structured, and positioned to highlight phenomena of light and water that originate in astronomical, hydrological, and climactic systems, transforming them into rare and fleeting moments of wonder.
By embedding them into the city’s fabric, the wonderment process extends beyond any single intervention to enhance our sense of connectedness and our awareness of the wider universe and our small and interdependent position within it.
wonder is the feeling of delighted surprise and confusion upon encountering something extraordinary and unexpected that defies conventional experience and requires a radical shift in perspective to achieve understanding.
puzzlement is the process of exploring something unfamiliar with the mind and with the senses.
epiphany is the realization that a particular moment is the intersection of larger-scale processes and systems.
phenomena is the subjective experience of light, water, temperature, or other natural force or substance.
system is a set of components all in relation to each other, whose emergent behavior is regular but at a scale dwarfing any individual component.
Light is made of photons moving in waves. As these waves pass through transparent and translucent materials – a process called transmission – they can be filtered, split into separate color wavelengths, refracted and bent, or scattered and diffused. This is what makes the soft glow underneath a canopy, the ubiquitous brightness of an overcast day, a rainbow, or ice halos. When light reflects off surfaces, it may be perfectly reflected as in a mirror, or (if the surface is rough or uneven, like a matte white wall or the water particles of a cloud) it may again be diffused. The most spectacular effects come when waves of light interfere with each other, creating the dancing ribbons of brightness and shadow we see near water. Using these phenomena to best effect depends on where you are: regions of the world that get lots of bright, direct sunlight can achieve different effects than those heavily blanketed in clouds. Common conditions can be shaped in unfamiliar ways, and rare conditions can be highlighted to become the focus of wonder.
The distortion of form and perspective in this large, reflective, jelly-bean-like sculpture gives us a new way to look at the world – literally. Like Escher’s spherical self-portrait, the rules of Euclidean geometry are upended, giving way to parallel lines that meet and bend the ground plane up to envelope the viewer. The city skyline, normally forgotten on the horizon, is raised above our heads. The distortions are playful, but because the world in the reflection plays by unfamiliar rules, they force us to look at the familiar through new eyes. Yet prolonged interaction can make the distortions normal again as our brains figure out the patterns. And the iconic nature of the piece calls attention to its own form as much as the reality is re-presents. To encounter it every day is to see it as another mundane piece of the city landscape, a landmark to navigate by instead of a source of new questions.
Grand Central is designed to be impressive. Its high windows let in shafts of light, the sun rays revealing themselves as they hit the particles of dust floating up from a thousand travelers. In the right conditions, even a daily commuter can be struck with wonder. The large open space is especially impactful for someone who has been sitting in a small enclosed space for hours on end. The ceiling, painted with constellations, acts like a cultural telescope, referencing the heavens beyond its vaults. It doesn’t accurately recreate the night sky, both because stars move and because the painters reversed the image by accident. But its position requires viewers to tilt their heads back and look upwards, participating in as much star-gazing as they will get in a city where the real stars fade against the ubiquitous glow of artificial light.
Nancy Holt frequently uses ‘locators,’ tubes that frame a view when you look through them – like a telescope or a microscope without magnification. Her most famous and magnificent use of locators is Sun Tunnels, a project composed of four huge concrete pipe segments in the middle of the desert. Arranged in a cross, each pair of tunnels is lined up with the solstice sunrise and sunset, one set for summer and one for winter. While the tunnels do frame the distant horizon at all times, when they frame a brief moment on these two particular days every year, they evoke wonder. The tunnels themselves fall away, removing extraneous stimuli and focusing laser-like on this one phenomenon. By precisely orienting objects to significant astronomical events, Holt highlights something not readily evident on a human scale, and so orchestrates an extraordinary experience for the viewer. For the rest of the year the tunnels sit like ruins, as if they exist for their own purpose, disregarding human immediacy. They require humans to reorient to their scope and schedule – that of the seasons they index.
This intimate chapel is full of wonder. Lights reflect off the surrounding moat when it fills with rainwater, into the interior, creating mysterious patterns across the walls. Sunlight streams in through a translucent skylight and bounces differentially off a suspended series of metal planes, fixing a toss of glitter in one moment of time. The natural materials and dim lighting give primacy to these two light-based phenomena, and direct the viewer’s attention outwards, to their hidden sources. We are meant to contemplate the mystery of their presence. Even knowing the technicalities of these phenomena does not diminish the actual experience of them. The beautiful and uncommon qualities of the chapel lead you to radical amazement, that key to spirituality, and to a heightened awareness of the diversity and detail of experience.
Steven Holl likes to play with light and color, and in this chapel diffuse glows emanate from unexpected corners. By setting lights and windows between overlapping surfaces and bouncing the light off brightly colored portions of wall, Holl creates phenomena that are rarely experienced elsewhere in nature or in architecture. It is reminiscent of stained glass but using reflected rather than transmitted light. It harkens back to traditional ways of creating holy places while at the same time creating something new to catch people off guard and put them in a better position to appreciate the divine – or at least creative architecture. In a place meant put visitors in an generous and receptive state of mind, the mysterious nature of these pools of color creates an atmosphere of wonder.
Located in the Park Hyatt Hotel, a grid of stone slabs transforms a courtyard into a theater of light and water for the guests looking out from the windows above. Each stone is subtly shaped into alternately convex and concave forms in order to pool water. Together they become pixels in an animation of reflection and evaporation. The sequence of rain and then no rain, leaving still puddles – and then sun, leaving bare rock – creates an ever-changing work of art. The landscape architect has made the canvas, making nature into the artist. The power of this work comes when the mechanism disappears, acting as a silent frame for water and light but nonetheless shaping these phenomena into something captivating. In experiencing wonder, as in designing it, the ego falls away as we confront something beyond the domain of the human.
Although infamous for its rain, Seattle’s predominant condition for nine months out of the year is overcast – and when it does rain, it is usually drizzling. The cloud cover acts to diffuse sunlight, creating a uniformly bright and desaturated atmosphere. Against this sameness, moments of concentrated, direct light, such as when the sun breaks out, are nearly as wondrous as rainbows. The city is situated between two mountain ranges and numerous bodies of water, yet it is easy for people treading the same path day in and day out under the endless grey skies to tune out from their environment, however rich it may be.
Downtown Seattle is also the hub of commuters’ daily grind. Commuters make the perfect target audience for wonder because they are more absorbed in routine than the rest of us. Placing interventions at key moments in the commuter narrative has the potential to affect the most minds to the greatest degree. With high contrasts and light playing off water, activated by global systems interacting with the local context, these interventions transform a mundane workday into something extraordinary.
To create wonder using luminosity, I set about experimenting with how materials can capture, bend, emit, and respond to light. For Seattle, I needed to look specifically at modulating ambient light, and I hit upon success with metallic surfaces. By curving them into semi-parabolic shapes, radiating star patterns appear. This phenomena works even in the diffuse lighting conditions so prevalent on my site, and is caused by imperfections in the reflective surface. A perfect parabolic mirror concentrates light onto a single point, but in an imperfect one, the rays of light intersect with each other after reflecting to create interference patterns, bands of light and dark, that respond to subtle shifts of position and lighting.
Glass and acetate can also create these patterns when they are curved, though with more subtlety due to their reduced reflectivity. They make up for this by transmitting and refracting light across their transparent surfaces. One intervention I designed to take advantage of this phenomenon was a stories-high sculptural shelter that arced across busy Pine street, next to Macy’s department store. This location was perfect for transforming the experiences of commuters, who would be coming up from the Westlake Bus Tunnel on their way to work. I carefully warped and positioned large plexiglass triangles so that they would cast arcs of light at the entrance to the tunnel when the occassionally-visible winter sun hit them in the morning. I paired this with semi-parabolic mirrors that reflected the arc of light down the escalator into the tunnel below. This way the effects of this morning burst of wonder could radiate throughout the day during the most dismal time of year.
The rarity of this light cascade would keep it from becoming mundane, but the spectacular quality of the sculptures themselves threatened to take center stage. The commercial, mall-like quality of the area made it seem gimmicky. And most problematic of all, the intervention had no ability to refer to larger systems – the structure could not be finely calibrated to achieve multiple levels of meaning, rendering shallow its one wondrous moment.
I returned to metal, which could be folded in precise ways. My next move was inspired by a windowless facade located on the top of a hill and with a view of the harbor. Windowless and covered in posters, I proposed turning it into a fountain. During heavy rains, water would sheet across the surface, and when the sun appeared, it would reflect off the glistening wall of water. Originally intended as a minor intervention, the idea proved so rich with possibility and nuance that I focused my entire attention on it. I looked for patterns of cladding that would interact with phenomena in intriguing ways, catching light at particular angles to reveal seasonal patterns and shaping the flow of water to index regional hydrology.
Things that seemed promising at first ended up being finicky and clunky to construct. Designs meant to modulate water as it streamed past had no interesting effects when I actually applied artificial rain to them with a spray bottle. Pyramidal darts could part streams of water and reflect light from particular angles, but were hard to tile with meaningful variation. Only by continuing to make and analyze did I find a technique that worked well: by folding the bottom of the tiles at an angle, I could both direct water and reflect light from specific directions. I could create larger patterns over the surface of the facade using only three variations – fold angled left, fold angled right, and unfolded. Water runs along the bottom edge of the folded tiles and drips at the final point, allowing longer or shorter runs of the same angle to vary the how strong the streams are. (Unfortunately you cannot cross the streams.)
There are actually three levels of manipulation to work with here: the tiling pattern, the fold structure, and the texture of the surface itself. Individual water droplets will cling to scratches in the metal, so the direction of the scratches can control how the droplets behave. Vertical and diagonal scratches allow droplets to flow down easily, leaving an even reflective sheen across the surface; horizontal scratches tend to stop droplets in their tracks and hold them in place, creating a dew-like effect that can sparkle in the sun; and circular scratches leave patches of both sheen and dew. I could now vary texture to control the patterns that emerge after it rains.
Unpredictable behavior led to frustrations and delight. While I had been looking at how light would create contrasting patterns on the facade itself, I did not expect to see the marvelous patterns cast by the tiles onto the ground below. This is why it proved impossible to work backwards, from desired phenomena to the particulars of the interventions: even very simple moves manifest in a myriad of effects. Sorting these out in order to design with them is a puzzlement process itself.
Since Seattle is already saturated with diffuse light, the direct reflectivity of the metal keeps light concentrated. The flat, folded edges that face in one direction all illuminate in concert, seeming to create a dozen new light sources that glitter as the sun moves. The interference patterns establish a dappling effect normally only seen in direct lighting conditions. And by introducing the element of water, sparkling refraction patterns can appear if the sun does poke its head out of the clouds. Though I choreograph these phenomena, the complex interactions between sun, rain, clouds, and metal mean that the unforeseen possibilities are the most exciting.
Seattle presents particular conditions for creating wonder. Here I developed one language, that of vertical and horizontal metal surfaces whose reflectivity make patterns of light that are unfamiliar in the city’s dull, overcast, rainy environment. Positioned so that their most luminous phenomena occur only a few times during the year, at certain confluences of rare events, they create wonder by revealing natural phenomena in dynamic and unpredictable ways.
Other places will need different strategies. Boston, for example, gets direct sunlight throughout the year. In this case we might introduce diffusion to break from the norm, or employ such effects as dappling and shadow-play that can only occur in direct light. Crisp, cool shadows on pale stone, revealing familiar structures in unfamiliar ways, might be the language for evoking wonder in such conditions. Meanwhile, a place like the desert may already have wonder embedded in its environment, such as the overnight blooming of flowers after a sudden thunderstorm.
This is why cities are the most in need of intervention: we construct them to shield us from the unexpected. Straight streets bounded by sidewalks and corridors of buildings, regularly spaced trees and lights, signs that label everything so as to remove mystery, and the ubiquitous material patterns of concrete, brick, steel, and glass. The urban experience is characterized by predictable narratives with a consistent scale and a fixed perspective. It becomes embedded into memory until we stop seeing the complexities and microclimates that make one place different from another: it is all a variation on ‘city.’ Whatever language is used for creating wonder, it must be something that changes unpredictably and beautifully in response to site-specific phenomena, calling attention to these while at the same time allowing its own form to fade into the background.
I ask two questions of each intervention to keep myself from avoiding mere spectacle: does this intrude on one’s mind and experience in a pervasive way? And, does it extend beyond the immediate situation by tapping into the larger context? As a series, the interventions become the context for one another. The puzzlement process extends beyond a single moment of wonder as experiencers seek to tie the interventions together into a cohesive whole. Yet these are not to be understood so easily, as an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine connected by clever mechanisms. They must be understood within the city at large: an intervention is wondrous here and now because the sun is just visible between those two tall buildings at this time of year, or because the water is flowing in such a direction, or because it rained last night and now the sun is breaking out at last... the epiphany I hope to reach is that the city itself is full of wonder.
The set of interventions is not a small system, complete in and of itself. Seattle residents encounter each piece of the puzzle at different points in time as they go about their regular activities. Each piece evokes probing questions – where did that phenomenon come from? why did it happen now? – that cannot be answered from the immediate context, nor simply by referencing the other pieces. It is a slow game, played over the course of years, that encourages its players to be attentive to the beauty and magic that pervades the city as a whole. Is that another ‘intervention,’ or the light reflecting off a window in a peculiar and wonderful way? My intention is to increase people’s general awareness of the world around them so that they recognize the city as an interplay of large, complex, dynamic systems, that they may become more open to possibilities and connections.
Wonder may seem a strange subject to do a landscape thesis on, but to me it makes perfect sense. Landscape architecture is entirely about creating environments that affect their human and non-human inhabitants. Many landscape issues, such as stormwater management, have well-defined constraints and solution spaces. But trying to evoke a particular mood, such as wonder, requires a more intuitive approach. As someone who relies heavily on her analytical side, I wanted to push myself to build new design muscles while I remained in the academic bubble. I struggled at first to find a topic that was challenging to me personally: it had to be big-picture enough to be inspiring, yet specific enough to tackle in one semester.
So how do I create wonder? The variables at play are too numerous and complex to set down in an equation that churns out wondrous landscapes. Working with such a fuzzy concept forced me to tackle a problem without knowing what the solution might be going in. I had to create my own constraints and then experiment within them. I played with ideas in model, perspective, conversation, and imagination to see if they resulted in the complex, emergent interactions that I was looking for. And as with learning anything new, it was an awkward and arbitrary process at times. But working with wonder allowed me to set aside my inner engineer and find deeper and more powerful modes of designing.
Wonder has profound effects on the mind. When I experience wonder, I feel more engaged with the world. I forget my usual shyness and connect with those around me in the spirit of communitas. The universe seems wide open and inviting, no matter how dismal it was a moment before. Since wonder positively impacts the way we perceive our society and our environment, it should also be integrated into more discrete design problems: for example, why can’t an artificial wetland profoundly move us? Would that not increase our awareness and respect for the systems that sustain us? Can introducing mystery into the fabric of mundane life make our participation in the landscape more meaningful? And what if wonder is not the only thing lacking in our modern environments – what new kinds of spaces do we need to fulfill the entire range of human experience?
Many thanks to all the wonderful people who helped me with my thesis, especially my thesis advisor, Scheri Fultineer, who always challenged me to push for more; Kaki Martin and Eric Kramer, who asked me the hard questions; and Lili Herman, who taught me how to be messy. Also to the many designers who have shared their time with me for inspiring conversations: Emily Wilson, Jane Androski, Becca Hanson, Maggi Johnson, Kristine Kenney, Karen Kiest, Kenneth Philp, Alissa Rupp, Audrey West, Daniel Winterbottom, Matt Wood, Scott Holsapple, Jennifer Guthrie, Brice Maryman, Tom Haddad, and Laura Drugan. And last but not least, to my fellow classmates, my comrades in arms, who helped fill our studio with madness, love, and cardboard.