Now that we're on the threshold of a few families taking up residence in the Cloister, we're thinking more intently about the ways in which the landscape, both in common areas and individual lots, can support an enriched quality of life for everyone. Our thoughts have coalesced around three key principles: liminality, beauty, and functionality.
A liminal area is an area between or joining two other spaces. It's literally a "threshold" area through which one passes in order to enter or exit a different space. We often pay great attention to the liminal spaces formed within our homes, defining them way of porches, decorative doors, sidelights, attractive light fixtures, welcome mats, elaborate casings, foyers, etc.
Outside of the home, however, modern neighborhoods give virtually no thought to liminal spaces. Typically one finds front yards that are open and exposed to the street so that they function as de facto public space. Into this de facto public space any passerby can look and even enter, presumably along sidewalks. By contrast, one generally finds back yards that are closed off from adjoining properties by way of tall privacy fences so that they function as wholly private spaces.
Run-of-the-mill neighborhood site plans thus underwrite a sharp division of yards into public and private. They make it unlikely that thought or attention will be given to liminal spaces. Indeed, in doing this most neighborhoods merely ensconce a more pervasive split between public and private found throughout late modern American civic/social life.
Why does this matter? Whether in architecture, literature, academic disciplines, or life, liminal spaces are really important. It's within the intersection or threshold between two different kinds of spaces that we often encounter significant, creative, interesting possibilities that otherwise don't easily have a space to belong. Think about the importance of the teenage years; they're part of a crucial liminal space between childhood and adulthood, and it's within this liminal space that we grow into the independence, responsibility, and maturity needed for grownup life. For another example, consider the fruitful ways in which interdisciplinary research can open up solutions to problems that no one academic discipline is sufficient to address singly.
Similar things are true of interstitial spaces around and between our homes. When neighborhood site plans dictate that all spaces either wholly public or fully private, they foreclose possibilities for friendship, hospitality, conversation, and availability to one another that liminal spaces at their best enable. So, for instance, I may not know whether or not walking up to my neighbor's front door and ringing the bell is convenient, so I probably won't try because I don't like to be intrusive. Likewise, even if I hear my neighbors in their backyard, I'm unlikely to see or talk to them if they're behind a tall fence; I'll assume they they're enjoying private family time and don't want to be bothered by neighbors. This is the pattern of life in most neighborhoods. By contrast, if near the boundary of my neighbor's yard I find not a fence, but a footpath enveloped by low shrubbery or flowerbeds, I might approach but not enter beyond more significant landscaping features that define a plainly private portion of the yard. And if my neighbor is present at or near this liminal space to see me, he or she may well come meet me at the "threshold," as it were. We may talk a minute before parting ways, or we may leave together along the footpath to go see how the garden grows, or we may move further into the private spaces of the yard. The in-betweenness of this sort of semi-private/semi-public threshold space is an asset that supports sociality.
Our hope and intention with The Cloister at Cameron Park is to cultivate good liminal spaces that soften otherwise stark divisions between public and private space. Our two large common spaces are a key feature of the site plan for the neighborhood that are in service to this aim. The restrictive covenants provide another layer of planning to support threshold spaces by specifying expectations about park-side facades, provisions and limitations for location/height of fencing, design standards for yards/landscaping, etc. Yet beyond the site plan and covenants, we have to translate general principles into concrete details. Landscape architecture is rife with possibilities for bringing our hopes to life. Conversation and idea sharing as we implement the vision, so to speak, will be really helpful all around.
About beauty I could write much, but I'll be brief. Beauty matters!
None of us can help loving beauty. When a beautiful vista catches our eyes, we naturally look at it appreciatively, and at our best we give gratitude and praise to the God that made it. Beauty ennobles the human heart and mind. For good reason we build wondrously beautiful cathedrals that invite our spirits to soar in divine worship. Likewise, universities favor great architecture because it can elevate the mind. We aspire to greater thoughts and we do better academic work, presumably, in beautiful spaces than in dingy, ugly spaces. Beauty matters!
Keats finishes one of his famous poems with the line, "Beauty is truth, truth, beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." He thus binds together beauty and truth, and he does so in the context of a tradition that always added goodness to those two. Beauty, truth, and goodness are in this tradition called transcendentals; they exist above and beyond the ordinary stuff of everyday life. Moreover, each of the transcendentals is said to be convertible into the other. Beauty is thus another form of goodness, just as it is in another vein an alternate manifestation of truth. Taking such insights seriously means that beauty helps us peer into the nature of things (truth) and that it inspires us to fine, decorous actions (goodness). Beauty really matters!
Naturally, then, we care about the beauty of the homes, yards, and common spaces that comprise The Cloister at Cameron Park. Steve Sorrells is building beautiful homes, and it's wonderful to see the first few so well underway. We anticipate a landscape design and functionality to the common spaces that will be beautiful and inviting as well, capitalizing upon the natural loveliness typical of Cameron Park. No less do we want homeowners' yards, both street-side and park-side, to unite Steve's architecturally attractive work on the houses with the beauty of the common spaces. We have a great opportunity to maximize the potential for beautiful spaces at the intersection of homes, lots, and common spaces.
With the principles of liminality and beauty in mind, it's possible to add the conviction that form follows function. The form taken by landscaping in street-side and park-side yards should be guided by its functions in fulfilling needs for liminal, semi-private/semi-public spaces, beauty, and all of the other things for which we use our yards.
So first, the goals accomplished through attention to liminal spaces include fostering friendship, practicing hospitality, cultivating conversation, and enabling presence to one another. Creating liminal spaces at the boundaries of common area and individual lots invites us to resist the too-sharp bifurcation of life into either public or private. Friendship, hospitality, conversation, and the like, after all, flourish in the in-between spaces of our lives.
Second, Mary Oliver writes in one of her poems: "Beauty without purpose is beauty without virtue. But / all beautiful things, inherently, have this function-- / to excite the viewers toward sublime thought." Is it too much to say that sublime thought, nurtured and inspired by both natural and curated beauty, figures among the purposes of The Cloister at Cameron Park? We hope note. In a world in which banality and ugliness too often can diminish and demoralize our lives, we need beauty to call us into reverie and draw us into reverence.
And third, Because "all of the other things for which we use our yards" varies considerably from home to home, it's difficult to address all the possibilities. Park-side yards may be spaces in which to keep pets, hang hammocks, grill steaks, or maintain pools. Such disparate functions as these and others will bear differently upon the form that landscaping elements take. Yet however each homeowner integrates the form of yard-level landscaping with these kinds of functions, accommodating liminality and beauty as key functions bearing on form remains important. Here again, the restrictive covenants provide helpful baseline guidance.
With all of our neighbors-to-be we seek to be good and responsive friends cheering you on and working together in joint stewardship of a truly special neighborhood in the making. It's going to be great fun seeing how the landscape of our lives comes together.