Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas vs. Swissmas?

Basel has been strung up, lit up and decorated to the hilt. But in a good way. In fact, I so like the Swissmas'd appearance the city now has, that I have taken Field Trips with the sole purpose of taking photos of Basel all dressed up in its holiday finest. This is not a typical Field Trip for me. At home, we rarely decorate for lack of time or lack of desire to increase the electric bill for the month of December.

What does this have to do with landscape architecture and what has it done to me, you ask? It is all about being out in the cold, enjoying the outdoors, friends, food and the landscape. The Baslers have Swissmas'd their city and everyone loves it.

Just like any fine example of landscape architecture, one major intent of the design is to make the visitor feel welcome and want to use the space. If the space is well-liked and utilized, that is a good sign that the design was a success. For a landscape architect, this extends beyond the physicality of the space, or at least it should. You need to get into your clients brain a little. You need to listen to them.

What makes people want to use a space? Sights, sounds, smells. And most importantly, comfort. The landscape needs to be suited for its natural domain, not forced. A poolside tropical paradise looks like a misfit in the backyard in upstate New York in the winter. It just isn't natural. But using what you have on site, climatically speaking, is!

So back to Basel and my theory. If you string it, light it and decorate it, they will come, temporarily. And you will behold the marvel of people actually using public space for programmed activities, in the cold, and loving it, temporarily. In the winter. Imagine that. Cities all over the colder parts of Europe are doing just that right now. People travel from all over the world to see the Weihnachtsmarkts, or Christmas markets, all over Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland. And if there is a little snow, well, then it is like icing on the cake.

I am from the snow belt of western New York. Snow is in my blood. If I could have it every day, I would. I love to ski, shovel, play and have great Snow Days. I don't even mind bundling up for the cold. There it is, my theory - bundle up for the cold. After two and a half decades in chilly Ra-cha-cha, I was very tired of people who lived there for ages complaining about the lovely white stuff. I wanted to say, "Hey, you have lived here since dirt was discovered. Yes, it snows EVERY year. This isn't anything new. In fact, global warming is making it snow less. So quit your complaining and zip up that coat after you put another layer on. And how about some boots, gloves and a hat?" I have no sympathy. There is no bad weather, just bad clothing decisions.

What is it about the season that I think the Swiss do better? The Swiss seem to realize that enjoying the season is about spending time with friends and loved ones. Instead of mall shopping, the Baslers make a temporary event of it. They turn their little slice of urban winter into a place that has sights, sounds, smells and tastes that anyone can appreciate, regardless of religion. Then when it is over and the calendar changes to the next year, it all goes away and doesn't come out until next December. No Christmas in July or months of returns and exchanges. You don't even need cash to enjoy a Weihnachtsmarkt. Just a desire to be out in the cold, enjoying the outdoors, friends and the temporarily festive landscape.

This simplicity is refreshing, just like the weather.