Designing a Butterfly Garden for the Blind

Designing a Butterfly Garden for the Blind

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Designing a Butterfly Garden for the Blind


The research and preparation for this essay have made me realize not only how interesting and unique this project is, but also how useful and valuable such a “Garden for the Blind” could really be. The blindfolded Butterfly Garden experience specifically helped me realize to a great extent how much we as humans greatly overemphasize our sense of sight, and do not take full advantage of all the senses most of us have been blessed with to use and appreciate. Just as the restaurant “Dans le Noir?” is not restricted to only the blind, I believe this Garden for the Blind should be for everyone to enjoy and experience. Perhaps those patrons who are gifted with sight could do as we did at the Butterfly Garden and close their eyes, wear sunglasses, put on blindfolds, or whatever means of covering their eyes so that they could truly feel the impact of the garden’s beauty without relying on merely the sense of sight. Joy Malnar and Frank Vodvarka’s Sensory Design helped accustom me to the idea that our other senses are just as important, but vastly underused, when compared with the sense of sight. The architecturally-focused book’s brief section on gardens and emphasis on non-ocular senses helped me start thinking in the proper frame of mind for this garden’s design. Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class was able to aid in my creative thinking processes, and proved very helpful thanks to the revelation that creativity is not a “gift” that only some people are blessed with, but rather a frame of mind that anyone who works hard enough can attain and master for some creative purpose. All of these various sources helped provide me with the right mindset and creative energy in order to come up with the ideas and thoughts about the “Garden for the Blind” I am about to describe.

A continuing theme that one cannot avoid when considering developing anything geared specifically toward the blind is that all visual, sight-based elements are useless. However, this is not to say that the designer is greatly limited or handicapped. The wealth of possibilities that exist through taking advantage of all our other, non-exploited senses is endless.

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The notion from Sensory Design that all of our senses are not being used to their fullest potential is echoed by the “project history” page of “Dans le Noir?’s” website. It states that “Our sense seems to be very badly used.” The question mark at the end of the groundbreaking restaurant’s name could not be more fitting. The “awakening” of all our other senses shows us that we may not really be “in the dark” at all, given the whole new world of senses that we can now fully perceive and truly appreciate. Thus, it is with this goal in mind that I hope we are able to create a garden that is not only well suited for those whose range of sensory perception does not include eyesight, but that is also an awakening experience for those who have been blessed with the fullest extent of the senses and have yet to maximize them.

The winding, uneven path of the Butterfly Garden, combined with the quotes from Moore, Mitchell, and Turnbull about gardens from Malnar and Vodvarka’s Sensory Design, which described great gardens as “unfolding like a narrative or a piece of music…carefully choreographed… sequential,” has led me to conclude that our Garden for the Blind should be along a winding pathway, incorporating haptic senses and not merely following a straight-line path or being contained to one enclosed area (104). Moore, Mitchell, and Turnbull also mention the idea of a lake or pond in the center of the garden, which leads me to believe that the garden should have a small pond with a miniature stream leading into this body of water in the midst of our garden (Malnar and Vodvarka, 104). I realize that we are limited by the constraints of the size of the yard behind Hume Hall and funds for creating the garden, so this body of water and the path and garden that surround it could obviously not be too extravagant in size or intricate in detail. Malnar and Vodvarka note, “variations in level, position, and surface of path compel us to pay attention when walking,” as well as point out that our senses are at their finest when uneven pathways are present, forcing the brain to operate in such a way that we are most sensitive to our surroundings (104). These elements would be incorporated into the garden, as well as “an extended entryway composed of gravel and stepping stones,” borrowing an idea from Japanese teahouses (Malnar and Vodvarka, 105). The garden would include a railing around the edges of the pathway in order to provide something for those visitors, blind and sighted, who wish to appreciate the full beauty of the garden without their vision, but at the same time having something to grasp onto to keep their balance. The garden would also include shallow, smoothly inclined steps, because, as Templar notes in Sensory Design, “Stairs engage the user’s motions and senses to a remarkable degree” (Malnar and Vodvarka, 147).

Since, as Malnar and Vodvarka point out from Michael Southworth’s study on sound, the blind “tend to be more than usually sensitive to sound,” and prefer low to middle frequency and intensity sounds (disliking any rushing or roaring noise), the small stream in the middle of the garden should provide an ample source of quiet and pleasant sound without being too overbearing (131). As Trygg Engen points out in Sensory Design, a “continual arousal of the senses” is important for sensory memory, so the garden should have a variety of different flowers that are constantly being presented to the visitor, but not in such a way that the fragrances are too overbearing (Malnar and Vodvarka, 133). As J. Douglas Porteous also points out in Malnar and Vodvarka’s Sensory Design, “smellscape is non-continuous… limited by nose height from the ground,” so the garden’s flowers will be continuous and at a height close to “nose level” so that the garden’s patrons can readily smell the fragrances being presented (137). As for the actual flowers themselves, I cannot profess to be an expert, but I shall include a few from the list we have been provided for a general outline. As Florida points out in The Rise of the Creative Class, creativity is a 4-step process, and I believe we are currently only scratching the surface of the “preparation” phase, not nearly ready for incubation, illumination, or verification yet. Regarding the actual flowers, I would tend to agree that thorny or rough to touch plants, as well as those with poisonous juices and secretions, should be avoided at all costs. Regarding plants known for sensitivity to touch, I believe it would be nice to include crepe myrtles, ferns, magnolias, and weeping willow trees, to name a few. For flowers known to be extremely fragrant, I would recommend alyssum, also recognized for its texture, citrus trees, herbs, licorice plants, marigolds, mints, and tea olives. This list is nowhere near complete or as detailed or substantive as would be necessary to create the actual garden, but hopefully through collaboration with Dr. Muecke’s architecture students and our continued hard work at designing this garden, we will be able to create a unique and dynamic experience for all, those with sight and without it.
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