The grammar of moment by moment sequential experience. What we can learn today from legendary landscape designer Capability Brown.

Happy Birthday Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, born 300 years ago this very month!

Whether listening to commercial and cultural organisations, or possibly CMOs of global brands and city-scale property developers, we often hear many talking about ‘building the story’, but scratch the surface, beyond the marketing hyperbole there is rarely a compelling story followed through to ground level, to the actual lived experience.

Not so legendary landscape designer Capability Brown. He always followed through and I think there is much to learn from him today. Here is one good reason, his understanding of the narrative of environment, and the grammar of the moment by moment sequential experience.

Have a read of this eyewitness account:

At Hampton Court, Brown encountered Hannah More in 1782 and she described his “grammatical” manner in her literary terms:

“Now there” said he, pointing his finger, “I make a comma, and there” pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject”.

What is described so beautifully here is the ‘grammar’ of designing an environment as an experience, a storyboard of a place written from the curious audience’s ever-changing point of view.

It should be no surprise that for these 300 years these highly participative narrative environments have attracted multiple generations of visitors happy to spend a day wandering and wondering through these intriguing immersive compositions.

And so, let’s quietly return to those city-scale property developers struggling to create places that attract and retain audiences.

What they need above all is a strong narrative vision (the grammar of the moment by moment sequential experience) to lead the project by a master-programme rather than a master-plan! And what they really really need is a ruddy faced countryman in muddy breaches reassuring them that however unprepossessing the physical context his approach always suggests a degree of ‘capability’!

Happy Birthday Sir!

Just a little backstory …

At the beginning of the 18th century gardens were formal, linear and geometric in the French style. Capability Brown popularised a more naturalistic, narrative approach, creating scenes in the landscape by slicing the top off hills, filling valleys and carving out serpentine lakes. At the time Brown was considered a ‘magician’ by many of his clients. His landscapes looked natural but he used optical illusions to create striking vistas and carefully choreographed routes through them for maximum impacts.