From where I sit, the restored wetlands beside our office are almost completely frozen over. A gaggle of resident Canada geese, formerly migratory, jostle each other out of the way to dabble in a tiny patch of open water, then clamber out and waddle ungainly across the ice. It’s been a long winter.
A few years ago, when we were working on an interpretive plan for the Oregon Zoo (as part of a larger master planning effort) one of the landscape designers on the team wondered aloud, “What if we could make the zoo a place you wanted to visit in the rain, instead of one to avoid?” This is a meaningful distinction, of course, for an attraction in a city that averages 154 rainy days annually, but it highlights a larger and arguably more interesting idea.
Weather is the original immersive environment, and in an era of rapidly increasing digital isolation it is the ultimate shared experience. When it’s too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, too windy or too humid and still, we’re all in it together and we all complain. (And yes, it’s true, we also exchange our mutual delight at the occasional string of perfect days.) This creates rare common ground among folks who might otherwise have precious little in common, a kind of spontaneous and all too ephemeral shared space that we populate with the simplest but most immediately meaningful of observations and emotions. Baby, it’s cold outside!
Which is exactly what happens – and what experience designers try so hard to facilitate – when visitors are in the presence of something truly and powerfully real. Darwin’s study skins at the American Museum of Natural History. Two young male giraffes entwined, almost dancing, playing together at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (“I think they’re married,” the little boy standing next to me helpfully suggested.) The salvaged 16th Century sailing ship Mary Rose, constantly misted, like the produce aisle at the supermarket, to keep her timbers from drying out.
This is why we do what we do: so that people who’ve never met before will reach out unselfconsciously to touch their neighbor on the elbow, point into the middle distance and say “Wow! Look at that! Isn’t that amazing!”