Places that Work: Garden of Flowing Fragrance

Experience multisensory design at the Huntington Library in San Marino

Thousands of miles away from the Middle Kingdom, California’s Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, assists visitors in understanding traditional Chinese design. This is why the place works.

It’s safe to say that Americans visiting Flowing Fragrance know little about Chinese design. And that’s too bad, because how we relate to people from other countries is shaped by our positive experiences with their unique expressions, whether through art or literature or architecture. And what we experience at the Huntington is quite different from our own idea who we are; we value individual accomplishment, whereas the Chinese are more collectivistic. 

These differing values determine our preferences for what our eyes are drawn to. For instance, research shows that people from individualistic cultures are apt to prefer rectilinear forms, whereas those from collectivist ones are more positive about curvy shapes.

More from Metropolis

While the Garden of Flowing Fragrance provides primarily a visual experience, its design doesn’t slight the other senses. As its name suggests, plants here exude distinct, positive scents. To unfold the culture more, a restaurant in the garden serves Chinese foods and teas; the textures underfoot and the sounds flowing water in the garden add to the cultural immersion. In addition, this multisensory approach is an important element of biophilic design.

The Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington is a place that works because its design makes it clear that cultures differ in how they choose to experience the physical world and because its designers didn’t forget that we are multi-sensory creatures. Humans, after all, can see, hear, smell, and touch the spaces where we find ourselves. And so, because many designed environments emphasize the visual, at the expense of our other senses, many places don’t work.



Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science. She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, can be reached at [email protected]

Recent Projects