Vibe Out


The middle-aged man sees a trend, mulls on it, issues his verdict very late, in fellow-young-people style, and feels nonetheless compelled to share it because it answers a long-standing question in his field.

In this case, the recent reemergence of vibes as a way of understanding the world seems to promise a way to envision how a landscape communicates meaning to the people moving in it. One more time: we seem to take meaning from a landscape, but how can a landscape ever mean, being that it is immersive, without beginning or end; that it changes over time; that what roots in it is not strictly under human control? Something like this will not mean in a strict sense, but in a loose sense; not the ice of a word, or the liquid of a poem, but the gas of a vibe.


What is a vibe? It is the relationship between a feeling and a conjunction of things that seems to provoke it. We can relate it to the idea of rasa in Indian aesthetics, the notion that aesthetic experience can strike an identifiable sympathetic chord in the beholder. But if rasa codifies how to get from, say, x facial expression to y affect in the viewer, the vibe is instead defined by its haziness. The affect it communicates can be agreed upon, but is not strictly nameable, exactly because it is bound up in the things that give rise to it. A chill vibe is not only the simple feeling of peace, but something to dwell in, because it also gives rise to a recurring tangle of thoughts and conjectures.

These thoughts mirror a series of deviations from a norm; and not any deviations, but a set of deviations of a certain magnitude, laid out in a certain arrangement. If a vibe is valuable, it is because it shares a comparatively rare way in to a feeling, one that lends a rare tint to the basic types of affect. An eighteen-year old drinking a Coke on a skateboard on a cul-de-sac is so commonplace as to hardly arouse any feeling at all. A fifty-eight-year old drinking a martini on a skateboard on a diving board is only ridiculous. A thirty-eight-year old drinking cranberry juice on a skateboard on the side of a road is a vibe; especially when he breaks out lip-syncing toward the end of a little loop. That vibe can be intuited by the viewer, up to a point, by the rider’s own mien; but it will resonate all the stronger if you recognize the brand of the juice, the probable meaning of his tattoo and his features, the song he lip-syncs to.


How to write about vibes, about how a gas means? Ask a perfume critic. Here’s an old capsule review by Chandler Burr from the New York Times:

Womanity, by Thierry Mugler

Like Angel, Womanity surprises no one in its defiance. Its power is clear; its character — opium smoke, heated granite, crushed flowers, the ozone before a storm — is not. $78 for 1.7 ounces at Bloomingdale’s.

What does Burr have to work with in rendering a scent? He can try to pin down the properties of the elusive substance through describing a series of parameters. He could lay out the set of ingredients – the actual compounds the perfumer has poured in. He could put the work into the context of the character of its producers, or relay the creator’s intention, the problem they set themselves to address. He could relate it to other artistic work. And finally, most interesting, and most directly pertinent to vibe, he can reach for resonance – what situation does the scent recall?

Notice that, the vibe itself being unsayable, Burr’s arsenal of details is a means to recreate the scent’s vibe in other terms – working in both the metagame of the product’s marketing, and the unfolding experience of the product itself, accessible in theory to the person taking a blind test. There is a buckshot approach to the writing here: the reader like me who doesn’t know much about the Mugler brand will be able to guess something of it from how it has approved the conjunction of opium smoke and crushed flowers. Other parts code in the elusive nature of the vibe itself – “heated granite” is not so much an identifiable phenomenon as an approximation of something in-between.

Part of the task of criticism is to spread aesthetic experience, and in this sense Burr can work as an evangelist of the product for anyone with $78 to get rid of. If his bid succeeds, the reader may well want to better know Angel, or bergamot, or gourmand perfumes in general. The more schooled the reader already is in the particulars around the vibe in question, the more they themselves will be able to sympathetically vibrate with the description, and the thing itself; and to desire the amplified vibe that would only come from a direct encounter with the scent.


Vibes, then, appear in a position of literacy, a position where someone has some familiarity with the world of relevant texts. It certainly helps to know the names and provenances of what you are dealing with; but the vibe will be apprehended to some degree without literacy. I needn’t know the chemical composition of nasal spray to roughly connect it with the mid-century, the smell of Pat the Bunny.

The typical visitor to a designed landscape, having no notion of an author and only the simplest words to describe the ingredients of what they are experiencing (“brick,” “tree”), will start at a disadvantage to vibe; but they will at least probably have a fund of past landscape experiences to draw on. At Sugar Beach, there might be a city toddler who is only experiencing the set of possible sensations and experiences for the first time; but that most visitors will be cross-referencing the conditions of past beaches with the beach that has suddenly appeared here, elevated at the side of Lake Ontario; just as they are inevitably comparing that beach to the gray context it has been set in. At a middle ground between being nice and being ridiculous, such a less-likely landscape has the opportunity to create a vibe.

The only hope of a landscape architect to reach beyond niceness, to cause resonance in the hearts of the people in the landscapes they make, is in such swerves from the mean. Swerves that are too wide and willful will cause the musical relationship between expectation, fulfillment, and surprise to fall apart. This is, incidentally, why physical facts of history are the greatest aid to the landscape architect, who does not have the freedom to mix any flowers from the globe the way a perfumer can. No matter what the visitor’s knowledge of the source of those physical traces is, they can nonetheless read that a swerve has occurred in this place from one plausible thing to another. Such a swerve, hopefully with some extra reading, could make contagious the act of feeling out the landscape.

(June 2022)