Outside In
To this day, the thing I remember most about a business trip I made many long years ago was the fact that there was something startling about the environs. Not the Nashville, Tennessee location, which could easily have been anywhere else in the United States, or the Embassy Suites Hotel quarters, which are basically the same everywhere. I attended several mind-numbing days of presentations and sales pitches in airless, windowless meeting rooms. Included was a sprawling trade show nearby, in an airless, windowless convention hall with all the charm and atmosphere of a pre-fab warehouse.


At some point we were granted a brief recess, and I fled with a friendly colleague to what appeared to be a bright, airy spot: a lush, vegetation-lined terrace, where we sipped cold sodas at a little café table. I began to notice that the shade trees were growing in large tubs. But it was not until a bird flitted by and perched in a flowering hedge opposite us that I roused from my torpor and exclaimed to my companion, “Are we indoors here, or outdoors?” Had we inadvertently managed to venture outside, or were we in an atrium of sorts?


The fact that neither of us could readily answer my question was exceedingly disconcerting. We set our moisture-beaded glasses down on the small table and spent several long minutes squinting uneasily around us looking for walls, windows, doors, or ceilings. A bird would not be loose indoors, right? Was this natural or fluorescent lighting? Surely we had found what we craved, a “real” rather than artificial retreat from the oppressive, stale interiors of the proceedings and hotel?


Our confusion lingers in my memory now, as I ponder other cleverly designed interior spaces I’ve encountered over the years. Embassy Suites Hotels, just like successful grocery stores and upscale shopping malls and fancy apartment lobbies, are designed environments. We might not consciously realize it, but our impressions, relative comfort, and behavior have been studied and are being accommodated, catered to—or, you might even say, manipulated—by architects and interior designers.


Being oblivious to our surroundings, giving it no thought whatsoever, may be a naturally human tendency, until some surprise or anomaly makes it feel all wrong. The flight of that lone bird in that hotel atrium (for it was indeed an atrium, with exceptionally high ceilings) was, for me, an eye-opening moment.


That interiors can be and are designed at all had not been on my personal radar until that day. To what purpose was that tall atrium, with its pampered plants and confined, or lost bird? Obviously, it was designed to supply refuge and comfort to visitors, which, upon reflection, it certainly did.


But although humans have brought the outdoors in to supply refuge and comfort since time began, with how much success have we done so? How do we do it? Why do we do it?


In ancient Greece, it has been observed that windows on dwellings and public buildings deliberately framed views. In fact, we often use windows much the same way in modern times. The broadest of our framings are the sliding glass doors onto the patio, back deck, or backyard, in homes from California to Massachusetts, from London to Quebec.


But, why don’t we put the sliding glass door on the front or even the sides of our homes or apartments? An interesting question. Even the terraces of long-ago Greece and various European countries tend to be positioned to capture a pleasing view, while simultaneously preserving a sense of seclusion. Perhaps, then, it is a human tendency to make our relatively small abodes feel larger or grander by—to use the language of the designer—“borrowing a view” while minimizing the ability of others to see in, so we might enjoy privacy or at least the illusion of it. A more personal, in-scale connection with nature is made possible when this balancing act is successful.


If a home lacks a pleasant aspect, then the tendency is to work with whatever is out there, whether it is a neighbor’s farm, the panorama of the countryside, or rooftops beyond. Ancient Rome offered a different template for this approach to bringing the outside in: consistently, its larger homes and villas turned their backs to the streetscape and opened generously onto courtyards, walled gardens, and atriums, often featuring fountains or pools. This idea is really no different from modern-day Florida’s upper-middle-class subdivisions, with their screened-in indoor swimming pools at the back of every McMansion. Even the condo on the 34th floor in Manhattan with its little fire-escape or wee balcony can provide a spot for a cluster of potted plants.


Lacking such amenities as scenic beauty, sufficient natural environs, or adequate light, interior design can still provide the impression of a connection with nature. Back in ancient Rome and Pompeii, murals on indoor walls were popular in homes, restaurants, schools, baths, and public buildings. Entire luxurious flower gardens, farms and other rural scenes, groves, rivers and lakes—with or without animals, birds and people, were commonplace depictions. Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus, commissioned an ambitious one on all four walls of a large underground room. The effect was cool, soothing, and not at all claustrophobic, thanks to its realistic décor. Such a scheme broke down the distinction between outdoors and indoors and provided a pleasing, reassuring, attractive environment.


Fake or real, these attempts to create a semblance of a pleasant, attractive natural environment can nourish a sense of continuity, accord, balance, and beauty.


This same impetus to bring the outside in is what causes today’s college student of modest means to put up an Ansel Adams poster of a Sierra Nevada mountainside in the dorm room or Donald Trump to hire a trompe d’oeil artist to create a realistic forest mural on a guestroom wall. (Trompe d’oeil means “to deceive the eye,” but very often we are willingly deceived by a good artist.)


Nor are we limited to embellishing interior walls. Many homes have living plants within, whether it’s a few potted herbs on the kitchen windowsill, an orchid in the livingroom, a Boston fern in the bathroom (where it can enjoy the shower’s contribution of humid air), or a big potted ficus or philodendron in the front hall. Even if we are neglectful or think we have a “black thumb,” there are many tough plants that can survive despite us and even bloom in typical indoor environments, especially if they are of tropical origin, which many of our common houseplants are. These plants can tolerate limited light and warm air, provided we stop by occasionally with the watering can and perhaps a mister. Thus their home with us is approximately like life in the tropical rainforest of their origins.


Once upon a time, in Victorian England, the desire for verdure indoors led to a mania for glasshouses and conservatories (for those with the means to build, fill, and maintain them) and—on a smaller scale—Wardian cases or terrariums. These were valued for the warmth, beauty, color, novelty and touch of nature they brought to the environment, especially for urban dwellers. When fashions changed and such indulgences were deemed unhealthy (all those organic smells and sights!), some enthusiasts simply made sure that access was from an outdoor, rather than interior, door. These days, if one has the money, inclination, and available space, there are marvelous, energy-efficient greenhouses and conservatories that can be added onto the home and filled with greenery and suitable furniture. Voilà, a personal indoor retreat.


Last spring, I was struck by a New York Times “Sunday Style Magazine” article featuring the enchanting Los Angeles cottage-size home of filmmaker Doug Aitken. Silk-screened drapes and walls are liberally adorned with spangles of realistic-looking, shimmery green leaves, creating a transition to the lush hedges and vines growing beyond, just outside. In an alcove where natural light streams in from a skylight, there’s an impressive tiered garden of succulents. Admiring the photos, it was easy for me to see that his design ideas made the small house feel bigger as well as warmer and more welcoming. His girlfriend remarked, “For me, this is an organism—my dream house, where the materials and the architecture don’t intrude on the nature around it.” Indeed, they have been fused.


Aitken’s botanical drapes remind me not to forget wall hangings, shower curtains, towels, rugs, and even the flowery contact paper on the shelves in the kitchen. In the distant past, many a dark, dank castle room or hallway benefited from tapestries—large fabric creations that helped warm up an interior with their pleasant images. Thus we acknowledge yet another benefit of bringing nature images inside: sometimes the outdoor world is forbidding, unsafe, unattractive or even simply covered with snow for months on end. Looking at plants and their brightly hued flowers and fruits, not to mention birds or other creatures, is bound to lift dampened spirits.


Common to mainly decorative items like tapestries, paintings, and even today’s paper posters, is the added virtue of such things being portable. Thus carting them along with you wherever your life and fortunes take you provides and protects a personal sense of continuity or history. Frequently such things are not daily-life images of what we see when we look out our windows. Instead, these portable images preserve our memories or our aspirations. For instance, I treasure a photo I once took in the Tuscan countryside of jaunty red corn poppies in the dappled shade of a gnarly old olive grove. I can look out my windows if I want to see where I am; I can look at this picture if I want to revisit that fondly remembered, far-off place.


But what about the images of nature with which we have no obvious personal connection at all? What if that college student with the Ansel Adams poster has never been west of the Mississippi? What about the urban loft in a downtrodden Dorchester or Somerville neighborhood adorned with stylish Andy Warhol prints of endangered animals? What inspired my mother-in-law to hang a print of plush white peonies on her apartment wall in Florida, a part of the country where no peonies grow? Maybe the student dreams of mountain peaks and rushing streams while slogging through an Eastern college campus full of cinderblock classroom buildings and boring industrial landscaping. Maybe the Warhol prints bring bold, expansive, “wild” energy to an otherwise daunting, boxy built environment. Maybe simply because the white flowers match the white sofa, the elderly woman savors a pleasing sense of harmony in her small abode.


And what, really, is the point of having houseplants, and even bringing them with you when you move to a new home? As I’ve mentioned above, rarely are they plants that could prosper outdoors. Their identities are different from garden plants, native plants, familiar weeds, farm crops, forest trees—anything that’s found outside the door. Usually, their role in our lives is not to connect us literally to our local landscape. Instead, like the Victorian glasshouses, they create the illusion of an indoor landscape of retreat and sanctuary. As natural, organic things, they offer us balance in…what is the word I want here?…texture, demeanor? atmosphere? Our tables, shelves, floors, and windowsills are enclosed, manufactured, artificial and rigid; our houseplants are alive. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with living things reminds us to, well, breathe. To restore the harmony often masked by the stresses and artifices of modern living.


Some people, and for all I know the interior designer responsible for the Nashville Embassy Suites Hotel, choose to take all this a step further and add a pet bird, lizard, or aquarium to enhance an indoor environment. Of course, it’s not practical to add truly wild animals, and biting insects and tunneling rodents are not invited either! If we really wanted to live outdoors in nature, we would. Most humans want and need a roof over their heads. So inviting the outdoors in is a selective, even cautious process.


Yet when we decorate our domestic environments with natural images and materials, we are expressing a range of deep, primal needs: order, adventure, hope, continuity, security, memory, beauty, vitality itself. When we do this, we are declaring, consciously or unconsciously, that we want to live in this world. Our built environment may be anything from contrived to dehumanizing to bland, if we do not connect with or honor the unity, intricacy, and intimacy of nature.


The author wishes to acknowledge the use of helpful research and information from Interior Landscapes: Gardens and the Domestic Environment, by Ronald Rees (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

A version of this article originally appeared in Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Winter 2013.