Finding Fountainebleau’s magnetic draw

June 2, 2023
How natural landscapes create places of pilgrimage

The smell and touch of a place is an intense senory experience that can instaneously change our state-of-mind and how we bond with a place.

In Fontainebleau, year on year for the last two decades climbers have travelled hundreds of miles to this ‘magic forest’ outside Paris, returning with life-changing stories of victory and failure. The pilgrimage has drawn climbers across the world to boulder here since the ‘90’s — prior to which it was known among French mountaineers prepping for Alpine excursions.

But why does this forest inspire sheer devotion?

It doesn’t stop at climbers. Business guru Sumantra Ghoshal delivered his most enduring speech to the World Economic Forum on ‘the smell of the place,’ describing a walk through this forest and how corporations should create cultures that smell like Fontainebleau in spring rather than his native Calcutta in summer.

Go with the intention to have a leisurely walk, and you can’t… the moment you enter, there is something about the crispness of the air, about the smell of the trees in Spring, that makes you want to jog, or catch a branch, or DO something”… Sumantra Ghoshal

Why does the forest have such mythical draw? How does the action of climbing make meaning of the landscape? And what can other places learn from it?

Intimate discovery

The forest invites twists and turns in, out and up onto boulders. Discrete symbols painted onto stone guide us. Elsewhere this would be considered defacing the rock, but at Font it’s part of the tradition and a distinct graphic symbolism. “There was only one guidebook when we started out in the 90’s, and it was in French,” notes James, who started climbing here in his late teens. Exploring the ground became par for the course. While these visual clues train the eye to hunt down problems, it’s the sensory discovery that’s uniquely intimate. Climbers touch and get to understand a place with bare hands, creating a relationship with the terrain that’s unmatched. As they ascend, they’re cheek to cheek with the rockface — close enough to smell and even taste its minerality. They measure a boulder up in relation to their own reach, in doing so exploring how their body relates to and becomes part of the landscape around that surrounds it.

The eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection.

Juhani Pallasmaa, architect

Purposeful journies

Preparation for a trip takes years of training; life-lists of lessons to chalk up and ever-higher grades to climb. Climbers are never merely participants, they are determined protagonists. I ask Char, who trains regularly in London and the Peak District if the sense of accomplishment creates a stronger connection to a climbing venue, a powerful rush of emotion that can be traced to a specific spot. “What?” comes the reply, “The sense of accomplishment you get when you do something that you’ve had to alter every aspect of your waking life to achieve?”

Font has lines that will last as long as climbing exists. These are the lines you surrender and swear to, you give and give again for. Those that keep you mindful, humble, open, inquisitive and focused. These are lines that are selected like a university or religion.

Chris Schulte, climber

Shifting scenography

Fontainebleau is a paradise of natural play The shift from flaxen sand to pine needles to rust bracken, from bright open light to shaded tree canopies.  In storytelling terms this becomes a change of scene, and the variety of character areas mean that the contrasts in pace here aren’t simply aesthetic but also experiential. It’s as if Font has set different stages for climbs, experiences and stories to be played out, the setting bookmarking each mental chapter in a multi-day excursion.

Curious beauty

Never underestimate aesthetics. Vivid colours, distinct patterns, and rich textures create a beautiful backdrop that has been captured by artists for centuries. It’s the combination of weird and wonderful characteristics that give Font this captivating and otherworldly quality. Myths and questions arise about its origins. The fine white sand feels more Caribbean than Northern European, a legacy of the place’s past among ancient seas. Dense slivers of birch and pine are inherited from the forest’s roots as a royal hunting ground. And the elephantine boulders of which climbers are so fond? Are they merely remnants of erosion or do they hold a more mystical story? Each strand of the forest’s story is interpreted through a different feature more often found in far flung landscapes. It’s this curious combination of not knowing why they’re here that makes the place so spellbinding.

“We need…to keep enchantment alive in our descriptions of nature: to provide celebrations of not quite knowing, of wonder, of mystification.”  Robert Macfarlane, writer

Making memory

See someone throwing shapes in thin air, and they’re probably a climber going through their mind’s motions. Climbers have an enviable ability to remember the details of a line or a problem years after the ascent. Memory is made through physical motion — heel hooks, crimps, traverses, slopers — and bloody-minded repetition — the try-fail-try-fail rote of climbing. It’s an exacting eye which can recall such a super-located place, and attach to it emotions. Rock becomes nemesis or ally. The bouldering at Font is somewhat technical, and perhaps because of the intense focus this requires, those memories stick more than most. Add to that the social aspect that means you ‘live’ with those climbs: a supporting crew who spot, cajole, and experience your life’s rise and fall right beside you.

One can really live with these climbs. It’s a pleasure to have such projects to pursue for their own sake—lines that mean something, lines that need no explanation, life-goal climbs.

—  Chris Schulte, climber

Before we leave, I ask:

“Did you achieve everything you wanted to in Font?

“That’s an existential question,” comes the reply. “The answer is always ‘no.’


Learnings for those who designers of places

Recognise the importance of emotion:

Rather than just processing numbers, place value on the full bandwith of emotions, not just happy equals good, and sad equals bad, and engage in new dialogue around them.

Design for emotion

Include knowledge of emotion and sensory experiences into the design process.  The bonds and memories people form with a place re based on their emotional states as they move through it.

As what kind of atmosphere can this place have

Conceiving places is more than demography and architecture. It is a unique layering of elements, considering and adding different senses to the experience.  Ask kind of atmosphere can this destination have, and for whom?

Zoom in to find distinction

Never underestimate the power of zooming into the finer detail.  Who is drawn to the place and why; it is here that you will discover the clues about what gives it it’s character and possibility.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.