Gardens of all Sorts

Gardens of all sorts come in all sizes and guises. And our interest in them also takes many approaches. We study the process of their design, their built forms, their materials and plantings, their meanings, their use or how they are experienced on the ground and represented in word and image, their decay and maybe their recuperation. We are interested in who their designers were, who commissioned them, and the motives of both designers and patrons, along with the political and social contexts in which gardens came into being. But sometimes we also construct our own memories of these places.

A history of gardens is best undertaken as a cultural history, even if its primary focus is design, botany, hydraulics or sculpture. People engage in place-making because our choice of habitation is of supreme importance, as we find our identity and a sense of belonging in the process of colonizing and cultivation, which the word ‘culture’ (derived from Latin colere) implies. It is not enough to look at gardens for their style (endlessly and emptily touted as ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, ‘baroque’, ‘picturesque’, ‘arts and crafts’), nor even enough to assess their visual appearance. We need to ask why they came into being, what advantages and pleasures (including the visual, to be sure) accrue from them, and how and why they have survived, changed or vanished.

The range of places that can be envisaged within the category of ‘garden’ is also enormous and various, and it changes from locality to locality, and from age to age. Yet this diversity does not wholly inhibit us from knowing what it is that we want to discuss when we think of gardens. Above all, it is useful to think of the garden as typically a place of paradox, being the work of men and women yet created from elements of nature, the two held in some precious and often precarious tension. And while a garden is often acknowledged to be a ‘total environment’, a place that may be physically separated from other zones, it also answers and displays connections with larger environments and concerns, not least agriculture and cities. Gardens, in short, are both entities within themselves and a focus of human speculations, propositions, and negotiations, concerning what it is to live in the world.

John Dixon Hunt, A World of Gardens (2012)

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Peter Greenaway, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

John Evelyn, Groombridge Place Estates (circa 1650)

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Of Course

It is, of course, true that “nature” is culturally constructed. When a French theorist like seventeenth-century Jacques Boyceau claims that garden symmetry is predicated on nature’s own efforts at abstraction, he appeals to a nature differently conceived- not least as a result of post-Renaissance scienticism- either from those on which Denis Diderot, a century later, could base his claim that spatial principles of symmetry or proportion were simply not to be founding nature or from a world that modern photography celebrates in its ecological concern to give amazing proofs of nature’s abstractions. Thus it follows that we must carefully scrutinize every context of the term’s use to adjudicate its local and/or historical meaning. Especially in casual or colloquial usage, such phrases as “it’s natural” or “naturally” inevitably camouflage ideological assumptions by pretending that some expressed opinion, far from special pleading, is grounded in a way of things beyond dispute.

“Nature” is a term, however, that won’t go away; above all, for our purposes, it is endlessly, inevitably, and invoked landscape architects. The term has performed various duties, some less strenuous than others: it can refer to a few bushes around a building (a lazy architectural assumption met with too frequently in professional circles); less residually, it can mean an invented countryside (Fairmount Park along Schuylkill River in Philadelphia however devised and remodeled from the late eighteenth century onward, provides a “natural” site, especially when contrasted with the inner adjacent city); or at his most strenuous (for instance in Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature), it can signal an intricate congeries of causes and effects to which the precisions physical  of science seem to give us the best access, but even here cannot at times escape being colored a rhetoric that endows it with a value beyond the normative and objective.

John Dixon-Hunt, Ruskin the Design of Nature and the Transcription Manuscripts (1997)

Olafur Eliasson, Hall Art Foundation Waterfall (2004)

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