Nature and Art in Garden Design

EVERYONE with the slightest interest in the history of gardens will want this book on their shelves (but not on their coffee table). The shelves need to be strong, however, and the reader prepared for intellectual rigors.The Architecture of Western Gardens: A Design History from the Renaissance to the Present Day, edited by Monique Mosser and Georges Teyssot (MIT Press, 543 pp., $95 now, $125 after Dec. 31), is a heavy tome physically, and quite often it is also rather heavily written. Though ranging from Versailles to German allotments and from the English cottage garden to the recently restored late-17th-century Royal Dutch formal gardens at Het Loo (restored after they "vanished from the face of the earth" for 175 ye ars), this hardly could be further from a gardening book of spades and manure and mucky hands. Even plants and flowers seem peripheral. The philosophical, esoteric, and aesthetic concepts underpinning the architectural formation of gardens are more to the point here. The relative clarity or obscurity of the writing varies, though, because the tome is a succession of essays by different historians. The contents are arranged chronologically from the 16th century until now. Gardens are notorious for their transience, and, equally, often astonishing in their survival. But is a ruined garden, given over to wildness, not also a beautiful artifact? The endless debates about the differing merits of rescuing, conserving, restoring, or re-creating historic gardens is touched upon - particularly in Mosser's final essay - though hardly resolved. It's an area of "research." Running like a seam through the essays (at least this doesn't change with changing fashions) is the basic paradox of designing gardens - that they are both "art and "nature," both man-made and natural. This is not merely a matter of formality versus informality. At its extremes, in the gardens of Bomarzo in mid-16th-century Italy, for instance, nature is contained within theatrical settings of staircases, watercourses, sculpture, and so forth that virtually deny the natural. The aim of such artifice was to deceive and confuse as much as to delight. Garden design could be intensely serious, high-minded art as well as amusement and pleasure - although (and this is another common factor, from Versailles down to modern suburban patches) the garden as a symbol of status and wealth also underlies much of its history. Privacy and seclusion - the "secret garden" may be an essential concept, but display seems far more important. The more humans can be seen to have done to nature in a garden, the better. In 18th-century England, on the other hand, the "picturesque" movement aimed at making gardens and parks look like paintings of the "natural" landscape, in which trees were much more important features than " 'excrescences without meaning, - as Richard Payne Knight describes temples and pagodas and the like. Nature triumphant. Yet, this planting and placing of trees, which in some cases became a financially disastrous obsession, was as contrived and artificial in its way as the construction and siting o f fountains, grottoes, and cascades. IN an essay for our own time, Stephen Bann proposes that after a long lapse in which the serious visual arts and garden design parted company, the art-world phenomenon of "Land Art often ecological and minimally interventionist in stance facilitates a connection, once again, with the practices of landscape design and gardening." An appealing notion. But - and this criticism extends to many of the essays in the book - Bann's argument seems little more than a somewhat academic, if visionary, hypothesis. He offers little evidence of "Land Art" exponents like Richard Long or David Nash actually thinking about gardens at all. Ian Hamilton Finlay's idiosyncratic mingling of art and garden-making to create political-historical-symbolical settings is given due recognition - but he, as Bann says, is a "rare" case, hardly a trend. What definitely is a trend and - unusual for a book of garden history - accorded serious and revealing attention here is the theme park. Drawing bemused millions to their fantastically controlled, even autocratic, escapist-idealized, set-apart, magical environments, these modern parks are not just obvious offshoots of Disney's concept, but have for their forebears the urban pleasure gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries (Tivoli, Vauxhall, and so on). And even more extraordinarily, they go right back to what writer Isabelle Auricoste describes as the "first acknowledged form of a place of public entertainment the medieval town cemetery. The point being that entertainment parks are other worlds or as close as they can get to ... well ... paradise. Humph.

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