The Universe In A Garden

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Photo courtesy Charles Jencks

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Lecture by Charles Jencks (October 7, 2009); Gardens & Spirit Series, co-sponsored by Trinity Church and the Arnold Arboretum

What is a garden? By today’s standards, the notion of a garden seems naïve, vaguely old-fashioned, or at best pleasantly restorative. Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt informs us that the Roman orator Cicero described the cultural landscape of bridges, roads, harbors, and fields as “second nature,” implying a first nature of landscape untouched by humans. Before moving on to gastronomy, writer Michael Pollan gave his wonderful account of fighting entropy in his own suburban Connecticut garden in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). Sixteenth-century Italy introduced the concept of “third nature” — art incorporated into nature. The notions of second and third nature speak to the balance struck between human order and natural chaos, and the definition of that balance becomes the personal expression of the gardener.

On October 7, architectural historian, writer, and designer Charles Jencks presented his private landscape, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Located at Portrack House near Dumfries in southwest Scotland, the garden began as a creative joint venture with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, on her family estate. Images of the steeply sloped, grass-covered landforms sinuously enclosing lobe-shaped pools of water have become the widely recognized images of the garden, reproduced in coffee-table books of “radical” landscapes since its construction in 1989. To this first project, Jencks has continued to add new vignettes of garden spaces, so now the visitor experiences an episodic journey of garden rooms — based on themes of modern physics, mathematics, and science — rather than a broad, continuous landscape.

Prior to Portrack’s relatively recent step onto the world stage, the most celebrated Scottish garden was Little Sparta, the garden of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jencks’ “neighbor” 70 kilometers to the north. Referring to Little Sparta, Finlay quipped, “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” These two private gardens, carved out of the Scottish landscape, offer much to consider about the nature of gardens — their meaning and manufacture, as well as their authors.

Taking Finlay’s definition of the garden as either retreat or attack, it is interesting that for the agoraphobic Finlay the garden was an attack, filled with metaphorical sculpture and pointed, iconographic references to politics, philosophy, anarchy, and landscape history. For Jencks — who found fame through his prolific writing and lecturing on postmodernism in the late 1970s and 1980s — the garden is a retreat from the world stage and perhaps from personal loss. While Finlay’s garden alludes to the past, Jencks’ engages current and future relationships between humanity and nature as expressed in quantum physics, chaos theory, ideas of “strange attractors,” Solitan waves, and the Anthropic Principle of the universe’s genesis.

Like any creative endeavor, these works must be evaluated on their own terms, as landscapes outside of the meanings proposed by their authors. The rural Little Sparta, created within the context of the barren moors south of Edinburgh, is more successful, as it truly engages the full medium of landscape — topography, vegetation, climate, light, and place. Finlay’s sculpture, Nuclear Sail, a replica of a nuclear submarine’s conning tower, plies the “sea” of the grass-covered moor, and achieves a sense of the sublime in both the raw emotional power and scale of the moor, as well as the insidious threat of nuclear annihilation. In other places, tree trunks stand as columns with stone entablatures at their feet, commemorating a pantheon of philosophers. Other inscribed stone blocks stand in for grazing sheep in the pastoral fields of the farmhouse, a 20th-century interpretation of the English landscape garden.

Similar to Little Sparta, Portrack’s garden spaces and elements are an eclectic assembly of objects and ideas, but here are superficial referents to complex scientific theory, breaking from English garden traditions both in content and how they engage landscape as a medium for design. In several places, complex theories are simplistically applied as pattern, as in the case of the Black Hole or Fractal Terraces, or oddly freestanding as sculptural objects, as in the DNA Garden or in the wire tracing of subatomic particle explosion that fords a stream. While well crafted by local tradesmen and gardeners, the primary space is largely derivative of current landscape celebrities Kathryn Gustafson or George Hargreaves in the use of sinuous and geometric landform. The smaller gardens play a diminished, secondary role: they exist only as backdrops for the display of pseudo-scientific objects.

The garden is at its best where it is most allied to the landscape elements of earthwork, water, and woodland enclosure, in the landform garden. As it delves further into scientific symbolism and allegory, both the forms and the references become more simplistic and less successful. Pollan closes his essay on gardening saying, “Nature does tend toward entropy and dissolution, yes, yes, but I can’t help thinking she contains some countervailing tendency, too, some bent toward forms of ever-increasing complexity. Toward us and our creations, I mean. Toward me and this mower and the otherwise inexplicable beauty of a path in a garden.” In regard to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation as a work of landscape, this critic is left wanting more of the real entropy of the garden, and less of the theoretical.

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