Contemporary Gardens

The 20th century marks a turning point in our understanding of parks and gardens not seen since the development of the English garden style in the 18th century. As Europeans moved from being a rural to urban society, their needs and aspirations changed. To simply say that it was the move to cities that prompted new thinking about gardens is too simple. There were major economic, social and technical changes and challenges that occurred throughout the century. There were also new movements in design, art and architecture that had major impacts on the design of gardens, although this impact was uneven. In the inter-war period, new ideas, through technology and design, were coming from the Bauhaus School in Germany; while, in France, the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (Art Deco Exhibition) of 1925 departed from the fashionable Beaux-Arts movement. These signalled a clear break with the past in developing a new garden typology where plants were no longer the central focus; this was the start of the modernist movement within the garden where new materials and ideas linked with cubist and constructivist arts of the early 20th century.

There were truly iconic designs that came from this period that have had long lasting impacts, although most have been lost or forgotten.. In 1924, the year before the Art Deco Exhibition in Paris, the Vicomte de Noailles commissioned the brothers André and Paul Vera to design a new park. The park was small, urban and was essentially a cubist painting of plants on the ground. Mirrors were used to bring light into dark areas surrounded by buildings. In the Art Deco Exhibition the following year, an Armenian architect, Gabriel Guévrékian’s ‘Garden of Water and Light’ developed a new interpretation of geometric form, movement and light as a basis of design. The materials were modern, in fact industrial. Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture of a man and a woman embracing moved with ‘provocative motorised contortions.’ Following his mixed success, Guévrékian established a modernist icon in Villa Noailles (recently restored) at Hyères on the Côte d’Azure where the landscape became a translation of cubism on the ground rather than on a wall. It was related to architecture of the villa and broke from the precept that a garden was a composition of plants.

Architecture, which really led the landscape, was reinventing itself through people such as Le Corbusier. His Villa Savoye (1929) integrates horizontal and vertical built forms and spaces-but it remained detached from the landscape. Leo Marx referred to it as a ‘machine in the garden’. (i) In the same year, Miles van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona became what Mark Treib referred to as ‘the true archetype of modernist spatial composition’. There was no distinction of spaces; it was a space composed of horizontal and vertical planes. These ran through the structure and landscape space-it defined the thinking and spatial obsession of the modernist movement. Architecture and the fine arts were indirectly redefining the garden. However, it was not until Christopher Tunnard published Gardens in the Modern Landscape, 1938, that the centre of gravity in landscape thinking started to shift-slowly. Tunnard married modernist architecture with a modernist landscape, and more importantly he put his thoughts and theories into print. Tunnard’s work was short-lived in Europe as there was a move towards socially responsible design and war. He moved to Harvard (1939) where his theories became a catalyst for what can be termed as the Anglo-American modernist movement in landscape.


Reinventing the Landscape

While all of the ingredients were there for a ‘new’ landscape, it was in the post-war period that change took place as Europe rebuilt itself and looked forward, or that was the idea. As Treib states, ‘Unlike architecture and painting, modern landscape design made no cataclysmic breach with the past. It retained, for the most part, the materials and many of the conceptual structures of the previous eras: the site as the point of departure for design, for example. Gardens and public spaces in traditional forms continued well into the twentieth century, with few landscape designers attempting to create the world anew.’(ii) Thus, the reinvention of a new landscape was far from wholeheartedly embraced. David Jacques comments on the British scene and wrote that ‘The innate conservatism of the British establishment ensured that Modernist design was no more than a waking dream of the intellectual. It took the unreality of war and then reconstruction to make it seem real to the official professions of architecture and landscape architecture, certainly as far as public works and landscapes were concerned. However, when rich men and woman have chosen their gardens the Modernist Movement has never threatened the tradition to which Gertrude Jekyll, Percy Cane, Russell Page and Lanning Roper belonged.’ (iii)

It may be that gardeners and garden designers are an inherently conservative group of people, or they are slow to respond to new ideas. No doubt this is part of the problem. However, there is a more fundamental issue in terms of what a garden is. In an interview with Sir Peter Shepheard in 2000, he was asked what a garden is. His response was ‘That is the $64,000 question’. (iv) Gardens had been traditionally viewed as a place of luxuriant planting, within a particular style or form, and this idea persists. However, from the 1950s, Shepheard and his peers indicate a change of thinking where the garden has purpose and that there is a balance between its form, use, and what is in it. Geoffrey Jellicoe referred to form as being the most important part of the garden, and that form is the ‘disposition of space’, not content which is likely to change. (v) More philosophically, Sylvia Crowe defined gardens as the link between men and the world in which they live; they provide pleasure and satisfy our ideals and inspirations. (vi) Perhaps Thomas Church, an American, had the simplest explanation: gardens are for people. (vii) Their work was based on tempered modernist ideas that existed in the inter-war period, but there is a tradition in their ‘landscape work that comes from the 18th century’ when Shepheard ‘identifies the genius loci-the need to understand and respond to the character of place-as a fundamental part of the design process’. (viii) It is the balance between place and people that creates a new landscape form in the second half of the century.


Breaking with the Past

Landscape was moving away from places composed of plants and into an ill-defined future; but, it was still trapped its traditional aesthetics. In the 1970s, there was a vacuum within traditional garden and landscape design which was filled by a new breed of artist, or more accurately, it found the artist moving out of the studio and the gallery. For the artist, the landscape became both a place to work within and to exhibit. It had no concern with people, but its basis was a connection to place and materials. Works by artists such as Christo, Holt, Smithson and Goldsworthy not only referenced nature, but celebrated nature as an ancient but new cultural art form. A new art form emerged in the landscape, although most artists considered their work art, rather than nuances of the landscape. Their work signalled a change of thinking; their installations formed a connection to the land, something that was missing from contemporary professional work. Out of this came a new generation of garden and landscape designers; they placed their emphasis on art, place and people rather than on traditional horticulture.

The traditional garden still has a relevant place, but there is a wealth of new approaches that have started to redefine the idea of the garden. At the extreme, there are places that many will argue that they are not a garden at all. Part of the intention of EGHN is explore the idea of park and garden, and present them to new audiences, people who would normally not use them. The year 1950 was selected as representative of a clear break with past traditions; Europe was rebuilding with vigour and optimism. People and governments searched for ideas that indicted a bright future. Many of the influences of the period came from the pre-war modernist movement, but these were re-invented by designers particularly from the Scandinavia and the west coast of North America.


New Ideas and Forms

An early example of the break with tradition is found at the Cadbury Factory (1952), at Moreton in the Wirral (GB), an early industrial landscape. This was a cross between a private and public garden; one that could be viewed and enjoyed by both factory workers and the public. There were large sports fields, tennis courts, and an amazing water garden constructed in the new material of the 20th century-concrete. A series of nine basins with cascades separated the factory from the road; there was minimal planting as it was a composition of spaces and forms for the workers. It avoided the problems of high maintenance in gardens, always a major issue of traditional gardens. Jellicoe, the designer, believed firmly that a garden was a piece of art, rather than a display of plants. Years later he designed the Kennedy Memorial at Runneymede (UK) by using a woodland landscape as an evocative setting, he created a ‘garden’ that was full of meaning and emotion. This is perhaps the dividing line with the past, gardens became places of meaning rather than display; they were also becoming a more important part of public life.

The Museé du Robert Tatin, Laval(F), is a sculptors garden from the 1960s ; it stretches the idea of a garden as it is essentially a composition of buildings and sculptures rather than plants. The sculptures in The Avenue of the Giants are substitutes for trees. The ‘garden’ is full of symbolism and meaning; it is a composition of form and spaces, the primary component of a garden. In Surrey (UK), modern sculptures are displayed within a more traditional garden setting in the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Gardens. There is a broad range of new gardens by designers such as Eric Dhont in Belgium, as well as professional practices doing large scale public parks and urban spaces such as West8 in Holland. These can stretch the ideas of gardens and are often presented as living art forms. The Foundation “Museum Island Hombroich” (D) near Düsseldorf presents ten sculpture like buildings by Erwin Heerich within a wild parkland and meadow landscape; the underlying theory is based on a quote from Paul Cezanne where the experience is ‘art parallel to nature’. Nearby is the Langen Foundation, a minimalist landscape of six trees, sky, earth mounds and water-the same ingredients used by ‘Capability’ Brown 250 years ago to create the English Landscape Style. Schloss Dyck continues with the contemporary theme within its display gardens, but of particular note is the miscanthus garden, peppered with modern set piece gardens.

Certainly the largest scale, and least like a traditional garden, is the Emscher Landschaftpark (D). Lying between Duisburg and Kamen, the ‘park’ celebrates the industrial heritage of the Ruhr District. An ambitious project that has regenerated, not only the industrial sites, but it has been inclusive in terms of housing, commercial, cultural and recreational facilities. While the Landschaftpark Duisburg-Nord by Peter Latz is the best know, there are at least 18 other major industrial parks on the Route of Industrial Culture, plus a near infinite number of additional regeneration projects in the region. The ideas and work here has had an international impact and demonstrates how we can celebrate often ignored aspects of our heritage.

EGHN has purposely selected examples of contemporary gardens and parks that challenge existing ideas in the hope that these experiments will widen and bring new meaning and purpose to the idea of gardens. There is something unique about gardens that can be found in no other art form. ‘Gardens have special meaning. They are powerful settings for human life, transcending time, place, and culture. Gardens are mirrors of ourselves, reflections of sensual and personal experience. By making gardens, using or admiring them, and dreaming of them, we create our own idealized order of nature and culture. Gardens connect us to our collective and primeval past. Since the beginning of human time, we have expressed ourselves through the gardens that we have made. They live on as records of our private beliefs and public values, good and bad.’ (ix)

Author:
Prof. E M Bennis, Manchester Metropolitan University
for EGHN, 2006

References:
(i) Marx, Leo The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America New York, 1964
(ii) Treib, Mark Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1993
(iii) Jacques, David Landscapes and Gardens in Britain 1930-2000 unpublished paper for the Garden History Society and the 20th Century Society, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 27-28 March 1998
(iv) Bennis, E Interview with Shepheard at his home in London, 17 Feb 2000
(v) Jellico, G & Jellicoe, S Modern Private Gardens Abelard-Schuman, 1968, S. 9
(vi) Crow, S Garden Design Packard, 3rd edition, 1981, S.10
(vii) Church, Thomas Gardens are for People 3rd edition, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley 1995 [1955]
(viii) Downs, Annabel (Ed) Peter Shepheard LDT Monograph No.4, London, 2004 from chapter In Opposition to God-wottery by E Bennis, S.113
(ix) Francis, M & Hester, R The Meaning of Gardens MIT Press, 1999. S. 2