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Garden Making Beyond Britain

The Australian Landscape Conference of September 2013 brought to Melbourne eminent designers Aniket Bhagwat (India), Juan Grimm (Chile), Raymond Jungles (Florida and in Brazil, a former protégé of Roberto Burle Marx) and Ken Smith (mainly New York), along with historians such as Japanese scholar Toshio Watanabe and myself, from Mediterranean Europe. In spite of varied origins, training and life experience, we speakers found we shared assumptions about gardens and landscape unlike those commonly found in British garden practice and writing, assumptions that have evolved outside or beyond the English gardening heritage. We found them also embodied in the wonderful Botanical gardens at Cranbourne, world class, yet thoroughly Australian. Here is a nutshell summary, frustrating in its oversimplification. And of course some contemporary British designers share this approach also—notably Dan Pearson?

1) Modernist abstraction, postmodern floating fragmentation and fusion gardens are all passé. All the works presented at the conference were deeply rooted in time and place, “site generated”, incorporating both existing elements and site memory, making the most of local resources and conditions (orientation, microclimates, topography, seasonal variation, vernacular crafts and skills) rather than imposing a preconceived concept, plan or style. These links to local surroundings run much deeper than mere “spirit of place”, blurred boundaries, the use of native plants or nicely framed views. Impact however may be global—hence our presence in Melbourne. In public works, such design may create a sense of “civic identity”, of belonging.

2) Striking but simplified graphic design often evokes vast landscapes in small spaces—thus the red desert at Cranbourne recreates in miniature the heart of Australia. Nicole de Vésian’s tiny lavender field or Olivier Filippi’s garrigue gardens are comparable. Juan Grimm’s work “mimics, echoes and blends with” magnificent natural settings. His stylized jetties are inspired by natural inlet patterns. Aniket Bhagwat observes monsoons and the flight patterns of urban birds. This is not abstraction but distillation, sensuous rather than conceptual. Ken Smith’s website affirms “particular emphasis on projects that explore the symbolic content and expressive power of landscape as an art form.” The question of scale becomes primordial: I became aware that “my” gardens in Provence distill small family farmscapes, as opposed to the urban density of Mumbai or the vast mountains of Chile.

3) We all bypassed the tired oppositions of artificial versus natural, nature versus culture, conceptual versus naturalistic. No more cliché contrasts between minimalist hardscapes and soft, seemingly random vegetation. Burle Marx had already gone beyond this. For these designers, human-built geometries and “naturalistic” plantings are equally natural, equally artificial, all human-made. The projects presented involved a lot of geometric shapes, some built, some spontaneous; some mineral, some vegetal; mostly asymmetrical, open-ended, subject to change and perceivable from multiple viewpoints. Geometries, curved or straight, are ambiguously “organic” like the camouflage patterns of hip-hop skateboarder pants that inspired Ken Smith for the MOMA roof garden. French poet Paul Valéry once wrote: “Two things threaten the world, order and disorder.”

4) Plants count enormously for all these garden makers, not only for texture and colour, but also because the garden is experienced as a living, dynamic, evolving ecosystem. All the speakers in Melbourne knew their plants but also their ecosystems. To play with growth through time, you must appreciate plants’ behavior and potential as well their infinite variety. In celebrating local roots, these gardens also encourage diversity of all kinds. Ecological management is built in, not added on, not an end in itself but a point of departure. They also invite immersion, sustained use, various kinds of sensuous contact no longer restricted to mere viewing. Gilles Clément’s work was also cited and admired by this group.

5) Most difficult to express: how this approach reflects deeper cultural changes. Static, formal gardens bespoke authority, hierarchy, eternity, human domination. Romantic gardens sought liberation from cultural restraint, linked in recent decades to entropy, chance and chaos. Both keep humans apart. Immersion implies participation, not dominance; multidirectional growth, not linear. Also a refusal to choose between determinism and random mutation that connects to current views on evolution, or movements like “complexity” that explore self-generating, non-hierarchical order. Time in such gardens means eons (geology), cyclical seasons and instants (weather). This is a dynamic vision linked to life and growth, that can inform gardens of all sizes. What the American writer Evan Eisenberg calls “earth jazz”…

http://www.landscapeconference.com/AU/index.html under “Speakers” see more photos of these designers’ work
www.rbg.vic.gov.au/visit-cranbourne
www.tcl.net.au/
www.landscapeindia.net and www.landscapeindiapbb.wordpress.com
www.juangrimm.cl/grimmfinali.html
www.raymondjungles.com
www.kensmithworkshop.com
www.louisajones.fr

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