Archive for February, 2011

My previous post featured a 19th century Moroccan palace of small rooms and many courtyards, with intricate patterned surfaces, scented plants, trickling fountains and a sense of intimate ease. This post now describes two very different gardens in the same city – one a vast ruin and the other a modern icon.

A drawing of the Badi palace in its heyday, by Adriaen Matham, 1640.

The Badi palace was a sixteenth century extravaganza, built by a Moroccan king in Italian marble and gold. With its vast and sumptuous design, and reputation for lavish feasts and debauchery, it barely survived its creator, being soon destroyed by a subsequent ruler.

Today it remains in the heart of Marrakech, a ruin shored up by the Culture Ministry – and an Ozymandian warning of the dangers of pride and excess. It is difficult to appreciate how splendid it once was, but the ruins give a sense of its vastness, with a main courtyard measuring almost 1.5 hectares (about 3.7 acres), centred around a monumental rectangular pool and four sunken gardens of roses and orange trees.

Where once were huge fountains and gold-topped pavilions, orchards and silver sculptures, now there are just the remnants of walls, and glimpses of old tiled paths and carved stonework amid the rubble. Storks nest on the crumbling ramparts.

In contrast, the Majorelle gardens in the new town are meticulously maintained. Created in the 1930s, the gardens are probably now the best known in Marrakech.

Plan of gardens

Plan of Majorelle gardens, from leaflet available at site.

The central features – an art deco studio, fountain, and pavilion, joined together by a rill – are famously cobalt blue. Around them, winding paths lead you through gardens of bamboo, palms and cactus.

Created by painter Jacques Majorelle, and restored in the 1980s by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, the gardens are a visual feast, with coloured pots of succulents, water features, architectural planting and carefully crafted views.

Flower pot in suncactus in sun

These gardens are far from typically Moroccan, but they both have their own, very different, magic.

Postscript: I am entering the image above in Gardening Gone Wild’s April photo competition. The theme is matching the right light to the right subject, and this seems to me a fun example of an image that actually thrives in the dazzlingly bright noonday sun. As a painter, Jacques Majorelle understood how to use intense colours, spiky plants, and dramatic shadows to create a garden perfectly suited to the harsh North African light. I hope my image captures something of his theatrical design. It was certainly a change for me from photographing gardens in the soft light of northern Europe.

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In Marrakech, gardens are havens of peace, a refuge from the noise, toil and heat of the city. Enclosed, geometric, with cool splashing water and fragrant blossoms, they have long been perceived as places where mortals can experience paradise on earth. They differ from Western designs that value movement through gardens; instead these are places perfectly at rest.

The palais de la Bahia, in the heart of the Marrakech medina, was a lavish private home created by the sultan for his grand vizier (prime minister) in the late 1800s. Blurring the distinction between inside and out, it consisted of a series of ornately decorated rooms arranged around private courtyards. It was here that the vizier installed his four wives, two score concubines, and many servants and guards. Today, entry through a wooden gate leads directly to a tranquil walled garden full of the scent of orange blossom.

The internal courtyards each have their own character. The first is small and delightful, its four symmetrical beds edged with patterned screens and planted with orange trees and palms. A central stone fountain sits serenely among the bright, intricate designs of the zellij (mosaic tiles) of the flooring. The space is surrounded by arcades of ornate wooden fretwork, while handsome cedarwood doors open to reveal horseshoe-shaped arches and playful mirrors.

A second courtyard is simpler. In the centre is a large water basin, standing on checkerboard zellij flooring, while plain plaster walls are broken up by Andalusian style painted cedarwood doors.

The main courtyard is altogether grander – a large open space, coloured cream and pale green, with zellij and marble floor tiles, and a low rectangular central water feature.

Here are no plants, save for a few in pots, but palm trees (located outside the courtyard) tower over the low buildings and their lattice-screened arcades.

Image from linternaute.com

The final (and oldest) courtyard has a shabby charm all its own. In need of some repair to the crumbling floors and stonework, it nevertheless feels intimate and lush, with its bananas, jasmine, orange trees, bougainvillea and palms, simple water basins, and pretty screens concealing arcades of painted cedarwood and sumptuous tiling.

Designed to appeal to all the senses, with perfumed flowers and fruit, tactile surfaces, the sound of splashing water, and intricate visual patterning, these courtyards belie the simplicity of their layout to provide cool, intimate sanctuaries full of fine craftsmanship and lush greenery – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The next post will be on a centuries-old ruined Marrakech garden, and a famous modern one…

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Moroccan patterns

We spent the past week in Marrakech. It was my first taste of North Africa; I had expected the earthy smells and colours, the noise, the warmth of the February sun. What took me by surprise was the intricacy of the city – its wooden fretwork, filigree tinware, calligraphy, mosaic tiles, the plasterwork like piped icing, the delicate mashrabiyya screens, even the tiny details of the fresh mint, rose petals and spices piled up in the souks.

Such patterning played a strong part in the gardens we visited. I will post more later in the week.

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Happy Valentine’s day from Paris


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Sometimes the most poignant qualities of a site come not from what is actually there, but from what is connected to it, through time and space, by our recollections and hopes.

The Poetics of Gardens

It is all too easy to think of gardens as consisting simply of physical stuff — of plants and paths, walls and terraces.

But increasingly landscape historians are focusing not on the fabric of a historic garden, but on its essence. Some call this value, or genius loci, or sense of place, or character; Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter talks about atmosphere or spirit. I’d define it as the distinctive elements that make a garden special.

Recently I undertook a piece of research on the impact of sustainable practices on the character of historic gardens. As part of this, I sought to identify the essence of four gardens over time — using archives, memoirs, descriptions, images, surveys and interviews.

As you might expect, I learnt that the creation of character in gardens is complex. It does not come simply or quickly from the choice of plants or other materials, or just from the way the garden looks, and it develops through the engagement and appreciation of visitors over time. In my research, I found that a sense of place had been created variously by memories and stories about a garden’s history, by the experience of movement and change, by contrasts and context, by views, by perceptions of refuge or dominion, by sensory qualities (touch, sound, smell), and by an understanding of the garden’s importance and influence. It became clear to me that a sense of place is possible to preserve, despite deliberate change, as can be seen at Great Dixter, and possible to damage — for instance, with the seemingly innocuous substitution of a single tree species at New York’s Lincoln Center. The research left me optimistic that even major, unexpected events and significant alterations to fabric need not destroy a historic garden’s essence.View of gardenOne of the case studies in my research was Vaux le Vicomte, the extraordinary Le Nôtre garden southeast of Paris. Created in the mid-1600s, it was a garden full of wonders and pleasure, launched by its owner (the financial secretary to the king) at a spectacular fête that was to lead directly to his downfall and disgrace. My research showed how visitors can still feel the resonance of the single day in 1661 on which the estate became a legend, all the developments and intrigue that led to the fête, and the political and cultural repercussions that have flowed from it down the centuries. Still strong is the memory of the ambivalent figure of its first owner—misrepresented hero or scurrilous villain—and the myth-making that surrounded him. People also consistently recognise Vaux, not just as a great illustration of the genius of André Le Nôtre, but as the first example of his work, the kernel that went on to produce Versailles and that extraordinary array of classical gardens that so influenced garden-making across Europe.

It was surprisingly easy for me to trace over time the essential components that define the character of this garden: elements of surprise and delight, a powerful feeling of movement, of being drawn though contrasting experiences, a sense of mastery imposed upon the landscape, with its grand views and prospects providing a sense of dominion and power. Yet there is also a strong perception of informality and playfulness among all the geometry, a sense of the heroic, swashbuckling, almost preposterous magic of the place.

Gardening Gone Wild is currently running a photo competition for images that capture the spirit of a garden. It is difficult to imagine one photograph that sums up the essence of Vaux le Vicomte. My image here expresses something of the garden’s dominion over nature: see how the trees on both sides are kept pinned back by the tightly clipped hedges; how the grand terraces are imposed on the undulating land. The photograph also shows something of the wondrous beauty of the garden, with its restrained palette of cream, green, grey and twinkling pale blue, the vastness and geometry of its layout, the perfect relationship between house and garden. But no photo can capture the delight and surprise of moving through this garden, with its almost mischievous changes of perspective and sudden introductions of sounds and sensations. Nor can an image give any sense of the legends and stories that have always swirled around Vaux le Vicomte.

It is hard to think how any photograph might capture a garden’s essence, given that—as my research showed—atmosphere comes not just from visual impact, but from other sensory qualities, from knowledge and feelings, from memories and associations. Looking through images of the many gardens I have visited, I could only find one shot that came close to expressing the atmosphere of a place. It was a photograph of the Villa Madama near Rome, a magical garden I have written about elsewhere in this blog. The image shows something of the early Renaissance style of the garden, with its terraces, water features and little putti statues. But the viewpoint is unusual, with the photograph taken from behind the water feature, as if I was an interloper in this venerable space. And the moss, quiet light and signs of rain on the water’s surface express something of the yearning melancholy of the garden, long abandoned and abused, and now only partly reclaimed. The photograph reminds me vividly, viscerally of my experience of being there.

French garden philosopher Jean-Pierre Le Dantec argues that we should stop ‘embalming’ historic gardens in the bandages of traditional conservation. We should cease the relentless conservation and recreation of physical fabric, and instead let them erode gently into oblivion—their essence perpetuated only in our daydreams, as Vaux le Vicomte and the Villa Madama are in mine…

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