The Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly members’ journal The Garden is a predictable mix of plant profiles, gardening tips and lists of UK gardens to visit. It is glossy and pleasant and pretty safe.

So it was heartening this month to see it branching out into a different kind of journalism, with Edens beyond the razor wire, an article on gardens in the war zones of Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel. The photographs, by Lalage Snow, are stunning, showing how people will plant gardens in tiny inhospitable places and while under the daily threat of death. The title is eye-catching and one of the photos heads up the contents list on page 3 (it would have been even better on the cover, rather than the usual macro shot of seasonal plants). My only gripe would be that the accompanying text could have done with some firmer editing (for instance, one of the men interviewed is described as “Mohammad, aged 105,” with no comment at all on that improbable length of life).

As a longtime RHS member I was cheered at the decision to take a different, thought-provoking look at what drives us to garden. May such off-beat articles become a regular feature of all gardening journals.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, reproduced with permission, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

Restoring decadence

Decadence is defined as

moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.

In terms of Mughal design, Safdarjung’s Tomb in Delhi is a fine example of decadence. It follows in the pattern of the great garden tombs, which began with the sandstone mausoleum and geometric garden of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, laid out by his widow around 1564.

An aerial view of Humayan's Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

An aerial view of Humayan’s Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

The tradition reached its undoubted peak with Agra’s supremely elegant Taj Mahal, created in marble amidst park-like surroundings in the 1630s for the wife of fifth emperor Shahjehan. Both Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal today are World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj represents the artistic pinnacle of the Mughal empire, created at the height of its cultural and political power. Just over a century later, Safdarjung’s Tomb was the last Mughal building to be created in Delhi, and the last of the Mughal garden tombs. It is the mausoleum of the prime minister to the fifteenth emperor, created as his empire disintegrated. According to some accounts, Safdarjung himself played a part in the the downfall of the Mughals.

The entrance gateway to the site.

The entrance gateway to Safdarjung’s Tomb.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Safdarjung’s Tomb is a strangely appropriate monument. It sums up in stone the decline of the once-great empire. The mausoleum and its Mughal gardens are clearly modelled on Humayun’s. But the proportions of the main building feel strange, with an over-sized dome and chunky corner-towers, and the decorative marble elements are ostentatious, lacking all the elegance of the Taj Mahal’s exquisite inlaid stone work. The garden’s four water courses, one leading from each side of the tomb, also have a rather clunky, overly-literal feel. It is as if the architect was trying too hard to show off the main features of the design, without understanding the subtleties and balance require to create a great building.

One of the showy marble panels (left).

One of the showy marble panels (left).

View of the mausoleum.

The strangely scaled vertical elevations of the mausoleum.

Despite its central Delhi location, Safdarjung’s Tomb is today little-visited. The garden has that typical combination of lawn and little clipped shrubs that bears no relation to the orchards and scented flowers that were once essential features of a Mughal garden. Much of the stonework is rather shabby, some of the pathways are uneven and overgrown, and all the water channels have long been empty. But it undoubtedly remains important as a late, decadent example of Mughal funerary design.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site's library.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site’s library.

One of the derelict water channels.

One of the derelict water channels.

Sandstone slabs.

Sandstone slabs, stacked among weeds in the garden.

This week the Archaeological Survey of India (the Government agency that maintains the tomb) has announced plans to restore the fountains and water channel at the entrance to the site. The original Mughal drainage system has been unearthed and apparently the water should soon be flowing again. Similar work may be possible in the other three channels. It is hardly full restoration but, in a country keen to look forward, and where heritage is often viewed as an unnecessary relic of an irrelevant past, it is still encouraging to see state intervention such as this for a great example of decadent Mughal design.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

Joseph Allen Stein was a twentieth century American architect who spent much of his professional life in India. I have written before about his work at the India Habitat Centre, a late example of his blend of modernism and environmental care.

Stein argued that “reverence” guided the work of architects in previous centuries as they created “profoundly right structures, often on sites of great natural beauty” and that around the world “there are abundant examples of architecture enhancing nature.” In the face of twentieth century population pressures and mass industrialised production, he saw the role of architects as needing consciously to “seek not to spoil the earth.”

Today I joined a tour of one of his earliest buildings in New Delhi, and one of the few private houses that he designed.

Plan by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

Plan of High Commissioner’s Residence, New Delhi by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

The Australian High Commissioner’s Residence was built in the late 1950s in the Chanakyapuri district of New Delhi. It was one of a series of grand residences laid out for India’s burgeoning diplomatic community in the years following Independence. Unlike most countries, Australia chose an architect who was permanently based in India to design a home for its head of mission, and the wisdom of that choice is clear in the resulting building.

Stein’s design is beautifully simple. Using local materials and with a deep understanding of the harsh Delhi climate, he produced a house that related perfectly to the lush green landscape in which it sat. Local design details, such as open stone jalis or perforated screens, combined with large expanses of glass in a way that respected both traditional knowledge and modernist principles. The current High Commissioner’s wife confirmed to us that the house was a joy to inhabit, the space flowing around the splendid central hall and each room feeling airy and open, with ready access to the outside.

Less is more was one of the fundamental concepts of modernism and our guide for the tour, architectural historian Aman Nath, thought that it played out nowhere better than in Stein’s work in New Delhi, where it perfectly complements the Indian respect for simplicity. Nath was lucky enough to know Joseph Stein and his wife Margaret, and described them as self-effacing, almost – in Joseph’s case – to the point of hermitism. He did not care to publicise or proclaim his work and, perhaps as a result, it is not as well-known or documented as it might be. My explorations of his Delhi work continue and I plan to post soon on the India International Centre (1959-62), the American Embassy School (1960-70) and the Gandhi-King Memorial Plaza (1970).

Landscape history is a fast-growing academic field (excuse the pun), with new university courses being set up and increasing numbers of conferences arranged and books published. But there are still few publications that offer a general survey of the history of designed landscapes.

Ten years ago, when I was studying the topic at Harvard’s Landscape Institute, we used Norman T. Newton’s Design on the Land as our basic text. It was generally an excellent introduction, although already 30 years old and with a focus mainly on the history of Western landscapes.

Recently I offered some advice on landscape history curriculum development to a local university, and was surprised to realise that not much seems to have changed in ten years. Newton’s book is still widely used, as is Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s 1975 work, The Landscape of Man. More recent surveys include the glossy Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History published in 2001 by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, and Tom Turner’s chatty series on the history and philosophy of Asian Gardens (2010), European Gardens (2011) and British Gardens (2013).

John Dixon Hunt, one of the most distinguished and thought-provoking landscape history scholars, has recent joined the fray. According to the publishers, his 2012 book A World of Gardens “takes us on a world tour of different periods in the making of gardens.”

The book has received mixed reviews. The indomitable Penelope Hobhouse, writing in The Garden, saw it as “a comprehensive work of great value; a giant distillation of the author’s knowledge; a reference book that makes many earlier histories almost irrelevant.” Writing for Times Higher Education, however, Professor Timothy Mowl attacked the book with relish, dismissing it as “intellectually compromised… woefully light on recent scholarship… frustrating… tiresome… confused.”

Layout 1My own take (in a review originally published in Historic Gardens Review) is that, especially given its title, the book has a regrettably uneven feel. There are some areas where Hunt’s mastery of the subject oozes from the page: the chapter on “Betweenity,” for instance, effortlessly uses Walpole, Addison, Shaftesbury and Switzer (as well as the Victorian architect John D. Sedding) to produce a nuanced picture of the gradual transition from Le Nôtre to Kent, and the distinctive nature of the gardens in this ‘between’ period.

Other chapters are less assured. Hunt readily admits to no personal knowledge of many of the gardens he covers and to being reliant on the scholarship of others. Thus he offers a standard analysis of Japanese, Persian and Indian gardens interspersed with curious examples of the style: much of the chapter on Japanese gardens describes Noguchi’s work in the US and Paris, while the discussion of Mughal gardens ends with details of a 21st century park in Cairo and a recent garden for Pakistani immigrants in Bradford.

The book is finely illustrated, with plans, sketches, paintings and photographs, most of them well reproduced and informative although, frustratingly for the reader, many illustrations are on a different page from the reference in the text.

A World of Gardens is perhaps not vintage Hunt, but the best parts are still full of the intellect and verve that have made his work a pleasure for so many of us for so long. It is a good supplement to existing surveys of landscape history but, sadly, certainly not a replacement for them.


Paris post-script

My visit to Paris this summer revealed some odd goings-on at the venerable parc Monceau, in the heart of the city. Originally created in the 18th century as a flamboyant private garden, Monceau is now a majestic swathe of ancient trees, lush grass and stone follies.

The city of Paris (or at least one of its gardeners) has been introducing some rather novel elements among the traditional shrub borders and flower beds.

First, an earthern volcano complete with red and yellow annual flowers representing lava, and a water jet or two occasionally bursting out of the nearby perennial plantings.

Monceau 7 Monceau 1Then, alongside the main path, the earth opening up as if in some Halloween horror film, with elaborate catilevered sections of turf and more lava effect.

Monceau 5 Monceau 6And by the rotunda at the main entrance, another installation, with square tunnels carefully chiselled out of a large log. I am afraid the symbolism of this one escaped me.

Monceau 3 Monceau 4I just didn’t know what to make of these new features. A friend thought them interesting and different, and was puzzled by my disapproval. Maybe she was right. Perhaps they were contemporary artworks designed to challenge the rather staid representations of nature all around them, or deliberate modern references to Monceau’s creation in the 1770s as a “land of illusions“?

At least they were more thought-provoking than the terrible, scrappy planting in place in the Tuileries, Le Nôtre’s great processional gardens along the Seine. Here’s an example, with the Louvre in the background, the whole sorry mess set off perfectly by that officious little sign telling people they are not welcome.

Tuileries 1

Parc André Citroën in the southwest of Paris was created just twenty years ago, on the site of an old car factory. The only park in the capital with frontage on the river Seine, it is famous for its bold modern design and confident use of water and sculpted plants. Locals picnic en masse on the central lawn at weekends and hundreds of kids cool down in its 120 dancing water jets. Well-maintained small gardens and a popular tethered balloon add to its appeal.

Despite its appeal, much of the park has long needed better maintenance. Three years ago I wrote this post about its dilapidated condition and expressed a hope that, at last, the problems were being addressed. Sadly a return visit this July suggested that my optimism was misplaced.

As I reported at the time for Historic Gardens Review, the park’s central water features remain in a deplorable state. The shallow moat that surrounds the main lawn, which was empty for so long, has now been refilled with water, but contains an astonishing amount of blanket weed and algae.

Citroen 11Citroen 02
Almost all the other water features remain empty and cordoned off, including the 250m long elevated canal to the west, the waterfalls at the river end of the park, and the series of six rills and cascades that join the individual gardens to the main lawn.

Citroen 03 Citroen 05 Citroen 09 Citroen 10The mayor’s office in Paris reported to me that the six rills were actively under repair (to prevent serious leaks) but would not be drawn on any of the other problems. I suspect that, with its mass of elaborate water features, the park may simply be too expensive to conserve in its original state.

Better news seems to be emerging from the much trumpeted €3.9m planned extension to the park. Plans announced early in 2012 included innovative play areas, refreshment stalls, the park’s first toilets, and substantial new plantings of clipped hawthorn and hornbeam, plus a mass of Judas trees. The extension was due to open this summer. The space was still a building site when I visited – fenced off, weeds establishing themselves on the piles of earth, with no obvious work underway and no explanation of the reasons for the delay.

Citroen 12 Citroen 13But one of the main contractors, COTEG, has just wryly reported that the extension is likely to be finished by the end of next month because the park is now part of “a political context that demands deadlines” – with the municipal elections taking place in March 2014, the local mayor presumably wants parc André Citroën as a showcase of urban developments in his arrondissement. C’est un mal pour un bien…

Faith in the future

Born from the trauma of partition, the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, in the Himalayan foothills, was designed as a model city and a decisive break with India’s colonial past.

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Nehru, the country ‘s first prime minister after Independence, famously described it as “a new city unfettered by the traditions of the past. ..an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

From 1951, the design work was led by the great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, working with three other Europeans and a team of young Indian architects.

Much has been written about the city – on the irony of Western design becoming the symbol of India’s future; on whether Chandigarh really adapts European style to the very different climate, values and lifestyles of northern India; on the seeming success of the new city in terms of wealth creation, sanitation and human well-being.

I was lucky enough last month to join a private tour of Corbusier’s capitol – the great civic centre of the city, with its high court, assembly building and secretariat arranged around a vast courtyard. There is no easy public access to any of these buildings, and it was a privilege to visit them in the company of international architectural historians and preservation experts.

To my eyes, the buildings were an extraordinary mixture. The expected monumentality was everywhere, in line with the city’s role as a symbol of the new India. We saw three vast columns dramatically painted in primary colours at the high court:Chandigarh 04

Chandigarh 03 Chandigarh 14the great curved concrete parasol of the assembly building, reflected in its rectangular pool:

Chandigarh 15the striking drum shape on the assembly roof, reminiscent of some industrial-scale cooling chimney:

Chandigarh 08and the towering Open Hand sculpture, now the symbol of Chandigarh.

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 10But there were many fine details as well, reminders perhaps of Corbusier’s early grounding in the precision of watch-making and the arts and crafts movement, from the mosaics in the courtrooms:

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 06to the precisely modelled door frames, rhythmic ceiling supports and geometric window patterns:

Chandigarh 12  Chandigarh 07 Chandigarh 02Chandigarh 11I was in Chandigarh to speak at a conference on 20th century heritage. We discussed how Corbusier’s great capitol may be admired by experts the world over, but is little appreciated by many locals, for whom it is distant from the town centre and irrelevant to their daily lives. We witnessed the challenges of building and maintaining structures on a scale and at a cost unfamiliar to most Indian cities.

And, particularly striking for me as a landscape historian, was the sad impact of a sectarian attack in the 1980s, which led to Corbusier’s once glorious open courtyard being divided up by barbed wire. Instead of being the heart of the complex, the space is now meaningless, neglected and overgrown. Given these issues, the city of Chandigarh proved a perfect example for conference delegates of the joys and challenges of managing designs from the recent past.

Chandigarh 09


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