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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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Lincoln Center 2Damrosch Park at the Lincoln Center was designed in the 1960s by master landscape architect Dan Kiley. Much diminished through neglect and misuse, the park is about to host New York Fashion Week, which is moving from its old home in Bryant Park.

I am a huge fan of Kiley (see my previous posts on his designs in Brussels and Paris) and was lucky enough to discuss his work at the Lincoln Center with him, and to review his files on the project (since sadly destroyed in a fire).

Lincoln Center 3

Early plan of Lincoln Center, showing Webel’s design for the park (left). Image from Lincoln Center Inc.

He was commissioned in 1959 to design a courtyard to the north of the Metropolitan Opera House. The firm of Darling, Innocenti and Webel was to design Damrosch Park, to the south. As the early plan reproduced here shows, Richard Webel worked up plans for a traditional park with a lawn and some trees. But Center President John D. Rockefeller and his team of architects were so enthusiastic about Kiley’s design for the North Court that, as Kiley later explained, Webel “was directed to incorporate precepts of my plan to assure site continuity.” The final design for Damrosch Park bears Kiley’s unique imprint. The resulting relationship between the two plazas brought a sense of spatial continuity and cohesion to the whole site. Damrosch Park had the same distinctive quartets of plane trees, set in planters with an understorey of azaleas. They enclosed a seating area that was surrounded by a bosque of forty or so purple-leafed maple trees. The bandshell at the far end of the Park was also framed by plane trees, with a perimeter planting of Sargent crab apples.

As built model of Lincoln Center

A model of Lincoln Center, with Damrosch Park to the left. Image from http://www.rowan.edu

In 1990, the Center infamously ripped out all the plane trees in the North Court and replaced them with forlorn little ornamental pears. Soon the Center started to remove trees from Damrosch Park as well. One complete row of plane trees was taken out, apparently because the shade they cast was causing moss to grow on the side of the Metropolitan Opera House. All the crab apples disappeared too, possibly because they were obstructing the guy wires for the Big Apple Circus that pitches its tent in the Park for several months each winter. The crab apples were replaced with small ornamental plantings of geraniums and dwarf conifers, as well as what one observer called “inexcusable installations of amateurish lava rock landscaping.” Eight or so of the purple leafed maples also disappeared, at least one having been damaged by circus vehicles. Other plane trees were removed when they became infected with cankerstain. Staff at the Center, unaware of who had designed both plazas, argued that the plane trees had been “bunched too closely together” and might all need to be replaced with single specimens of zelkova or sophora trees.

Lincoln Center 1It looked as if none of the original plantings in Damrosch Park would be left. But interventions by landscape architects Robert Stern and Ken Smith saved at least some of Kiley’s design. In 1996 the Center replaced all the purple leafed maples that had been removed (although ironically, Kiley noted in his project files: “If I had known, I would have suggested the Schwedler maple – the purple leaf ‘bugs’ me.”). Kiley was invited to advise Lincoln Center staff on how to maintain and restore the remaining plane trees, which were apparently also showing signs of disease. He told me he was dismayed at the suggestion that the problems arose because the trees were placed too closely together, arguing that trees will thrive in denser plantings and with less soil in the wild. He also expressed surprise that no-one at the Center had previously contacted him for advice when the trees began to struggle, when he was as expert as anyone in the country on urban tree planting. The Center subsequently restored all the missing plane trees, retaining the tight spacing of four in each planting box. For many years, ironically, they provided the best illustration on the site of Kiley’s original plans for the landscape, even though he had not originally been commissioned to design Damrosch Park at all.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The plans to rework Kiley’s North Court (now largely implemented). Image from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

The North Court has sadly now been dismantled as part of the massive, one billion dollar redevelopment of the Lincoln Center led by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Lead architect Liz Diller told me recently that she has tried to retain something of the “spirit” of Kiley’s design, with a geometric planting of plane trees, but to me the plaza now feels more like a corridor than a gathering space, and is overwhelmed by a new fancy-dancy sloping roofed restaurant.

Plans for Damrosch Park under the redevelopment are not yet clear, but many of the plane trees have recently been cut down, and the arrival of Fashion Week suggests that the Center management is more interested in holding high-profile outdoor events at the Park than in conserving what remains of Kiley’s work.

Fashion Week

The park last month, the plane tree planters now empty. Image from ny.racked.com

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