Posts Tagged ‘memory’

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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Square Louis XVIThe little park around the Chapelle Expiatoire on boulevard Haussman is traditionally planted with white flowers, in memory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So it was somehow fitting to visit yesterday during a major snowstorm in Paris. Everything was rapidly being engulfed in deep, soft whiteness.

This place was once the cemetery of La Madeleine, and became a dumping ground for as many as 3,000 guillotined corpses during the terrors of the French Revolution. In 1793 the bodies of the king and (some months later) his queen were hastily buried here in a pit. Later a royalist, Pierre Desclozeaux, acquired the site and quietly marked what he believed to be the royal burial spot with a planting of willows, cypress and hornbeam.

After the restoration of the monarchy, Louis XVIII had the purported remains of the former king (his brother) and queen re-interred in the royal selpulchre at Saint Denis, and commissioned Pierre-François Léonard Fontaine to build a chapel on the spot where their bodies had first lain. It seems the plants of Monsieur Desclozeaux were not enough of a memorial.

The small domed chapel is a splendid, Neoclassical edifice, currently in the process of being cleaned and restored after suffering storm damage last year. The small park which surrounds it, known as Square Louis XVI, is pleasantly planted with scented white-flowering shrubs and perennials, including roses, viburnum and lilacs. They grow in the shade of a mixture of trees (horse chestnuts, sycamores, cherries, maples, hawthorns, clipped yews), chosen to reflect the wide range of people killed during the Revolution. There are also lots of benches and a small toddlers’ playground.

The Square is tucked away behind railings near the grands magasins in the 9th, and the dramatic pale curves of the chapel always somehow take me by surprise when I glimpse them among the traffic and shoppers and dense surrounding buildings. If this were a more populist blog, I would mention that Marie Antoinette’s ghost is said to haunt the place. But instead I will just point out that the chapel is open to visitors (see the website for details) and that the little park is a splendid place to sit quietly and ponder.

Square Louis XVI

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Today it is fashionable to grapple with the idea of collective meaning and memory in landscapes. Conferences are held, books written, different styles of garden analysed, all debating how far deliberate messages and associations can be conveyed through designed landscapes. My favourite article on the topic is Marc Treib’s wry “Must Landscapes Mean?” which examines six ways of introducing meaning, but ultimately argues that designers should focus on creating pleasurable places, and just leave associations to accrue naturally over time.

The extremes of the debate are illustrated, at one end, by the work of Scottish gardener and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose careful use of Latin inscriptions, poems and artefacts at Little Sparta recalls the allusions of Renaissance gardens, designed to present deliberate messages and philosophical ideas to erudite visitors.

At the other extreme is deconstructionist architect Bernard Tschumi‘s 1982 design for Parc de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. The 55-hectare space was formerly the site of slaughterhouses and a meat market. It was transformed into Paris’s largest public park as one of President Mitterrand’s grands projets.

Parc de la Villette

The slaughterhouse history of the site had no relevance for Parc de la Villette’s designer Bernard Tschumi. Image from http://www.villette.com

Tschumi’s competition-winning entry for the new landscape was famously a series of deconstructed points, lines and surfaces. Each point was marked by a large red cube that he described as a ‘functional folie,’ intended to be deliberately irrational and challenging to visitors’ expectations. Tschumi thus intended to push the notion of individual response to its controversial extreme. He denied any possibility of inherent meaning or commonly understood symbolism in architecture and argued that his design for Villette ‘means nothing‘ [Tschumi’s emphasis] and could only offer ‘a multiplicity of impressions’ that each visitor would interpret individually.

Tschumi's plan

The original plan for Villette, from Tschumi Architects.

The original plan was breath-taking in its iconoclasm, its refusal to provide any historical references or any suggestion of a traditional park. It sent shock waves throughout the world of landscape architecture. But during detailed design and installation, inevitably, Villette took on many standard park features: large areas of lawn, tree-lined allées, children’s playgrounds.

Today it is widely regarded as a failure. A recent survey suggested that visitors who use the park’s many venues (including concert halls and a cinema) rarely stay to enjoy the outside space. Conversely, those who picnic and play ball on the park’s lawns do not venture into its exhibitions or shows. Villette can be seen as a rag-bag of features and buildings with no common theme or spirit drawing them together into a recognisable place. It (deliberately) lacked many of the standard features of a park; now some of the red follies have been awkwardly converted into cafés and information centres. The US Project for Public Spaces has, perhaps unfairly, condemned Villette as one of the worst parks in the world, a place more interested in tricksy design and philosophical techniques than in human use of the space.

Functional Folie

One of the ‘functional folies’ – now a café.

Others seek to defend its philosophical intent as a deconstructionist proclamation, a return to design zero. Some just argue that, whatever its faults, parc de la Villette is a much-needed and popular place in the city’s busy 19th arrondissement. It was without doubt an extraordinarily brave decision by the State to choose Tschumi’s design for the site, and a refreshing change from the bland, ‘lowest common denominator’, controversy-free plans so often implemented for public parks.

Visitors must make up their own minds about Villette, just as Tschumi intended…

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Giverny 1An exhibition of Monet’s work opened this week at the Grand Palais. It is the first retrospective of his paintings for around 30 years in Paris, where he remains resolutely unfashionable.

His gardens at Giverny, in Normandy, are a major tourist destination. We visited last year and found the little town packed with visitors, all coming to view something which, in a way, they had already seen.

His paintings of the bassin de nymphéas (the waterlily pond) are so well-known, so replicated on greetings cards and posters and place-mats, that we are all familiar with them, even those who have never seen any of the 250 or so paintings themselves.

Giverny 2

Emerging from the dark tunnel that links Monet’s house and its charming Clos Normand garden with the later Japanese-style water gardens, visitors feel a growing sense of anticipation on approaching the pond. It is a pre-formed memory; we know what is coming, even though it is new to us.

Giverny 3

The water gardens, with their wooden bridges and weeping willows, are actually a late twentieth century recreation of Monet’s original design, which virtually disappeared through lack of funds and neglect after his death. But, when we see the pond, we still experience a rush of recognition and familiarity. Most of the photographs I took suggested that I was the only one gazing at this famous garden; in truth of course, I was just one of the 400,000 visitors who pour through the site each year, seeking those familiar views.

Giverny 4

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Is heritage about things or about people? Last Friday I attended a conference in London, organised by Europa Nostra and ICOMOS UK, which considered this question.

Monuments and memories 1

Called “Monuments and Memories,” the conference was partly about the 2003 UNESCO convention on the intangible cultural heritage – which I now understand aims to protect performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, languages and oral traditions, rituals and festive events, and other living practices important to certain groups and cultures. It’s very much about people, and not very much about things. The list of such intangible heritage that needs to be safeguarded by UNESCO includes the polyphonic singing of Aka pygmies and oxcart traditions in Costa Rica. It is easy to smile at practices which may seem quaint to conventional Western eyes. But no doubt they have great value to the people who practise them, and many are under threat from globalisation and intolerance. We heard a speaker from Museums Galleries Scotland who is managing a ground-breaking project to inventory all such living practices in Scotland, from Shetland knitting to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Monuments and Memories 2In a sometimes rather confusing way, the conference also looked at another form of intangible heritage. This time, speakers used the term to mean the values, memories and associations we give to the tangible heritage (that is, to buildings, landscapes, and archaeological artefacts). It’s about the relationship between things and people. This is an area that much interests me. I have written elsewhere in favour of chronicling people’s responses to landscapes, of capturing what places mean to us and why we value them.

A speaker from English Heritage (EH) argued that for 200 years we may have placed too much emphasis on objects, on preserving historic fabric and maintaining authenticity, when we really need to focus on character and memories and the totality of people’s views. He talked a little about a project that EH has just completed in Lincoln, trying to identify and record the character of the city, and inviting people to submit their views, comments and memories on line. We both agreed that it is hard to find ways of tapping into people’s values and responses, but that shouldn’t stop us continuing to try…

Another speaker talked about John Ruskin’s influential views on heritage, as expressed in his work The Lamp of Memory. He argued that what matters is not the thing itself (the heritage building or historic landscape) but its lifeblood, its metaphor and meaning to people – how we infuse things with our memories of the past and our hopes for the future.

It struck me, as I chose some images to illustrate this post, that I routinely take photographs of historic sites without people in them. I struggled to find any images that show the human delight in heritage which is often the subject of my writing. It makes me wonder whether subconsciously I believe that such places are more attractive, or more authentic, when denuded of visitors…

Monuments and memories 3

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Marc TreibMarc Treib is one of my favourite writers about landscapes. He is thought-provoking, prolific and easy-to-read, perhaps the three qualities to which I most aspire.

So it was with pleasure that I bought Spatial Recall, the collection of essays he edited last year on the role of memory in architecture and landscape. Each chapter is pleasingly disparate, reflecting perhaps their origins as papers for a symposium. Topics roam from the way that landscape design can help explain Ancient Egypt to the complex relationship between personal memories and state-sponsored historic preservation. I particularly enjoyed Susan Schwartzenberg‘s case study revealing how nostalgia and longing can alter our visual memories of a place. Treib’s own contribution, which ponders on our differing responses to ruins and remains, is typically cogent and persuasive. The book even confidently includes an essay by Andrew Shanken that challenges the very topic of memory and questions the modern industry of commemoration, mourning and memorials.

My only grumble (apart from the title, which is presumably a pun on the Schwarzenegger film, but for me fails to capture the thoughtful nature of the book) is the cover price: at some 270 pages and with only black-and-white images, the paperback edition retails at £31.99; the hardback is an eye-popping £95. Nevertheless, it is a stimulating, reader-friendly book, and a topic that is of increasing interest to those in the profession, and more widely.

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