Did you say the “G” word? Wash your mouth out with soap

April 12, 2010

in Articles, General Interest

by Tim Richardson

The word ‘garden’
is a problem which is not going to go away. Its negative connotations – from a professional design perspective, at least – are legion, which is why designers such as Martha Schwartz and Kathryn Gustafson do not like to hear the ‘G’-word being used in the context of their work.

‘Landscape’ is the preferred term, though that will not do for many designers who are working on a smaller, domestic scale. There are high-profile designers – Gilles Clement and Fernando Caruncho, for example -who go the other way and like to describe themselves as ‘gardeners’, almost as a way of reclaiming ownership of a semi-pejorative term, though some may label this faux humility. Others will say that since garden design is what they do, they should be described as garden designers.

So is the ‘G’-word really a problem? Yes. I think it is. The problem isn’t inherent in garden design and the work of designers; it’s a matter of PR, how the profession as a whole is branded. In the minds of the public at large, and in other design disciplines too, the idea of gardens and gardening comes freighted with apparently unassailable connotations of bourgeois mediocrity and convention, accompanied by visions of elderliness and amateurism. These ideas are constantly reinforced by the media -particularly the broadcast media, which at times seems to be actively engaged in a mission to keep gardening in its cosy place.

Since garden-making is more of a hobby than it is a profession in terms of numbers, the associations conjured up by the words ‘garden’ and ‘gardening’ are, arguably, appropriate enough for a large proportion of activity in this sphere. But what about those areas where the notion of the garden is mingled with other modes of activity, such as design, or history, or criticism? The serious, professionalised aspects of terms such as ‘garden design’, ‘garden history’ and ‘garden criticism’ are all but obliterated by the power of that ‘G’-word, which has a decisive stereotyping effect wherever it is used. What’s more, it would appear that there is nothing we can do about it, for as Horace tells us, ‘Usage is the sole norm and arbiter of speech’.

I have argued before that we in the world of gardens should not fret overmuch about our low status in the hierarchy of the arts, and should concentrate instead on doing what we do well. But I think the garden design profession is missing out on quite a large chunk of work because of the ‘G’-word, since a potentially wider client base will not take seriously anything associated with it. I suspect many designers will recognise that the ‘G’-word also makes clients believe they can get the job done on the cheap – ‘it’s only a bit of gardening’ -which was one of the subtexts of the recent MPs’ expenses scandal, when the gardening budgets of some MPs were described as excessive, when from our point of view perhaps they should not have been.

So what are we to do? The first option is: do nothing. That’s not such a bad idea, but for those designers who do not primarily see themselves as part-time planting, designers (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but like to take on slightly larger projects encapsulating hard landscaping, drives, swimming pools, structures and so on, I want to advance, tentatively, an idea I imagine will be shot down in flames by the majority. But here we go.

Why don’t garden designers start calling themselves ‘exterior designers’?

It sidesteps the ‘G’-word issue and acts as a correlative to interior design, an area where clients are happy to spend pots of money. Garden design thus becomes one aspect of a holistic, all-encompassing approach to the exterior environment, avoiding the idea that a garden designer is merely a jobbing gardener with knobs on, or a herbaceous-border therapist.

Pretentious? Not really – an exterior designer would not ‘pretend’ to be anything. Mystifying for clients? Potentially, but if enough designers started using the term it would enter common parlance soon enough. It’s worth thinking about, but I’m not expecting the SGD to be renamed the SED anytime soon.

Tim Richardson – independent garden and landscape critic

Tim Richardson’s recent books are “Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden” and “Avant Gardeners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape

This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal November 2009 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.

Society of Garden Designers, Katepwa House, Ashfield Park Avenue, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5AX
T: 01 989 566695
F: 01989 567676
E: sgd@assocmanagement.co.uk
Website: www.sgd.org.uk

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