Is it possible to critique a garden without understanding the designer’s intent? by Felicity Waters

October 24, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

A discussion piece – what do we want from a garden? how important is the designer’s original intention? Given that this piece is a critique of thinkingardens’ reviews I think we need some answers and thoughts from our readers. Let’s have some comments?

Anne Wareham, editor

Felicity Waters:

Is it possible to critique a garden without understanding the designer’s intent?

Without understanding what a designer is setting out to achieve we run the risk of unfairly slaying a garden, and even worse, further delaying the maturity of a meaningful garden design discourse.

Despite the remit for thinkingardens there still appears to be an emphasis on garden reviews that assess whether there are enough ‘acceptable’ vignettes created by various planting beds, grasses and trees that make up each garden.

Garden design is more than creating pretty pictures – why is this not being reflected in the reviews? Surely there is some habitat stuff, water purifying or even a clever engineering stunt being performed in these gardens? How funny that there is limited mention of ecological issues?

Designers tend to be concerned with many issues not just view lines. To assist identifying these issues perhaps we need to ask what is a garden ‘doing’? And if it is not doing anything other than creating pictures perhaps we need to be critiquing the brief (or critiquing our own abilities to review?!).

To enable interesting dialogue we also need to understand that we bring our own set of assumptions to every garden. Perhaps those assumptions are creating blindness.  Complaining about a lack of views assumes that everyone has a right to a view and that views are inherently good. Maybe we should be asking different questions such as why are there no views. Should every landscape have a view?  Why do I want a view?

Felicity Waters

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Felicity Waters portrait copyright Felicity Waters

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Maurizio Usai November 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Every work of art lives (partially) beyond the intentions of its creator: that’s what makes it alive and then renews its value over the time.
I think it’s surely possible to criticize a garden even without knowing anything about his creator. Being aware of designer/owner/gardener intents is something more, and must be considered if we want to make a serious review. But – as Nigel Colborne said- in any case this should become an excuse, if the design fails to be successful.


Kininvie October 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Most of what Nigel says above is right: the intention of a designer, (or poet, or artist) has to be judged through the success or failure of the finished work. To make allowances for the intention, when criticising the work, is to succumb to the Intentional Fallacy – well known in the field of literary criticism. Wordsworth expended quantities of ink on the intentions behind Lyrical Ballads, but contemporary critics correctly gave it the bird all the same. If gardens are to be treated as art, the same applies.


Vanessa Gardner Nagel October 29, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Isn’t it lovely that we have diverse opinions to create such a good discussion? I believe that a basic reason we critique or review (I have no problem with either word) to gain an understanding of what the garden is all about – with or without benefit of a brief – is because it informs us about garden design. Yes, there are basic rules, but we have all seen cases where a mold was broken and something wonderful emerged. We can all just wander through a garden and enjoy the sights, but personally I enjoy trying to understand the design intent. The ability to see the ideas of others and then translate that into ‘new’ ideaa is part of the fun of garden design.


Harriet Rycroft October 29, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I agree with much of what Nigel (especially on the word ‘critique’!) and Sue say. I think problems tend to arise when people feel that intelligent comment should necessarily be negative. Everyone is entitled to their opinion (even in the art world) but you have to be very careful when writing negative comments about a garden because even the grandest garden involves private passions and private property being exposed to public view. Most gardens have not been designed with the public in mind or with the intention that they should be scrutinised in a single visit. As a gardener in a garden which is open all year round and has a negligible maintenance budget I know that that there must be many people who are disappointed by a visit on an off day but I hope (and believe) that even they take away at least one idea they would like to try at home.
Garden designers, owners and the people who maintain them usually react well to positive criticism and frank opinions expressed (politely) face to face, but I think that people expressing opinions in print and online should be aware that they wield a disproportionate power to hurt and damage – their targets will find it hard to respond (if they are given the chance) without sounding ungracious and defensive. I think this holds true for criticism of the work of living artists too.
It would be so boring if commentators gushed and fawned over every garden and pretentiousness deserves to be deflated but we all have to remember that our opinions are just opinions: gardening, like art, has no correct answers.


Allan Becker October 27, 2011 at 12:59 am

1] It is rude to visit a garden and ask why there are no views. It implies that either a garden designer or homeowner did not know what they were doing.
Implicit in that rude question is the fact that some still believe that there are traditional rules that need to be obeyed when designing a garden. In a swift-changing age that adopts and discards trends as quickly as a baby’s diaper is switched, such a critique sounds rather anachronistic and narrow minded.
2] Why should a garden be reviewed at all? Must we have the validation of publicly-acknowledged experts before a garden design is deemed acceptable?
And why must it be acceptable to cultural and horticultural authorities? Why can’t one simply visit a garden and appreciate its design solely on its face value?


sheppard craige October 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Felicity says garden design is more than creating a series of pretty pictures, or vignettes, as she calls them. Of course she’s right. I’m curious if she would be willing to go one step further and question why gardens need to be ornamental, or, in a larger sense decorative.
When we talk about gardens we talk about the picturesque. But, says Felicity, the garden in front of us may be “doing” something quite different. So why do we concentrate so much on the pictorial? She doesn’t say, but maybe this is because of photography. Or…….maybe we are being too literal: this garden is either beautiful or it isn’t. Such simplistic reactions don’t allow the undefined or abstract to wander into view…..
In closing she asks: Should every garden have a view? I’ll admit that my own work,the Bosco della Ragnaia, does have two long views. But I get her point, and it puts me in mind of Leopardi. After Dante, Giacomo Leopardi (d.1837) is Italy’s most famous poet. His best known work is L’Infinito (The Infinite). Here Leopardi sits facing a view, but he can’s see it because of a hedge which cuts off the horizon. So the poet, with just the hedge and the sky before him, is overcome by a sensation of vastness which is an intimation of the infinite.


Kininvie October 30, 2011 at 9:33 pm

I was walking through a Belgian communal forest today, pondering some of this. Is there any good reason why a garden should be distinct from a forest? A forest is designed, planted, maintained…..Do we need further intervention to turn it into a garden? (There’s a couple of pix on my blog, if you need visual supplements to the question)


Charles Hawes October 25, 2011 at 6:14 pm


Well I think that this has been a very interesting discussion but I don’t agree with Felicity’s basic premise or with Nigels comment when he says:

“However, if the artwork is misunderstood, the review will not be useful. And if the designer or artist has not made his or her intent clear, through the work, it surely fails as art – though it may not fail as a garden”

I agree it can add an interesting dimension to have an explanation about what may be intended by the creator of a garden and it certainly makes reviewing such a garden easier in that it gives the reviewer a convenient place to start. But the reviewer need not and should not restrict themselves to only passing comment on such a “brief”. Because the reviewer can speak from their own preoccupations or interests and as such may may add a perspective to the evaluation of a garden that others -even the creator- have missed. This is surely what makes critics valuable? Ambiguity is perfectly OK. No reason why everything should be laid out. In fact it leaves it more open to look at the garden from a wider range of views.


Adam Hodge October 25, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I applaud your well analysed and presented argument and am a tad jealous my grey matter isnt as orderly as yours ! I agee with it all !


Sue Beesley October 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Nigel’s comment explains very clearly why I shy from the thought of my own garden being ‘reviewed’. Like so many gardens, it was not created as a work of art. Much of it was not ‘designed’. It is also a perpetual work in progress because I think gardening is essentially about continual process and change, not fixed outcomes. How we garden is as important to us as what we achieve and visitors like to see us working in the garden. People come here to visit, most of them enjoy it and many of them say things like ‘I felt happy here’, or ‘I’ve had a wonderful afternoon, thank you’. But I can’t see in what context it could it be reviewed, in any intellectual sense?

I think Felicity is absolutely right – unless a garden owner is declaring their garden to be art then the purpose of the garden and the intent of the creator are key. The only relevant question in such a review is ‘does it meet the brief?’

That aside, in respect of any garden which charges admission, a question that can also reasonably be asked and answered by almost anyone is ‘Was it worth going?’


Nigel Colborn October 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Sorry, but I hate the word ‘critique’ used as a verb, even though my Concise Oxford Dictionary cites it as correct. So I’ll replace it with ‘review.’

It’s possible to review any work of art, regardless of whether the reviewer understands the artist’s intent or not. Thus, if gardens are taken as art, they can be reviewed by anyone who experiences them.

However, if the artwork is misunderstood, the review will not be useful. And if the designer or artist has not made his or her intent clear, through the work, it surely fails as art – though it may not fail as a garden.

The quality of any artistic review therefore depends on the aesthetic sensibilities of the reviewer. If the designer happens to be alive – unlike, say Humphrey Repton or London & Wise – and the reviewer bothers to glean background information from him or her, that might make for a more useful analysis. But the art itself must shine out.

However, perhaps most gardens, like most buildings, are not works of art. Rather, they are functional constructions laid out or built in accordance with a client’s brief. Under such circumstances, it would be pointless to analyse them unless the reviewer had a clear idea of what they were for, ie, a clear idea of the client’s brief.

True art, I believe, is free of such fetters. The Chrysler Building, Sydney Opera House or Aya Sofia, in Istanbul, are clearly works of sublime art. That they are buildings is irrelevant. London’s Shell Centre, by comparison, is anything but a work of art. (Or, if you want a gardenish comparison, Stowe and Stourhead are possibly artworks; maybe Hidcote, too, whereas RHS Wisley emphatically isn’t.)

If I were an aesthete, I could probably whip up a fancy review of Aya Sofia – a building whose beauty moved me to tears, at first sight – and which also spurred me into finding out a great deal more about the way it is constructed. But one could only analyse Shell Centre in terms of how many desks it can accommodate.

In short, if I were asked to present a critical analysis of a particular garden, I’d need chapter and verse of the client’s brief and would want to be talked through the process of building it. But if I was reviewing a garden as a work of art, I’d want merely to experience it first hand, and then analyse precisely what emotional effect it had on me, and finally, try to explain why.


Felicity Waters October 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Hi Nigel – thanks – can I just clarify a point
‘And if the designer or artist has not made his or her intent clear, through the work, it surely fails as art ‘
– when I visit a gallery I am always thankful for the little explanation given – its usually not until I have read the explanation that I understand the art… is not always about moving a person’s emotions – sometimes it is a response to a long conversation and perhaps there is a need for the viewer to get ‘up to speed’ prior to making a meaningful comment.


Vanessa Gardner Nagel October 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Sadly, I agree with the fact that it is asking a bit much for the average garden visitor to comprehend what designer and owner were up to as they conceived a garden. Still, if you have the opportunity to know about such matters, it greatly enhances one’s appreciation. There are always design intentions that are obvious, while others are too subtle to be clear without additional information. And because gardens are never truly done, one rarely learns what future plans are afoot!


Stephen Read October 24, 2011 at 9:39 pm

I think understanding the designers intent or vision is pushing it too far, for most garden visitors, we just like to wander, in pleasant surroundings and enjoy the skill or imagination that another person has exerted on a particular piece of ground, to consider the designers intent is way beyond the thought of a member of the public purely out to enjoy their afternoon.This may sound very simplistic, but i wonder if the designer may then consider the intent of a visitor when viewing his/her design with the 4 hrs the port person has spare they may have to spare that week.


Alison October 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm

If you are asking whether reviewers should do their research before offering an opinion, then to a certain extent yes that is so. However it is possible to review gardens from a variety of different perspectives. Yes the intention of the creator is important and to those who know what that intention is then this should be taken into consideration. However the reading of the garden by the audience, whatever that audience is, is just as valid.

If it is presented to the viewer as a garden ‘with views’, then the reviewer is right to judge it against that criteria. If it is a garden that is trying to give a specific message then it is for the creator to ensure that that message is clear so that it will be judged against it. It is not sufficient to dismiss criticism by saying ‘oh but you are not getting the point’, if the point is not obvious. Gardens are read by the audience, if the creator is not getting their message across then I suggest that the fault lies with the creator – not the audience.


Felicity Waters October 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Thanks Alison – yes I agree – its very important to listen to readings that are not informed by the design intent BUT to have meaningful discussion – here on thinkingardens – perhaps the intent should be included. Thinkingardens is afterall trying to be more …… more ….? Well crafted intelligent design is often silent.


David February 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Sorry to be late into this conversation.

Some of the reviews on ThinkingGardens seem to review from a variety of perspectives all at once, without recognising in themselves which perspective they are using or when they change from one perspective to another. This can lead to confusion and unfairness.


annewareham February 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Thanks for the comment, David, but it’s a bit obscure. Would you like to say more?


Sarah October 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I agree that it would be much better if visitors to gardens were given an explanation of the intent of the owner/designer. I mentioned this in my review of Bryans Ground earlier this year precisely because I did find it difficult to review without knowing what I was meant to be looking at.

We have produced a guide to our (young and modest) garden for our B&B guests (I actually call it my list of excuses) and am told that it greatly helps to understand what we’re doing and increases the enjoyment. It also creates conversations around the visitors’ particular interests and our own.
Sarah x


Felicity Waters October 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Sarah – fabulous. I am sure a guide would be welcomed!!!


Vanessa Gardner Nagel October 24, 2011 at 3:23 pm

This is such an important insight and I’m so glad you brought this up! Not only is the designer’s viewpoint crucial to understand, the client’s direction to the designer is equally important. Design is a collaboration and is not done in a vacuum. The designer’s and client’s Imagination is only a segment of what is required. The site (including its surrounding views), architecture, availability of materials, budget, the landscape contractor and more affect garden design. It is never just about the designer (or the plants).


Felicity Waters October 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm

yes Venessa! Design is about the client, the designer, the site, materials, the budget, the problem or the vision – its a complex relationship that perhaps should be untangled – at least if you want to really understand what is going on in a garden


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