thinkinGardens Supper hosted by Michael Balston
A garden is meaningless without good spaces
Michael (MB) set the tone of the evening by declaring himself to be “frothing at the mouth” to discuss his topic and declared that the saving grace of symposium is that you are intended to get very drunk and claimed that the Anglo Saxons usually made their major decisions in such a state.
We kicked off by considering what we meant by “space”.
JB thought that it didn’t need to be defined. MB talked of the different type of space that one experiences at sea and how this is changeable, depending on weather. JF thought “space” was a feeling that you have about where you are physically, and thought it a personal/subjective thing. AFT agreed that it can just be the place where you are sitting. MB offered that “space” is also territory.
Bringing this to the garden context JB has found that clients get tied into a two dimensional space and that most don’t really consider height.
CH thought that although space may be subjective, gardens do have boundaries, defined by the legal ownership of the land. However, it was acknowledged that gardens often “borrow” the landscape outside these boundaries and offered the Acropolis as an example outside the gardening world of a place whose landscape plays a vital part in the sense of the place. JB brought another international perspective by talking of how the Japanese sense of space is why that they make gardens which are both huge and small at the same time. There appeared to be a consensus that “space” is what you make it.
CH volunteered that “space” is also defined by our perception and this led to some discussion about the concept of “space that people who are visually impaired experience (which will vary from simple short-sightedness to total blindness). BR also raised the interesting point that places can vary in size over time, exampling places she had visited a as child and how they (usually) seem smaller when you re-visit as an adult.
JB Volunteered that on a practical level in garden terms it is where you place “objects” (be they planting or sculpture or other objects) that defines the “space”. AW talked about the need in a garden for contrast and differences in the “space.” For instance, there is a need for parts of the garden where there is not a lot going on when there are more “busy” areas. JB has found that most clients don’t have a concept of “space” and find the idea difficult to relate to. MB thought that spaces are only meaningful in a garden if you can “feel” them and that in a composition you need static and dynamic spaces (perhaps relating to AW’s point).
There were some interesting examples of how people relate to space differently. JF related the story of the “Poole poisonor” – a person in Poole, Dorset who had so objected to trees growing in a particular place that they had poisoned them. JB recalled her father having taken a group of children from Jersey to visit Cumbria and how one boy, when asked about what he thought of the landscape, thought that the mountains obstructed the view.
CH volunteered his experience in the Wye Valley, where he lives, of how in many respects the growth of the trees had obstructed the view of the landscape. (at least from the road). AFT recounted how a headmaster of a school had had trees planted in the paths of the grounds simply to get children to notice them. MB expressed the view that Brown/Repton landscapes often had been overwhelmed by the trees which had grown up since the landscapes were laid out and how the Dutch elm disease in the 70’s had opened up many landscapes. CH referred to Bella D’Arcy’s recent book on Italian Renaissance gardens and her observation that the trees in Villa D’Este (which were not part of the original design) had overwhelmed and obstructed the views of the garden, leading JB to observe that “nature will win in the end”. We discussed for some time the role that trees have in gardens and how difficult it is to get their use right as their impact changes in the garden as they grow.
JF speculated about whether there is a scientific formula that defines what “space” humans require. MB thought such an idea a “pile of crap” but AW thought that peoples preferences for space in a garden depends on their social context. She recounted how at an event in her garden intended to encourage people to critique her garden, which is in rural Monmouthshire, somebody from London wanted to remove a series of formed yew hedges because they would have preferred an unobstructed view into the woods. JF thought that people who live in cities are going to have a different “take” on gardens than those who live in the country. JO related the way that paintings often need a foreground and background in order to be effective and also related this line of thinking to stage sets in the theatre.
AFT made the interesting observation that in Sweden people are putting up boundaries and fences around their plots in the last 10 years. This is very new in their culture and he thought that this was because they have got the “garden bug”. (So there we have it, gardening is responsible for the destruction of Swedish culture). AW thought that people may have differing preferences for feeling enclosed in a garden or otherwise. JB thought that in urban environment people want privacy.
Somehow we got onto a thread about nature “taking a hand” in our garden making, following an illustration of JBs about how a garden was improved by an accident of nature. She declared that she loves NOT being in control and this led to us raising a question about whether the desire to control our environment is a gender thing, with AFT volunteering that he thought generally men like to be in control.
Moving back to “space”, JB thought that in town gardens she is often trying to “suggest” or “imply” space. In contrast AFT felt that his designs for small gardens often embraced the smallness without trying to make them appear bigger.
MB offered that he feared that far too many gardens don’t have a good coherence between the illumination of the space and the space itself (I have to admit to not understanding this point and it slightly threw me off my following the thread for a bit!).
When I recovered we had got onto discussing whether we thought designers produce gardens that are informed by their education and this led to some DEFINITELY OFF THE RECORD remarks of experiences of Design Schools demanding conformity by their students in what was generally agreed were unconstructive (my word) ways. We also raised the question of how designers are trying to cope with the three dimensionality of designing a garden. It seems that there was a feeling that two dimensional plans are very inadequate and AFT shared his experiences of working with CAD (the problem there being that you are still looking at presentations on a two dimensional screen). He observed that the reality is that site visits and walking through an area often changes how you feel about a space. His firm does not present any two dimensional plans to clients, instead actually provided a three dimensional model. MB wondered if the nature of the CAD programme actually restricted the design and AFT acknowledged that it could and that there are steps that they can take to overcome some of the shortfalls of the programme. MB thought that the “sexiest” part of his garden could not be represented on a computer (is there a dinosaur there trying to get out? CH).
Somehow we moved on to quite a lengthy discussion about the role of water in a garden. MB expressed a firm view that “water in a garden has to be as big as the space it is in”. Examples were given by various participants of where this had been achieved successfully. Hidcote, Kiftsgate, Wisley (Jellico’s Pool). Veddw (oh no, sorry, no-one said what a triumph the Reflecting Pool there is!), Fountains Abbey. CH asked for the group to identify where water was not used successfully. It was generally agreed that Alnwick was awful and the Dianna memorial misconceived (AF- “ a good idea but they forgot the people”). BR suggested that you “can’t falsify water”. Again I didn’t quite get this but somehow it led onto creating ripples, I think, and the technical difficulties in doing so. JF enjoys water in a “natural” setting in response MBs criteria for water in a garden was “no turds, no alligators”. This was generally accepted as desirable.
(I may have lost the thread here again… sorry).
AW expressed the view that we don’t distinguish sufficiently with what people want from and of their gardens and for some reason the next thing I wrote was “is an allotment a garden?”. (No unanimity there).
JB thought that contemporary gardens have been leading us to more “gimmicky” gardens and wondered if we have not lost (but we should re-find) a sense of what an English/British contemporary garden is. In this she returned us to consider what makes British garden special and here there was some agreement that this is distinguished by the range of plants that we can grow in our climate. (and she made a completely gratuitous “pop” at photographers of gardens – only kidding, Jill – to which AW reminded us that it was the Picaresque Movement (that’s not what she said, actually) (Picturesque Movement AW) that got us into looking at landscapes though frames using a ? (can’t remember its name). (Claude glass AW)
Inevitably, and perhaps surprisingly late in the conversation, we got on discussing what we mean by a “sense of place”. One of the group who shall be nameless thought that certain designers (and he named no names) had “hijacked” this phrase which we agreed was difficult to pin down. CH referred to one particular designer (who was named but shall be nameless here) doesn’t seem to be able to contract a sentence without using the phrase. Having chewed it over for a bit we came up with some places that we thought had this quality (CH- Ninfa, MB-Villa Lante).
AW wound up by asking us what we thought the future of these events should be. There was considerable enthusiasm expressed for the evening, the discussion was great, and gave the designers especially a great forum to meet and share and it was agreed that the food and the venue were great.
MB – try to get more people involved from outside the garden world. (yawn AW)
JF – offer more information about what the events will be like
AFT – a longer event
Charles Hawes – member of the Garden Photographers Association
Charles Hawes’ photographic portfolio GAP Photos
Veddw House Garden website