Monthly Archives: November 2011

Concepts of sacredness and beauty

It is likely that the history of Japanese gardens finds its origins in Shinto traditions. In particular the sacred nature of rocks: “from the ancient remains of rock arrangement” of the fifth century AD, we find a resemblance to existing Japanese gardens. “However it appears they were used for the spiritual rituals and not designed as a stone arrangement for the beauty of gardens.”

The earliest known Japanese gardening texts are a medieval text, Sakuteiki, and an illustrated text dating from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). The origins of Japanese garden design principles are said to be traceable back to these two texts. The location of Shinto shrines were near striking natural formations, waterfalls, caves, rock formations, mountain tops or forrest glens reflecting the idea that kami spirits were located in nature. The earliest shrines were mounds, caves or groves. Kami occur in two categories (object kami) and mythical and historical persons (active kami). Illustrated is off-shore rock kami.

The following story is related of an off-shore rock just off Oshima:
“The kami enshrined here is Ichikishimahime, daughter of Susano, and eldest of the three Munakata princesses. Just off Oshima is a large rock protuding from the sea. The story is when Ichikishimahime heard she was going to be enshrined on Oshima, she was really excited and proud because Oshima means ‘Great Island’, but when she got here and saw just how small it really was, her tears formed the rock.”

With the introduction of Buddhism into Japan the earliest interaction saw local kami asking to be saved from their kami-state by means of Buddhist ritual.

Christopher Alexander and Humphry Repton as landscape design theorists – UDG lecture

Christopher Alexander and Humphry Repton as landscape architecture theorists

Who is the most important landscape architecture theorist of the nineteenth century? Humphry Repton, through his influence on John Ruskin, Frederick Law Olmsted, Patrick Geddes – and most other landscape planners and garden designers in the century after his death.
Who is the most important design theorist of the twentieth century? Christopher Alexander, through his influence on urban design, architecture, computer programming and, through Ian Mcharg, on landscape planning and the develoment of Georgraphical Information Systems?
Are there any similarities between between the design theories of Repton and Alexander? Yes.
The photographs on the left, above, were taken at last night’s Kevin Lynch Memorial lecture, organised by the Urban Design Group. The lower left photograph shows Alexander and his opening slide. It was on display for a good while, because Alexander likes to show slides in rapid-fire (2.5 seconds each) and with no talking [unluckily for me, my tummy chose to rumble while the audience listened in silence]. The photgraph made me think he was going to talk about the fact that a City is no a Tree. But no. He wished to argue, as in his forthcoming book [The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems by Christopher Alexander, Hans Joachim Neis and Maggie Moore (OUP Jul 2012) – on the Eishin Campus in Japan] that (1) a design should be done on the spot (2) buildings should be positioned in the landscape with the aid of flags (3) the design process must be continuous and should constantly aim for ‘wholeness’ (4) the current system of producing a full set of working drawings before work starts on site is disastrous.
The first two points are 100% Repton. Repton argued that ‘The plan should be made not only to fit the spot, it ought actually to be made upon the spot’. The Repton drawings, on the right above, show the use of ranging poles to set out tree positions at Bristol – and he used the same system for positioning buildings. Alexander’s third point is also Reptonian, though he would have used the word ‘harmony’ instead of ‘wholeness’. As for the fourth point, Repton was a gentleman and never produced working drawings, so there is every likeliehood he would have agreed.
It was disappointing that Alexander spoke to slowly (though I have no expectation of being any faster when I am 75) but it is great that he still has the energy to work as a ‘building contractor and architect’. We must hope he lives long enough, like another great design theorist sill working (Charles Jencks), to give his full attention to landscape architecture and garden design. Let us pray.

Repton's design for Bayham Abbey and, right, his use of ranging poles to position the building: THIS is landscape architecture

Is it garden design? Is it fine art? Is it conceptual art? Is it beautiful?

Question "But is it art?"

A few years ago, the RHS introduced the interesting category of Conceptual Gardens to the Hampton Court Flower Show. The above example, from the 2011 Show, is by Andrew Cook, Nicola Greaves, Camilla Moreton. The concept is explained as follows ‘Raising awareness of skin cancer this circular gravel garden, designed by students from Falmouth University, is a place where plants can plants bask in the sunlight whilst humans (represented as shadows on the ground) can escape to the shady shelter of the trees which line the garden.’
Let’s try some Qs&As:
Q ‘Is it a garden design?’ : A ‘It makes use of plants and it has an aesthetic quality, but it does not have the traditional garden roles (producing food, a place to sit, beside a house, etc)’
Q ‘Is it fine art?’ : A ‘It passes the test of having been in an exhibition, and this section of the Hampton Court Show could be counted an art exhibition, so “maybe”. ‘But it falls short of the requirements for fine art in having an explict message which makes it too like an advertisement (for skin cancer awareness)’
Q ‘Is it conceptual?’ A ‘Yes to the extent that it rests on an idea. But no because of the nature of the idea in question: it is far too “obvious”‘
Q ‘Does it produce the pleasurable quiver and sharp intake of breath which often comes from viewing a work of art?’ A ‘No.’
Q ‘Is it beautiful’ A ‘Not quite. The watery figures are good with the gravel and umbelifers. But the tree interrupts the composition, the wire sculpture spoils the purity of the figures and the peripheral planting is an untidy distraction’

Patronage – and the lovliest dolphin and naked boy fountain in the world

Dolphin boy fountain by David Wynne

I once worked in the garden of the David Wynne, who made this fountain – and am glad that his client was not the Caliph El Madhi

What a beautiful fountain, with the silver dolphin and the naked boy!.

A Greek of Constantinople made it, who came travelling hither in the days of my father, the Caliph El Madhi (may earth be gentle to his body and Paradise refreshing to his soul!). He showed this fountain to my father, who was exceptionally pleased, and asked the Greek if he could make more as fine. “A hundred,” replied the delighted infidel. Whereupon my father cried, “Impale the pig.” Which having been done, this fountain remains the loveliest in the world.

The fountain delighted David Wynne’s clients and, I guess, it pleases most visitors to Tower Bridge in London. My advice to those who commission public art is: beware of abstract art. They should think in terms of cultural strata. However much the the organizer of a disco may adore Karlheinz Stockhausen, it would not be a popular choice for the playlist.

Garden design and the history of art

Developments in gardens parallel developments in the fine arts


The top pictures show a medieval statue, Michaelangelo’s David and Bernini’s David.
The lower pictures show a medieval garden, a renaissance garden and a baroque garden.
The pairs represent the devotional attitude of the middle ages, the static calm of the renaissance the drama of the baroque.
I think there are closer parallels between the histories of gardens and fine art than between the histories of gardens and dynasties, which makes me doubtful about the categorisation of British gardens as Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian etc. Nor do I think kings and queens have had a leading role in the development of garden design. So why are royal names so popular in Britain? Are garden historians flunkies? And how do the Irish manage without royal names for garden styles?

Are garden historians flunkies?

John Evelyn's garden at Sayes Court and the Convoys Wharf Urban Landscape Master Plan

John Evelyn's garden superimposed on plans of the Convoys Wharf site in the seventeenth century, the nineteenth century and, one hopes not, the twentyfirst century

Steen Eiler Rasmussen concluded the second edition of his brilliant book London: the Unique City with these prophetic words: ‘Thus the foolish mistakes of other countries are imported everywhere, and at the end of a few years all cities will be equally ugly and equally devoid of individuality. This is the bitter END’. So what would he think of the Hutchison Whampoa Master Plan for Convoys Wharf? He would detest it, utterly. The architects are Aedas, who claim that ‘ We provide international expertise with innate knowledge and understanding of local cultures’. Evidently, this expertise does not extend to the local culture of Deptford – unless they think it is the same as the culture of London/England/Europe or the World. The planning consultants, let it be recorded, is by bptw . Their website promises ‘responsible architecture executed with imagination’. Maybe the firm can do this. Maybe the client’s brief made it impossible at Convoys Wharf. Or maybe what the project required was a firm of Urban Landscape Designers, rather than a firm which sees its main business as architecture. The architecture makes one yearn for the imaginative approach one sees in Dubai. The spatial pattern resembles that of the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, the planting design is what Chris Baines calls ‘a green desert with lollipops’. I am not an admirer of the scheme – and I much regret that John Evelyn’s design for Sayes Court has been cast into what Leon Trotsky called ‘the dustbin of history’. It is a quotation which gives us a lead into the origins of the Convoys Wharf design. In days gone by it might have graced a Parisian banlieue (like Sarcelles), a suburb of East Berlin – or even Moscow itself. With specific regard to the Sayes Court Garden, we should remember that (1) Evelyn, beyond doubt, was the greatest English garden theorist of the seventeenth century (2) Evelyn played a key role in introducing Baroque ideas on garden design to London (3) the Convoys Wharf site would never have come into public ownership were it not for the generosity of John Evelyn (4) Sayes Court was very nearly the first property to be saved by the National Trust.
THEREFORE the Convoys Wharf site demands a context-sensitive urban landscape design.
Wikipamia shows the present condition of the Convoys Wharf site and the Sayes Court Estate. Also see the Convoys Wharf Planning Application Documents.

This drawing purports to show 'Landscape, Townscape and Visual Amenity' . Phooey

Free street camping in Central London

Free camping in Central London

It used to be a regrettable fact that London did not have a campsite for those who find hotel prices steep. So the anti-capitalism protestors currently occupying the space in front of St Paul’s Cathedral have done backpackers a big favour. The Church, the police and the Corporation of London have, today, decided to take no action against the protestors. My conclusion is that anyone who wants to camp in a London street, square or public park only has to say ‘I am an anti-capitalist’ and they will be allowed to camp for free. At this time of year, my recommendation is to look for a pitch near the vent from an office building. Tramps have always know these places are well-supplied with hot air.
image courtesy spinkney