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The Flowers of Garden Design Theory - and the flight of the honey bee

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By Tom Turner [This essay was first published in the Garden Design Journal Autumn 1999 with the regrettable title 'Timeless with delight'. It is a suggestion for how garden designs can respond to local context]

Often, one must look backwards to move forwards. So let us return to the first western author to comment on the design of gardens: Vitruvius Pollio (circa 27 BC). His remarks on the particulars of gardens were too specific for our purposes. But his general principles are of great relevance. He summarised the guiding principles of the design process as being "commodity, firmness and delight". We can employ them in taking backward and forward perspectives on the art of garden design.

Commodity. This quality stands for the functional aspects of gardens. I see them as associated with the body: shelter for when it is cold, shade for when it is hot; paths which lead from origins to destinations, other paths for the joy of perambulation; fruits to pluck, herbs to rub, vegetables to dig; spaces which accommodate the expected range of outdoor activities.

Firmness. This can include soils which favour plant growth, walls which do not fall over, pools which retain water and steps upon which one does not trip.

Delight. This is more difficult because tastes change and whole categories of art fall from favour, yet the qualities associated with the fine arts, beauty, awe and religion are central to garden design.

Acceptance of the Vitruvian principles need not entail the corollary that each principle must be satisfied in each garden. The front gardens of suburban houses, for example, have traditionally lacked a function, though they require firmness and, according to the tastes of their owners, delight. Vegetable gardens, on the other hand, frequently lack delight. A photographer might discover aesthetic quality in allotment gardens but few see them as works of art. One could make a case for gardens which embrace only one of the Vitruvian objectives, though I am tempted to aim for them all.

Vitruvian principles provide a framework for the evaluation of historical styles. One of the English eighteenth century complaints against Baroque gardens was that they over-emphasised delight (‘show’ or ‘display’) as a design objective. By contrast, the space in a Brownian park was productive agricultural land, and therefore functional. Vitruvian objectives were valued during the nineteenth century, but the results were troubling. I remain unconvinced by Brent Elliott’s assertion that it was a most glorious period in the history of British gardens. Rather, I see it as a time when limitless resources produced unsatisfactory results. Commodity was perhaps the leading virtue of Victorian Gardens. Construction standards were lower than they need have been. Scale, composition and proportion were often ill-judged. When these problems were corrected, under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, we saw the creation of the best gardens ever to have been made in the British Isles. Jekyll, assisted by Lutyens, was a Vitruvian of the first rank. Yet in the middle years of the twentieth century, standards declined. While modernist principles yielded rich fruit in the Americas and parts of Continental Europe, their produce in Britain was shrivelled and dry.

During the 1970s the Chelsea Flower Shows were almost the only occasions where, in Britain, one could see interesting garden designs. In the 1980s, one found comparable work in the National Garden Festivals and their TV coverage appears to have resulted in the current wave of gardening programmes. We see vibrant energy and invention, but little quality. Gimmickry rules. This state of affairs can be explained, in part, by the fact that many of the featured designers do not come from a design background. It is also due to a failing in design theory.

My desk dictionary states that a theory is ‘a system of ideas explaining something’. In this article, the matter to be explained is ‘how to design a good garden’. Having written a book on the general theme of ‘how to design a good place’, I will draw upon the content and explore how the principles relate to gardens. The principles were described in the book’s subtitle as ‘post-postmodern’: accepting the insights of postmodernism but constraining pluralism with personal belief. Jane Porter, in asking me to write this article, said that it might form part of a series. If this proves to be the case, I would ask other contributors to set forth the principles on which they work. To prescribe for others in a period of high innovation and indifferent quality might be regarded as presumptuous. Yet little good work arises in the absence of principles.

Fig 1 shows a diagram in which the design process is represented by the flight of a honey-bee: seemingly chaotic, but purposeful. The bee takes a route which visits many flowers to collect nectar. The start- and end-points are shown as pictures, fastened to a wall. The design process involves ‘taking a landskip’ of an existing place, generating ideas and then formulating a landskip of a proposed place. I use the archaic spelling of landskip to recover its early eighteenth century sense, meaning ‘a view of a place’ - not the place itself. Ideas are shown at the heart of the design process. The ‘flowers’ from which designers may draw sustenance are placed in four groups, which may be described as Social Patterns, Natural Patterns, Aesthetic Patterns and Archetypal Patterns. ‘Pattern’ is used in the gestalt sense (‘a perceived whole which is more than the sum of its parts’) – rather than in the everyday sense (‘a decorative design’). Three of the groups relate to Vitruvius:

  • Social Patterns yield commodity
  • Natural Patterns yield firmness
  • Aesthetic Patterns yield delight

The fourth group, Archetypal Patterns, is used in the manner explained by the leading design theorist of the twentieth century: Christopher Alexander. They are the subject of his marvellous book A pattern language for towns, buildings and construction. Alexander’s patterns are design archetypes which have proved their worth over an endless period of time. He described their use as a Timeless way of building. Before losing my readers’ attention, let us move to a small example of a garden which adopts Alexander’s ‘Timeless’ approach and also uses Time as a design theme.

It is in Scotland. Compared to most of Europe, winters are long and summers short. The site is windswept, to say the least, but sunny and with some 600mm annual rainfall. Geologically, the garden is near to a classical unconformity between Silurian and Devonian strata. For the section of the garden which will be taken as a example, the aim was to create a Timeless and Time-filled Seat Place. An archetypal pattern (Fig 2) was the First Flower touched in the design process. It suggested that a good sitting place should have sun, backing, a view and a nearby tree. This arrangement provides commodity. The Second Flower was the natural patterns which prevail in the locality. Local materials were the inspiration. Old red sandstone is worn by greywacke pebbles (Fig 3). I admire the tradition of using sandstone as framing because it is workable, and greywacke, which is unworkable, for infill (Fig 4). This, our Third Flower, gives firmness. Stability comes from the sandstone and durability from the greywacke. Remembering the pre-postmodern idea of deriving form from function, one can enjoy the abstract aesthetic relationship of pebbly-grey with sand-red.

Viewers with an enthusiasm for science, religion and conceptual art, can take a philosophical interest in their interplay. Stonehenge was orientated with regard to the angle of the sun at dawn on midsummer’s day. It revealed, one presumes, a great truth about nature and pointed to the existence of unseen forces regulating life on earth. In the nineteenth century, geomorphological science revealed profound truths which changed the nature of religious belief. John Ruskin spoke of those 'dreadful hammers’ chipping away at the bedrock of his faith. One of the great moments in the history of geology was Hutton and Playfair’s observation of the classical unconformity between red sandstone and greywacke. They saw it as decisive evidence for geological evolution and proof that the world was not created in six days. Professor John Playfair wrote:

The palpable evidence presented to us, of one of the most extraordinary and important facts in the natural history of the earth, gave a reality and substance to those theoretical speculations, which, however probable, had never till now been directly authenticated by the testimony of the senses.

The theory and the uniformitarian principle, as described in Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, became the cornerstone of geological science. Today, most churchmen accept geology as one of the mysterious ways in which God operates. Geological time has become an all-pervading belief with an immense capacity to inspire awe. It is a concept which, as the Fourth Flower, makes the Timeless Seat Place a contribution to Conceptual Art.

There was a surprising lack of interest in the garden as a work of art during the Middle Ages. Art was predominantly religious. Paintings were closely related to contexts and underlying ideas were of greater importance than painted images. From 1400 to 1900 art was progressively severed from these roots, with abstract art cutting the last link. Marcel Duchamp almost detached art from artists, by placing found objects in galleries. But the old links are re-growing. Garden design can be viewed as site-related-sculpture, installation art or conceptual art. For the conceptual artist, ideas are paramount. The Seat Place is Timeless, in Alexander’s sense, but with a deep consciousness of geological time and its influence on Christianity. With security, comfort and a framed view, here is an idea which merits contemplation.

Silurian greywacke was formed from volcanic ash deposited in the Iapetus Ocean. Immense pressure during the Caledonian Orogeny folded the strata. Following the unconformity in the geological series (approximately 70 million years), which Hutton and Playfair observed, Old Red Sandstone was laid down above the greywacke under flood conditions. Continental drift shifted the strata to their present location. God knows how long this took. Coastal erosion fragmented the greywacke and, rolling the chips on the sea shore for centuries, they became beautifully striated ‘soft’ pebbles. Workmen carried the stones up the cliff and developed the craft of using their particular characteristics in building construction. One can read a history of the modern world in this small corner of a Scots garden, just as one can read a history of the medieval world from the west façade of Notre Dame in Paris. Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which influenced garden designers for two millennia is revealed as an example of fiction being less strange than fact.

There is also a place for what the young Geoffrey Jellicoe called Fancy in gardens. This was the design’s Fifth Flower (Fig 5). Three dimensional designs can draw upon literature, art, mythology and music. Since the greywacke pebbles were placed with the help of young children, it seemed best to enlist their help in contriving a mythological tale. One can think of the design as having one level for grown-ups and one for children:

One night when the moon was new, a boulder whizzed out of a crater. After circling the moon, twice, it noticed a green and blue planet shimmering in the distance. "Ha Ha,' thought the Moonboulder, "there's a pretty sight.' On its way to Earth, the boulder spun round and round. Its colours swirled, ran together, and set. After six days it reached the Earth's atmosphere. Suddenly it met a fearful pressure and burst. Four million coloured stones fell into the sea. Fish took them as jewels. Moonstones were carried far and wide across the ocean. Some washed ashore, to become beautifully smooth as the waves rolled them back and forth. One stone, shaped like a heart, was carried up the hill by some children. It was called The Moonstone and placed at the centre of a path. Neat grey stones took their place in serried ranks. A troll came from Norway, made his home in the garden, and smiled every time he saw the Moonstone.

So there we have it: a design procedure founded on a design theory, which pleases the designer. One can offer no more.

Medium flowers wall original

Flowers, wall and barley

Medium pat gpb original

Fig1. Four groups of gestalt pattern, with those touched by the flight of the bee coloured (adapted from the diagram on page 39 of City as landscape)

Medium seatpla  original

Fig2.An archetypal pattern for a seat place. It is an adapted version of Alexander’s Pattern No 176 Garden Seat, about which he writes ‘Make a quiet place in the garden – a private enclosure with a comfortable seat, thick planting, sun. Pick the place for the seat carefully; pick the place that will give you the most intense kind of solitude’ (the diagram is reproduced and further discussed on page 23 of City as landscape).

Medium red grey rock original

Fig3.Sandstone and greywacke in the locality.

Medium cot wall  original

Fig 4.Traditional building construction in the locality, with sandstone framing and greywacke infill.

Medium girl seat original

Fig 5.A child in the Timeless and Time-filled Seat Place.

Medium moonstone original

Fig 6.The Moonstone, with neat grey stones in serried ranks 

Medium troll  original

Fig 7.A Troll, smiling at the Moonstone (and a cat watching the Troll)

Medium moon pattern  original

Fig 7.Aerial view of the Seat Place