I promised I would be back here when I thought I had something new or interesting to say. There is no eye candy today–just words and thoughts. I also don’t feel the need to push my ideas on anyone else–so you don’t have to agree or disagree with what follows.
I have never been one to blindly follow a trend or an idea. My thoughts, like most people’s, spring from my own experience and individual point of view. When I was working in the fashion industry, I was always interested in designers who were doing things differently from the rest. I admired those who translated a burst of thought into ideas that were at first strange and wonderful but would ultimately be borrowed, watered down or interpreted by others. I was also interested in those who looked back and used history as a starting point celebrating the traditional and making it contemporary. For me, there is a healthy dichotomy of design thought there with equal emphasis on the new and the old.
In my mind, gardens or landscapes are defined as spaces that are outside of nature. They cannot be truly of nature since they are conceived and made by people. These human endeavors at garden making do not include restoration of native environments or habitat although they can incorporate those elements. They can try to mimic nature, but a garden is ultimately a space made by people for human activity, introspection, observation and the appreciation of beauty within the context of what is right for its particular environment and time. The human element of a garden is important. It is also where the outlier part comes in.
The gardens being made by the New Perennialist movement that started almost thirty years ago in Germany and have been perfected by Piet Oudolf and others are in my mind are largely to look at. I have visited some of the best of them and it’s the auxiliary spaces that invite human interaction, not the plantings. The gardens themselves may have a path or two through them, they may be large or small, but they are like paintings hung on a wall. They do not invite human participation. They are broad strokes of planting design artistry that invite visual reaction, not physical interaction.
There is great value in this idea when a site’s topography or limitations don’t allow for safe passage or it is a space that will act as a visual foil something else. This concept is what makes the High Line so successful and in my mind is also its downfall. The plantings are something that are passed through while doing something else. They can be admired, but in all but a few places they cannot be entered. They are beautiful, bold, border designs. The border as a garden design concept has been around almost as long as people have been making gardens. They exist on the sidelines. True, those sidelines can be breathtaking and can be beneficial to wildlife and the planet at large, but I am talking about garden making and that, as I said before, is a human undertaking that invites interaction.
Conversely there are historic gardens (remember that dichotomy?) that make plants such background players that they become almost irrelevant. They are decoration, they could be fake. These ‘gardens’ were designed primarily for people with little regard for the natural world other than how the designer could manipulate it into abstraction. Those gardens lose the sensory, introspective and observational aspects of plantings in a garden, leaving room only for human activity.
I believe there is room in contemporary garden and landscape design to celebrate human activity combined with interactive planting design as equal partners. I also believe that the gardens and landscapes that do that will be long term successes. There is room for structure, hard surfaces and places for people as well as plants and habitat to co-exist and intermingle. They are not static or fixed in the moment past or present. We have changed our planet too much to be able to go back to nature as it was and gardens can help define how humans appreciate and savor the outdoors. What we really need to be thinking about is what is right for a specific piece of land in a specific region that will be used regularly by a group of individuals in a meaningful and participatory way. We need to consider how we entice people outside into the garden to observe, delight, create, to spend time and do things and think about their place in the world instead of just moving through it or looking at it or worse ignoring it and paying attention to hand held technology instead?
As a landscape designer I have questions that roll around in my brain to be solved by working through my design process. How do the successful attributes of traditional gardens and the best ideals of the new perennialists combine to create something new–something that balances the being and the seeing? How do I foster understanding and appreciation of our not so natural world, the one we now live in, through the design of spaces that allow people to interact with all of its pieces? Making planting design precious unto itself relegates it to the same place as a great work of art in a museum. It’s not that, it’s a living changeable thing. What is the most valuable human experience in any garden–is it different for every individual? I try to strike a broad balance between the traditional and the contemporary–sometimes there are no perennials or grasses at all in my gardens. If that makes me an outlier, I’m okay with that.
Edit: I sat on this post for a month or so until a group who I had a conversation with about this feeling of being an outlier and who I would consider to be New Perennialists encouraged me to publish it. –Susan