The Autonomous Garden

The literature on gardens always comes back to the relationship with the house. The garden associated with the house forms part of living; it is a ‘lifestyle’ thing. You get up in the morning and there it is. You may not visit its farthest reaches every day, but these are extensions of the parts you are using. The autonomous garden, by contrast, has to be visited, and to make a visit you need a purpose. There is a garden beside the road on the road to Castlemaine, which has no house attached. It was once open on an open gardens day, and although interesting as a garden, but it seemed a little lost without having a relationship with a house. There was a shed there, which became the ‘house’, but it was too negligible to adequately subsitute for one. Now if that were developed as architecture, with proper interiors that could be occupied in some way, like the ‘shy, cubic casinos’ at the Villa Lante, or, Kent’s Worcester Lodge at Badminton, then it would make more sense. To be sure, one would still not live there, but the visit would consist of establishing oneself in the ‘house’ and the garden would radiate from there. So Blomfield and company had a point.

But are there examples of satisfactory ‘autonomous’ gardens? The allotment might be considered one, but I find the allotment to be a deeply depressing concept. Its message is one of desperate escape from urban blight. The allotment disappears as soon as one has a house and yard. Conversely, one might find allotments becoming important here, as the over-population so enthusiastically embraced by our governments and property developers (same thing really) drives people into high-rise ant nests. Equally horrible is the communal sociability that apparently goes with allotments. It is the antithesis of the aristocratic solitude that the true garden should encourage. And allotments are deeply anti-aesthetic, like those TV garden commentators who declare who claim that any gardening other than growing vegetables to eat is morally evil.

Another autonomous garden is the theme-park garden. The theme-park is by definition a place that exists to be visited for a short space of time, and to be closed up at night. No-one lives in a theme park. But because it is a place to be visited, the theme-park garden generates certain pressures. We need to distinguish, however, between old gardens that now function as theme parks, and the theme-park garden proper, which has come into being to serve its theme-park purpose. Such a garden makes far greater demands of itinerary and feature. There is no place here for a quiet moment under a tree in the light of the setting sun. It has to speak to you more loudly and directly. It does so by telling an explicit story, or by representing something else in a literal way. Plants find it difficult to speak in this way, and one could argue that the theme park garden is an impossibility. It demands that you follow an itinerary, that you are told (rather than read for yourself) a story, and that a feature represents something else. You walk a route following the adventures of a Caribbean Pirate, or enter a spatial representation of the Pyramids of Egypt. Hadrian’s villa is partly theme-park garden in that it includes representations of other places; but it is also a house, and the representation explores a sophisticated mechanism of reference and association. It demands an interaction between the visitor’s own culture and the cues presented to them. The theme-park proper is a little more explicit in the point it makes.

My favourite theme-park is the mini-golf circuit in Overboard, built by the relentlessly downmarket carpenter Kurt Russell with a bit of help from Goldie Hawn. It was complete with pyramids, pagodas and so forth in papier-maché. Thought experiment: hive off, say, ‘Wörlitz’ or ‘Valsanzibio’ into separate areas and charge at the door. Would anyone come? I think not. It is not active enough. No mini-golf; no re-living stories made familiar in other media, no literalness of representation.

Another autonomous garden type is the Botanical Garden. At least there is no question whether this is or is not a garden. This type of garden it is, is, in the end, an English country house garden, part landscape garden, part flower beds. Locally it as been successful to the extent it approaches such gardens. The Botanical Gardens in Melbourne work because they are Stourhead-by-the Yarra, thanks to Guilfoyle. Yet the scientific botanical garden no longer has much pulling power. Knowing that one tree is a different species from another does not cut the mustard. Indeed, I find the excitement over the Wollemi pine to be rather sad. It suggests that people still have the mindset of the Victorian plant hunters who provided the intellectual framework for the Victorian botanical garden. Satisfaction is to be had when a new plant is discovered and propagated in a new environment. It is a cultural activity characterised by diminishing returns; the excitement over the Wollemi  pine is excitement over the fact that those returns, after running at zero for some time, have jumped to 1. The Wollemi pine represents the last stand of the Gardenesque.

The Wombat Hill gardens are less successful that the Melbourne Gardens because they are more von Müller than Guilfoyle. One can admire the tall trees and fresh air and one or two views, but if you ask for anything more you will be disappointed. If you are looking for that indefinable magic that marks the great places of the world you won’t find it there. There is no structure, no itinerary, no fabriques. Just botany. Yet Botanical Gardens, thanks to our nineteenth-century forebears, does exist in reasonably quantities, since most of the older country towns or provincial cities in Victoria with any ambition created them.

Many botanical gardens are public parks, and you could argue that the public park is a true autonomous garden. Yet is it really autonomous? They are, as the cliché goes, the lungs of a city. They are a plot within a multiplicity of residential plots. They invert the relationship between house and garden; instead of a rectangular house surrounded by garden, you have a rectangular garden surrounded by houses.

So the autonomous garden is an intriguing idea, but a problematic idea. Perhaps Alberti, the Renaissance and Baroque, and Blomfield were right in tbelieving that a garden is in the first instance architecture, and needs to be structured, both conceptually and in design, in relation to the house.

This entry was posted in All Posts, Baroque Gardens, Daylesford, Garden History, Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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