Design and the Garden

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The history of gardening is a fascinating subject because it is, at its core, a history of dominant design styles. Perhaps because gardens feel so permanent and unchanging we take the formal qualities of what a garden should look or feel like for granted; representing a style that has always been and always will be. But the garden is anything but that; instead, it's a constantly changing ecosystem, evolving from season to season and from formal style to style.

An English cottage garden
An English cottage garden Credit: Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent

My grandfather kept a wonderful garden, full of winding paths and islands of color. His was in the classic English cottage garden style, islands of plants between grassy paths, arrangements designed in such a way that moments of exploration and surprise dominated the experience as you walked through it. As a child shorter than the flowers were tall I could lose myself in that garden; the lack of formalist grid contributed to the sense of wonder and magic. As I look back at it, it's clear to me that his garden influenced the way I think about design. The kinds of systems and social interactions I favor reflect many of the garden's attributes, an intermingling of loosely associated objects, flowing lines and coherent structures.

Credit: © Copyright Paul Dickson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

The cottage garden style developed in as political an atmosphere as any other design movement. For a long time previously, French and Italian classical garden styles had dominated the landscapes of Europe. Originating in the 16th century, they were full of rigor, symmetry and uniformity; in today's design lingo we would say they favored consistency over coherence. The conceptual underpinning behind them came from new and radical ideas of geometry and philosophy. In many ways they echoed Rene Descartes when he said of the natural order, "all movement is a straight line therefore space is a universal grid of mathematical coordinates and everything can be located on its infinitely extendable planes." With that philosophy in mind, gardens exhibited grid structures, forced perspective, flat landscapes, a logical progression of features and an overwhelming sense of humans dominating and controlling the natural world through rigor and mathematics. Those design attributes in mind, it could be said that they anticipated the Swiss style of design by a few hundred years.

Hunnewell's Italian Garden, Wellesly, MA.
Hunnewell's Italian Garden, Wellesly, MA.

Every trend spawns a counter trend, and gardening, which has always been a political act, is no different. Romanticism, originating in the 18th century amid the aftermath of the French Revolution, beginning of the Industrial Revolution and strict rationalization of nature (take that Descartes!), manifested itself in England through art, literature and gardening. Gone were the formal garden styles and rigor of the classical style. In its place emerged a focus of emotion, untamed and, in the words of Alexander Pope, "amiable simplicity of unadorned nature." Romanticism, which evolved into picturesque and then cottage garden styles, offered a counterpoint to the industrialization of the British economy and the large-scale migration from country to city. For many, my grandfather included, maintaining a cottage garden-style plot offered escapism from the industrial grind.

Perhaps, instead of chasing constant innovation, newness and doneness, we should be thinking like gardeners. A successful garden is a living narrative, extending through space and time. From season to season it grows and recedes, new pathways are forged and new vistas discovered. Like most of the products we design in our hybrid digital/physical world, a garden is planned, cultivated, but never finished; it is ever evolving. Like the gardener, we must commit to tending, nurturing and even pruning our creations to keep them vibrant and allow them to flourish.

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