Parks and gardens which are now historical were once modern, corresponding at the time of their creation or redesign to the spirit of the age. It is only due to the passage of time and to retrospective evaluation that they have become legacies of garden culture.
Where are the historical parks and gardens of tomorrow being created today? What are the distinctive qualities of contemporary gardens whose design reveals potential of this kind for the future?
Friction between the old and the new, analysis of existing work as well as breaks and provocation are important driving forces of progress in art and culture. More than a few experts bemoan a too hesitant further development in garden design since the middle of the 20th century or at least the difficulty regarding acceptance of innovative ideas in the design of open spaces.
And yet there are examples in Europe today of the implementation of innovative ideas during the period of 1950 to the present, when towns, their squares and open spaces were being restored and redesigned, when destroyed or neglected gardens were being reconstructed, when new public and private parks were being created.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a new task was added, with the quest for new uses for disused areas of industrial production. In the Ruhr area in particular – the old industrial heartland of the German Land of North Rhine-Westphalia – awareness grew of the particular qualities and potential of industrial landscapes and industrial nature. These were opened up, enhanced to create unique parks and centres of culture in many cases and linked together to form a large regional landscape park.
Outstanding contemporary parks and gardens are distinguished, for example, by their unusual location, by new concepts for using space and design, by the diversity of what they offer, by the choice of materials and retention of existing structures, by new forms of documentation, information and didactics or interdisciplinary collaboration and the involvement of the public. They are always places for encountering nature or considering how we treat nature, the landscape, culture and ourselves.
There were truly iconic designs that came from this period that have had long lasting impacts, although most have been lost or forgotten.. In 1924, the year before the Art Deco Exhibition in Paris, the Vicomte de Noailles commissioned the brothers André and Paul Vera to design a new park. The park was small, urban and was essentially a cubist painting of plants on the ground. Mirrors were used to bring light into dark areas surrounded by buildings. In the Art Deco Exhibition the following year, an Armenian architect, Gabriel Guévrékian’s ‘Garden of Water and Light’ developed a new interpretation of geometric form, movement and light as a basis of design. The materials were modern, in fact industrial. Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture of a man and a woman embracing moved with ‘provocative motorised contortions.’ Following his mixed success, Guévrékian established a modernist icon in Villa Noailles (recently restored) at Hyères on the Côte d’Azure where the landscape became a translation of cubism on the ground rather than on a wall. It was related to architecture of the villa and broke from the precept that a garden was a composition of plants.
Architecture, which really led the landscape, was reinventing itself through people such as Le Corbusier. His Villa Savoye (1929) integrates horizontal and vertical built forms and spaces-but it remained detached from the landscape. Leo Marx referred to it as a ‘machine in the garden’. (i) In the same year, Miles van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona became what Mark Treib referred to as ‘the true archetype of modernist spatial composition’. There was no distinction of spaces; it was a space composed of horizontal and vertical planes. These ran through the structure and landscape space-it defined the thinking and spatial obsession of the modernist movement. Architecture and the fine arts were indirectly redefining the garden. However, it was not until Christopher Tunnard published Gardens in the Modern Landscape, 1938, that the centre of gravity in landscape thinking started to shift-slowly. Tunnard married modernist architecture with a modernist landscape, and more importantly he put his thoughts and theories into print. Tunnard’s work was short-lived in Europe as there was a move towards socially responsible design and war. He moved to Harvard (1939) where his theories became a catalyst for what can be termed as the Anglo-American modernist movement in landscape.
It may be that gardeners and garden designers are an inherently conservative group of people, or they are slow to respond to new ideas. No doubt this is part of the problem. However, there is a more fundamental issue in terms of what a garden is. In an interview with Sir Peter Shepheard in 2000, he was asked what a garden is. His response was ‘That is the $64,000 question’. (iv) Gardens had been traditionally viewed as a place of luxuriant planting, within a particular style or form, and this idea persists. However, from the 1950s, Shepheard and his peers indicate a change of thinking where the garden has purpose and that there is a balance between its form, use, and what is in it. Geoffrey Jellicoe referred to form as being the most important part of the garden, and that form is the ‘disposition of space’, not content which is likely to change. (v) More philosophically, Sylvia Crowe defined gardens as the link between men and the world in which they live; they provide pleasure and satisfy our ideals and inspirations. (vi) Perhaps Thomas Church, an American, had the simplest explanation: gardens are for people. (vii) Their work was based on tempered modernist ideas that existed in the inter-war period, but there is a tradition in their ‘landscape work that comes from the 18th century’ when Shepheard ‘identifies the genius loci-the need to understand and respond to the character of place-as a fundamental part of the design process’. (viii) It is the balance between place and people that creates a new landscape form in the second half of the century.
The traditional garden still has a relevant place, but there is a wealth of new approaches that have started to redefine the idea of the garden. At the extreme, there are places that many will argue that they are not a garden at all. Part of the intention of EGHN is explore the idea of park and garden, and present them to new audiences, people who would normally not use them. The year 1950 was selected as representative of a clear break with past traditions; Europe was rebuilding with vigour and optimism. People and governments searched for ideas that indicted a bright future. Many of the influences of the period came from the pre-war modernist movement, but these were re-invented by designers particularly from the Scandinavia and the west coast of North America.
The Museé du Robert Tatin, Laval(F), is a sculptors garden from the 1960s ; it stretches the idea of a garden as it is essentially a composition of buildings and sculptures rather than plants. The sculptures in The Avenue of the Giants are substitutes for trees. The ‘garden’ is full of symbolism and meaning; it is a composition of form and spaces, the primary component of a garden. In Surrey (UK), modern sculptures are displayed within a more traditional garden setting in the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Gardens. There is a broad range of new gardens by designers such as Eric Dhont in Belgium, as well as professional practices doing large scale public parks and urban spaces such as West8 in Holland. These can stretch the ideas of gardens and are often presented as living art forms. The Foundation “Museum Island Hombroich” (D) near Düsseldorf presents ten sculpture like buildings by Erwin Heerich within a wild parkland and meadow landscape; the underlying theory is based on a quote from Paul Cezanne where the experience is ‘art parallel to nature’. Nearby is the Langen Foundation, a minimalist landscape of six trees, sky, earth mounds and water-the same ingredients used by ‘Capability’ Brown 250 years ago to create the English Landscape Style. Schloss Dyck continues with the contemporary theme within its display gardens, but of particular note is the miscanthus garden, peppered with modern set piece gardens.
Certainly the largest scale, and least like a traditional garden, is the Emscher Landschaftpark (D). Lying between Duisburg and Kamen, the ‘park’ celebrates the industrial heritage of the Ruhr District. An ambitious project that has regenerated, not only the industrial sites, but it has been inclusive in terms of housing, commercial, cultural and recreational facilities. While the Landschaftpark Duisburg-Nord by Peter Latz is the best know, there are at least 18 other major industrial parks on the Route of Industrial Culture, plus a near infinite number of additional regeneration projects in the region. The ideas and work here has had an international impact and demonstrates how we can celebrate often ignored aspects of our heritage.
EGHN has purposely selected examples of contemporary gardens and parks that challenge existing ideas in the hope that these experiments will widen and bring new meaning and purpose to the idea of gardens. There is something unique about gardens that can be found in no other art form. ‘Gardens have special meaning. They are powerful settings for human life, transcending time, place, and culture. Gardens are mirrors of ourselves, reflections of sensual and personal experience. By making gardens, using or admiring them, and dreaming of them, we create our own idealized order of nature and culture. Gardens connect us to our collective and primeval past. Since the beginning of human time, we have expressed ourselves through the gardens that we have made. They live on as records of our private beliefs and public values, good and bad.’ (ix)
Prof. E M Bennis, Manchester Metropolitan University
for EGHN, 2006
(i) Marx, Leo The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America New York, 1964
(ii) Treib, Mark Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1993
(iii) Jacques, David Landscapes and Gardens in Britain 1930-2000 unpublished paper for the Garden History Society and the 20th Century Society, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 27-28 March 1998
(iv) Bennis, E Interview with Shepheard at his home in London, 17 Feb 2000
(v) Jellico, G & Jellicoe, S Modern Private Gardens Abelard-Schuman, 1968, S. 9
(vi) Crow, S Garden Design Packard, 3rd edition, 1981, S.10
(vii) Church, Thomas Gardens are for People 3rd edition, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley 1995 
(viii) Downs, Annabel (Ed) Peter Shepheard LDT Monograph No.4, London, 2004 from chapter In Opposition to God-wottery by E Bennis, S.113
(ix) Francis, M & Hester, R The Meaning of Gardens MIT Press, 1999. S. 2