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Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Posted by woodyoak 5 (My Page) on
Sat, Mar 17, 12 at 16:28

This is a continuation of my tread discussing garden books that Ink has suggested I might enjoy reading. (Thank, Ink, for the book lists!) If you are not interested in the more ‘academic’ aspect of gardens/gardening, stop reading at this point…!

I have finished reading - and re-reading (!)- Greater Perfections The Practice of Garden Theory: by John Dixon Hunt. I was rather baffled by it after the first reading - it’s one of those books where the sense of it is heavily obscured by the dense academic prose! But you get the feeling that there is something there you should better understand… So I read it again, making notes of the statements that felt particularly significant. To a large extent, that still leaves me scratching my head because I get conflicting messages about what he says is trying to do vs. what was understandable to me as to the points he is making. So, I’ll review here what I gathered from reading the book, and Ink, you can tell me how far off-base I am and what it really all means!


I like the quote that generated the title of the book: When Ages grow to Civility and Elegancie, Men come to Build Stately, sooner than to Garden Finely: As if Gardening were the Greater Perfection. (Francis Bacon ‘Of Gardens’ 1625) The same quote was the source of the title for Frank Cabot’s book about his Les Quatre Vents garden, which I read just before the book by Hunt.

The term ‘garden theory’ in the title is the first mystery - clearly he’s not talking about design principles in the sense most commonly referred to in this forum and other usual garden/landscape design sources. Early on he says he’s using ‘theory’ in the sense of ‘theory as contemplation, the deep scrutiny and understanding of praxis from within’. And he also says ‘The paradox is that gardens are hugely important, as places and as an idea, to thousands of people; yet we know next to nothing about why and how that is so.’ So that led me to assume that what he intended to do from the extensive review of gardens from historical records, paintings, and writings was to extract a common essence, so to speak, that would answer - or contribute to answering - the questions of how and why gardens are hugely important to people. And I’m not at all sure that those questions are answered.


Interestingly, the opening paragraphs of the book includes the statements: ‘the millions who garden, on the one hand, and the members of the profession of landscape architects, on the other hand, are not likely to be interested or impressed by conceptual essays on the making of gardens…… Among gardeners, there is enough to learn and do around the private yard or community garden that little time is left for reading outside of how-to books… Among professionals, contrariwise, garden-making enjoys a fairly low profile and certainly low esteem…’ Having said effectively that nobody wants to read this stuff, he then goes on to say that landscape architects particularly need it because the profession has ‘fractured’ as it divides its energies among ‘a daunting variety of projects’. At the end of the book he says ‘My aim throughout….has been… to return to rescue the idea of the garden as the distinguishing feature of all fine landscape architecture irrespective of whether garden per se are what is actually established.’ And I’m not at all sure that he makes the case for that either - mostly because his writing style is ‘as clear as mud’ and he doesn’t seem to draw all the threads together sufficiently well to make his points clear. (He needed a MUCH tougher editor I think!)

He defines architecture as exterior place-making and that landscape comes into being as ‘the creative coupling of a perceiving subject and an object perceived’. He repeatedly through the book stresses the importance of mediation of the physical environment as a reflection of how an individual or society conceives of its environment - ‘Not simply a place made but a place that we register as having been made’. In that context, a garden then is a landscape’s most sophisticated, concentrated version. But concentrated does not mean just multiplying or adding things to a site; subtracting things can result in concentration by leaving the site carefully focused by removing extraneous and distracting elements.

Moving on to gardens more specifically, he starts by commenting on the fact that the root of the word for garden in many languages means enclosure of some sort, and that enclosure - whether a real physical enclosure or an implied one - seems to be a consistent element of gardens across cultures and times. The boundary seems to have importance both at separating the garden from the world and also internal boundaries and transitions within the garden - he later refers to ‘adventures of edges and transitions’.

Then he places garden in the landscape as ‘third nature’, with first nature being unmediated territory - ‘wilderness’; second nature being ‘cultural landscape: agriculture, urban developments, roads, bridges, ports, and other infrastructures’. Both second and third natures are nature that has been deliberately/purposefully altered by humans but the alterations in the third nature of the garden are more sophisticated, more deliberate, and more complex. From his review of historical gardens, he concludes the presence of the three natures that is more importance than the sequence of them - i.e. that it’s not necessary that they be arranged as 1,2,3 or 3,2,1 (depending on your view point) relative to the house. He feels’ Modern… writings… have generally neglected this view of gardens as part of a larger landscape’.

He sees the three natures concept as important in moving away from seeing nature as an ideal, standard or model, giving greater importance to topography of the site, and by recognizing the gradations in the mediation in the landscape urges a more subtle adjudication of landscape architecture than the habitual ‘formal’ vs. ‘informal’.

Closely related to all this is the comment ‘A ubiquitous feature of garden-making in all cultures has been the inclusion of references within the site to other places, events, and themes. I shall call this re-presentation.’ The representations are both of real, physical things and things that only live in the human imagination. And he seems to be saying that we can learn about nature by looking at how we represent it through the third nature of a garden. This statement seems to sum up that view: ‘I see nature in the garden. versus The garden is showing us a nature.’ (He’s good at catchy statements like that! Another one I liked was landscaping or gardening being a ‘metamorphosis of environment into milieu - space into place’.)

Further statements regarding the garden art’s ability to show or teach something about nature include:
• ‘… garden art represents… the proper character of the natural world that will be the better appreciated once a garden’s compact version of it has been understood.
• …(from a review of Evelyn’s writings…)… there was no nature without art, nor art without nature, and the adjudication of those collaborations was always culturally determined, that is to say, they differed according to the time and place of their implementation.
• Within the garden… we see another world imitated, and when art reorganizes natural (and other) materials to that end we are able to see them freshly and significantly.
• The degree of artificial interference in and thus comprehension of the physical world will differ according to society, region, climate, and even individual gardeners. Each garden should be a fresh negotiation between the natural site and the arts of improvement and imitation available to its owner’

A significant part of the end of the book reads as a passionate plea to escape the perception that ‘natural’ is or should be the desired or proper goal of gardening or landscaping, replacing it with a recognition that ‘All design is ‘with nature’; but all design is also ‘with culture’.’ He seems to blame Horace Walpole and his much-repeated statement that William Kent 'leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden' as the beginning of the belief that a ‘natural’ landscape was the goal of gardening. He wants people to ‘stop pitting formal against informal, Le Notre against Brown, gardens against landscape architecture, design against ecology, East against West’.

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So, Ink, how far off base am I? What am I missing? Did he answer the question of how and why gardens are important to so many people? I can see some ways that one can use ideas he presents/raises to incorporate into small scale practical gardening but that’s not really what the book is focused on. One topic that I think is missing (or I have not see a book about…) is how to relate the lessons of historical gardens - which were all huge in size - to modern, mainly relatively tiny, gardens. I think the difference in scale of the average contemporary garden vs. historical ones is one reason why people are not more interested in garden history - the historical garden seems more like a fantasy than something to be easily ‘mined’ for practical guidance.

Here is a link that might be useful: the reading list thread


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

I just caught this woody. The book has served its purpose I would say because you have challenged everything in his theory and are on the way to forming your own. This book was a stepping stone for me because I wanted to discover why gardens were so important to people and why the examples I see mostly fall short or fail to realise the ambition.

Dixon-Hunt starts from the same position as me but some of our conclusions differ. I will write a longer response later but at this point I would like to say that I don't think Garden has its roots in nature, neither first nor second or third.


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Where did all that nonsense punctuation come from?! It wesn't there in the preview screen!!

I'm looking forward to your further comments Ink.


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Woody: if you compose a post elsewhere (Word?) all punctuation shows up as Egyptian hieroglyphics when you copy and paste you need to correct all that in preview.

P.S. We might have spring here how about you?


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

I understand and agree with "space into place" but to say the garden doesn't have roots in nature? Huh?

And just to interject, they're calling for a humidex here in Manitoba tomorrow of over 30*C! As the drought continues...


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Yeah, I know about the Word problem - but I noticed that Word has several Web page save options. So I saved the file under various options and checked what they looked like in Preview mode. I took the one with the least nonsense and fixed the nonsense in the GW text box. But all that other nonsense appear when it got posted! So clearly the Word Web options are not a solution!! To make it easier to read, I'll copy it here and edit it in the box - hopefully that will work...

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I have finished reading - and re-reading (!)- Greater Perfections The Practice of Garden Theory: by John Dixon Hunt. I was rather baffled by it after the first reading - it’s one of those books where the sense of it is heavily obscured by the dense academic prose! But you get the feeling that there is something there you should better understand... So I read it again, making notes of the statements that felt particularly significant. To a large extent, that still leaves me scratching my head because I get conflicting messages about what he says is trying to do vs. what was understandable to me as to the points he is making. So, I'll review here what I gathered from reading the book, and Ink, you can tell me how far off-base I am and what it really all means!

I like the quote that generated the title of the book: When Ages grow to Civility and Elegancie, Men come to Build Stately, sooner than to Garden Finely: As if Gardening were the Greater Perfection. (Francis Bacon 'Of Gardens, 1625) The same quote was the source of the title for Frank Cabot's book about his Les Quatre Vents garden, which I read just before the book by Hunt.

The term 'garden theory' in the title is the first mystery - clearly he's not talking about design principles in the sense most commonly referred to in this forum and other usual garden/landscape design sources. Early on he says he's using 'theory' in the sense of 'theory as contemplation, the deep scrutiny and understanding of praxis from within'. And he also says 'The paradox is that gardens are hugely important, as places and as an idea, to thousands of people; yet we know next to nothing about why and how that is so.' So that led me to assume that what he intended to do from the extensive review of gardens from historical records, paintings, and writings was to extract a common essence, so to speak, that would answer - or contribute to answering - the questions of how and why gardens are hugely important to people. And I'm not at all sure that those questions are answered.

Interestingly, the opening paragraphs of the book includes the statements: 'the millions who garden, on the one hand, and the members of the profession of landscape architects, on the other hand, are not likely to be interested or impressed by conceptual essays on the making of gardens... Among gardeners, there is enough to learn and do around the private yard or community garden that little time is left for reading outside of how-to books... Among professionals, contrariwise, garden-making enjoys a fairly low profile and certainly low esteem.' Having said effectively that nobody wants to read this stuff, he then goes on to say that landscape architects particularly need it because the profession has 'fractured'as it divides its energies among 'a daunting variety of projects'. At the end of the book he says 'My aim throughout...has been... to return to rescue the idea of the garden as the distinguishing feature of all fine landscape architecture irrespective of whether garden per se are what is actually established.' And I'm not at all sure that he makes the case for that either - mostly because his writing style is 'as clear as mud' and he doesn't seem to draw all the threads together sufficiently well to make his points clear. (He needed a MUCH tougher editor I think!)

He defines architecture as exterior place-making and that landscape comes into being as 'the creative coupling of a perceiving subject and an object perceived'. He repeatedly through the book stresses the importance of mediation of the physical environment as a reflection of how an individual or society conceives of its environment - 'Not simply a place made but a place that we register as having been made'. In that context, a garden then is a landscape's most sophisticated, concentrated version. But concentrated does not mean just multiplying or adding things to a site; subtracting things can result in concentration by leaving the site carefully focused by removing extraneous and distracting elements.

Moving on to gardens more specifically, he starts by commenting on the fact that the root of the word for garden in many languages means enclosure of some sort, and that enclosure - whether a real physical enclosure or an implied one - seems to be a consistent element of gardens across cultures and times. The boundary seems to have importance both at separating the garden from the world and also internal boundaries and transitions within the garden - he later refers to 'adventures of edges and transitions'.

Then he places garden in the landscape as 'third nature', with first nature being unmediated territory - 'wilderness'; second nature being 'cultural landscape: agriculture, urban developments, roads, bridges, ports, and other infrastructures'. Both second and third natures are nature that has been deliberately/purposefully altered by humans but the alterations in the third nature of the garden are more sophisticated, more deliberate, and more complex. From his review of historical gardens, he concludes the presence of the three natures that is more importance than the sequence of them - i.e. that it’s not necessary that they be arranged as 1,2,3 or 3,2,1 (depending on your view point) relative to the house. He feels 'Modern writings... have generally neglected this view of gardens as part of a larger landscape'.

He sees the three natures concept as important in moving away from seeing nature as an ideal, standard or model, giving greater importance to topography of the site, and by recognizing the gradations in the mediation in the landscape urges a more subtle adjudication of landscape architecture than the habitual 'formal' vs. 'informal'.

Closely related to all this is the comment 'A ubiquitous feature of garden-making in all cultures has been the inclusion of references within the site to other places, events, and themes. I shall call this re-presentation.' The representations are both of real, physical things and things that only live in the human imagination. And he seems to be saying that we can learn about nature by looking at how we represent it through the third nature of a garden. This statement seems to sum up that view: 'I see nature in the garden. versus The garden is showing us a nature.' (He's good at catchy statements like that! Another one I liked was landscaping or gardening being a 'metamorphosis of environment into milieu - space into place'.)

Further statements regarding the garden art's ability to show or teach something about nature include:
- '... garden art represents the proper character of the natural world that will be the better appreciated once a garden's compact version of it has been understood.
- ...(from a review of Evelyn's writings)... there was no nature without art, nor art without nature, and the adjudication of those collaborations was always culturally determined, that is to say, they differed according to the time and place of their implementation.
- Within the garden we see another world imitated, and when art reorganizes natural (and other) materials to that end we are able to see them freshly and significantly.
- The degree of artificial interference in and thus comprehension of the physical world will differ according to society, region, climate, and even individual gardeners. Each garden should be a fresh negotiation between the natural site and the arts of improvement and imitation available to its owner'

A significant part of the end of the book reads as a passionate plea to escape the perception that 'natural' is or should be the desired or proper goal of gardening or landscaping, replacing it with a recognition that 'All design is 'with nature'; but all design is also 'with culture'.' He seems to blame Horace Walpole and his much-repeated statement that William Kent 'leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden' as the beginning of the belief that a 'natural' landscape was the goal of gardening. He wants people to 'stop pitting formal against informal, Le Notre against Brown, gardens against landscape architecture, design against ecology, East against West'.

----

So, Ink, how far off base am I? What am I missing? Did he answer the question of how and why gardens are important to so many people? I can see some ways that one can use ideas he presents/raises to incorporate into small scale practical gardening but that’s not really what the book is focused on. One topic that I think is missing (or I have not see a book about…) is how to relate the lessons of historical gardens - which were all huge in size - to modern, mainly relatively tiny, gardens. I think the difference in scale of the average contemporary garden vs. historical ones is one reason why people are not more interested in garden history - the historical garden seems more like a fantasy than something to be easily 'mined' for practical guidance.

----
That should be a bit easier to read I hope (assuming no nonsense appears when I hit Submit!)


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

The discussion regarding what a garden is and why it is important has moved to another thread so I will limit my response to the book and author in question.

John Dixon-Hunt is clearly an academic and has written other books (including The Genius of The Place)in a similar vein. He was on the staff (director?) of Dumbarton Oaks but I don't think he sees either 'garden' or 'gardening' from a personal dirt under the finger nails position. Nonetheless, as long as his thoughts are seen this way and we don't look for a practical guide, there is much useful reading to be had. You have an interesting question regarding historical gardens and regardless of their size I think Dixon-Hunt is saying that the motivation is similar without, as you say stating exactly what he thinks that isand it is, only the culture that has changed. I believe that Paradise existed long before it was an actual place, in fact one of the contributors on the other thread alludes to this. This is what I mean when I say that a garden doesn't have its roots in nature because I think the roots are in the imagination and nature allows us to create a representation of our 'dream.'

I think you have grasps some difficult concepts Woody, I once wrote an entry on the newly formed Garden History forum about the meaning of 'arbour' saying that I thought the meaning and history would inform the construction and this is what I think theoretical books like this help us with.


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

  • Posted by natal Louisiana 8b (My Page) on
    Sun, Mar 18, 12 at 10:32

if you compose a post elsewhere (Word?) all punctuation shows up as Egyptian hieroglyphics when you copy and paste you need to correct all that in preview.

The only way I've found to avoid all of that nonsense is to take a Word/Pages document and post it on the Test forum first. You have to actually post it. Preview never catches all of it.


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Yes, it was an interesting read and raised lots of issues to think about. I agree with many of his points as I understood them but didn't find that he brought it all together into a coherent whole. I agree with you (and him?) that much of the motivation/inspiration for one's garden comes from what lives in your head, originating in one's personal experiences and shaped, in part, by the culture of the time and place you live in. That mental garden template gets 'painted' on the ground with the pallette and on the canvas that 'nature' provides.

BTW - re your spring Q... This has been the weirdest winter! The biggest snowfall we had was about 6" that disappeared within 48 hours. The Town never had to plow our street at all! We had snowdrops in bloom the first week of February and the crocuses started blooming about 10 days ago. I'm itchin' to get busy in the garden but the odds are good that there may still be some cold weather so I don't want to do the spring clean-up now and risk exposing things to March going out like a lion perhaps :-) So I'm trying to stick to literary gardening for the next couple of weeks.

Time to check out catkim's thread....


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

I often compose in the body of an email (that I obviously never send) and copy that to the message box in GW. I don't think I've ever been bothered by the extra hieroglyphics.

Karin L


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RE: Greater Perfections - looong 'frou-frou' post...

Interesting idea Karin - I'll try that next time I do a long post....


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