Friday, May 6, 2016

The English Landscape Garden - why is it my favorite?

Over the course of this semester, we have studied a large number of different styles and types of gardens throughout history. It’s now time to look back on all that we have learned, and consider what we have taken away from it. Out of all these different gardens which we have studied, which resonated most strongly with me personally? This is a difficult question, but ultimately, I think my answer must be the English Landscape Garden, our most recent study.

The English Landscape Garden is, essentially, perfected nature, but not at all in the way that the Baroque gardens perfected nature. Instead of having a formal style, evident that human hands had altered and designed the growth of the plants, the English Landscape Garden has no style at all, and appears to be almost entirely natural. There are no clear marks of human alterations, and instead is a kind of controlled natural wilderness.

The main style behind the English Landscape Garden was the concept of the Picturesque – a garden similar to a beautiful painting, an idealized version of nature. This meant that the Baroque features of topiary, boxed hedges, and parterres were replaced with lawns, serpentine waterways, clumps of trees, and paths that curved through them. Many times, models of old ruins were placed in hidden groves, designed to appear as though they had stood there since Ancient Roman times.

The paths in the English Landscape Garden were not straight as they were in the Baroque, and thus did not allow visitors to see the garden all at once. No, the English Landscape Garden was something to be explored over time, walking from one part to another, not knowing what was beyond the next turning or grove of trees. It was a garden that had to be actively participated in, not just a work of art to be observed.

Perhaps this is why this garden style appeals most to me personally. The English Landscape Garden requires an active enjoyment of it, not just a passive viewing, and as I mentioned in my first post, many of my own childhood experiences with gardens involved this direct participation, whether by helping my mother cultivate our bit of backyard, or by running down the paths of the Chicago Botanical Gardens. My perception of gardens is a very active one, and the English Landscape Garden follows that idea. Though I will always appreciate the beauty and art behind more formal gardens such as those of the Baroque or Italian Renaissance, the contained wildness and of the English Landscape Garden will always appeal to me most.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Copenhagen Greenspaces

Our field study last Wednesday took us to five of the major greenspaces in the Copenhagen area, and these greenspaces are each unique in their structure, purpose, and time of creation.


Mimersparken is a contemporary space by the train tracks coming from Norrebro station, and was converted into its current state in 2008 when it was purchased from the Danish State Railways. It's mostly an open park, with half of it taken up by courts for various sports. The other half is lawn, pavement (with piknik-bench-style seats), and an extremely intriguing park.

The primary purpose of this space seems to be for the use of the residents living in the condominiums surrounding the park. There is enough space for children to run around, sports courts for older children and adults, and the colorful park for any kid at heart (my class, as you can see above, really enjoyed it). However, it does seem that it excludes some groups from participating - namely, the disabled and elderly. There are a few ramps here and there, but nothing much for them to do. Additionally, there is a severe lack of trees and shade for sitting under, which can dissuade elderly people from choosing this park as a place to sit outside in. 

This lack of trees is emphasized by the severe flatness of the entire park. Everything is on one level - there aren't even any pots or raised beds with flowers in them, and barely any shrubbery. It feels, overall, very industrial, which can be dissuasive to some.

In the middle of the large lawn, a curve of dirt waggled its way from the courts to the other of the park. Perhaps this was the initial stage of a flower garden? This possibility, combined with some spindly trees along one end, give hope that this park might one day reach it's potential to be an excellent and well-used central greenspace.


Superkilen is the most contemporary of the parks we visited, having been completed in June 2012, and is divided into three main sections: The Green Park, the Black Market (above), and the Red Square. All three have playgrounds incorporated into them, though they look rather different from one another.

The Green Park is a long, narrow lawn with tables for picnicking, a skate park doubling as a basketball court, and a small playground. The playground, however, seems to function doubly as an area for outdoor workouts, with pull-up bars and the like. Further on, the grass turns to rubbery concrete and slopes downward into the Black Market, where a fountain, a collection of slides, and chess tables sit under shade trees. Across the street, the ground turns various shade of red, with various swings and slides and monkeybars scattered around. This is the main playground of Superkilen.

In general, Superkilen seems to fulfill its purpose quite well. It has enough benches and shade for less active people, a skate park and basketball court for those who want to play sports, potential tools for working out, hilly space to run around in, and a variety of playground equipment. The one issue with the design is that a bike path cuts through the space, even through the middle of the Red Square playground, making it potentially dangerous for the small children running around, and disruptive to the pedestrians enjoying the park.

Assistens Kirkegaard

The Assistens Kirkegaard (church yard - or cemetery) contains the remains of many famous Danish individuals, including H. C. Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard, and dates back to 1760. But it's not solely used as a cemetery. It's also fulfills the purpose of a central park, and people stroll by the flowering trees, or run through on their morning jog. Though some may consider this disrespectful to the dead, I see it as actually a different way to honor our passed loved ones.

This cemetery is being used extremely effectively - it is both a place to bury the dead, and also a park. In addition, it is a historical site, since so many famous Danes are buried there. It is beautiful, historical, and practical - what more can you ask from a greenspace?

Botanisk Have

The Botanical Gardens are situated in one of the fortification parks of Copenhagen. These parks are what's left of the old city fortifications, and the lakes and ponds in the parks are remnants from the old moat around Copenhagen. The Botanical Gardens contain a large park with walking paths, formal gardens, the aforementioned lakes, and a glass conservatory for more exotic plants.

The gardens are well designed and there are alternations between open lawns and shady paths below tree cover. Benches provide seating along the path, as well as a variety of gazebos and arbors. Of course, one of the main purposes of a Botanical Garden is the display of plants and thus the education of botany, and the Copenhagen Botanical Gardens do not fail in this aspect. It is part of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and contains the country's largest collection of living plants.

Østre Anloeg

The Ostre Anloeg park lies behind the National Gallery of Denmark, and is another of the fortification parks surrounding Copenhagen, and was designed by the same landscape architect who designed the Botanical Gardens - H.S. Flindt. It, like the Botanical Gardens, has many excellent walking paths through open lawns and under shady trees. This park is much larger than the Botanical Gardens, and therefore allows for even more ability for wandering.

On one side of the park, some basketball-soccer hybrid courts are hidden among the trees, providing a place for recreational sports. But the courts don't reveal themselves immediately when you walk into the garden - they are not the main focus, like they were in Mimersparken.

As we walked along the path, we  suddenly stumbled upon a large school group of small children reenacting viking battles. They were running around a large model of a viking ship and up the nearby paths, shouting and waving their wooden swords. However, the reason why we were so startled by them was that we couldn't hear all their battle cries until we were right near to them. The park is modeled with so many gentle hills and curves that each turn reveals something new. There is no point from which you can see the entire park laid out before you. In this way, pedestrians are able to wander with a sense of being in the middle of nature, and not in the middle of the city of Copenhagen.

These five greenspaces are all very different from one another, with different purposes, though some are able to fulfill their purposes better than others. However, they all provide spaces of peace in the middle of Denmark's capital city, places where people can come and relax, stroll, play, and exercise.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Significance of Versailles

A discussion of French gardens invariably brings up the name Versailles. Everyone know of this grandiose palace of King Louis XIV, and when I was planning to go visit Paris for a weekend last year, I can’t even count how many times I was told to go visit, and how many times I had to disappoint people when, on my return, I told them I hadn’t been able to.

But why is Versailles so special, so important? Of course, it is a beautiful palace with beautiful gardens, but there is something more, something that makes it significant in the history of gardens and in the history of France. And most of this “something more” stems back to King Louis XIV himself, and his intentions when building Versailles.

Firstly, and most obviously, Versailles was built to show off the King’s power. The King, in 17th century France, was considered to be directly chosen by God, and thus, in essence, nearly divine, and through the plans of the palace and the garden, it is evident that King Louis XIV took this very seriously. When Louis made his plans to build Versailles, his architects were at a loss, since the site was entirely a marshland. By creating this masterpiece on a supposedly “unbuildable” piece of land, Louis was showing that he had power over nature (and thus, in a sense, was equal – or above – God).  He continued this comparison with the divine buy placing statues of Apollo throughout the garden – and since Apollo was the sun god, and Louis the Sun King, the appropriate connection can be drawn. One of the fountains shows Apollo’s mother turning into frogs the villagers who had refused to serve them water, and another, at the far end of the garden, contains a statue of Apollo rising from the water on his chariot.


Through this, Louis was also showing off his massive wealth.  The Apollo fountains were just two of 1400 total in the garden, which in total used seven times more water in one day than the city of Paris. Because of this, the fountains were only turned on as the King and his courtiers walked through the gardens, and off again once he had passed by. From the fountains, to the rest of the gardens, to the palace itself, Versailles is a grand display of royal wealth.

If the King is this great, then that must mean that France is pretty great too, right? At least, this is the logic that Louis hoped people followed when they saw the majesty of Versailles. As the King, he was, in a sense, the human representation of his country, and so if the King’s main palace is so grandiose and elegant, that reflected upon the state of France as well.

Finally, the underlying purpose of Versailles was that of a gilded cage – a place to keep all the King’s courtiers under one roof and Louis’s watchful eye, under the pretext of accessibility and protection. To keep them there, he entertained them with theaters, concert halls, pleasure gardens, and fireworks. But this was not only a physical control – it was psychological as well. Louis encouraged gossip amongst the courtiers, discussing this lord or that lady, and in this way kept them busy creating petty intrigue amongst themselves, and not plotting against him. He also turned every aspect of his day – from getting dressed in the morning, to dinner in the evening – into a highly involved ritual for all the nobles, thus making his courtiers focus on the small, inconsequential things, instead of the actual, larger matters of state.

In this way Versailles became the social and political center of Louis XIV’s France: a stunning garden and palace, with an infinite host of meanings and purposes. And even today, it continues to hold significance in the history of France and of gardening. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Italian Renaissance: new thoughts, new gardens

The word “renaissance,” means rebirth – and in the early 14th century, Italy was experiencing a rebirth of the classical style. The art, music, and architecture of the time all were results of a renewed spark of interest in the ancient Greek and Roman ideals. On the philosophical and intellectual level, people were beginning to consider their position in all of Creation and nature, pondering their relationship with God and the spiritual. Ultimately, the Italian Renaissance combined the ancient classical philosophies with the new Christian doctrine to create a new perspective that strongly affected the progress of civilization throughout the rest of history.

One prominent example of this merging of ancient Greek and Rome with the Catholic Church is found in St. Thomas Aquinas, an Italian philosopher and theologian of the early Renaissance. Thomas Aquinas was a proponent of natural theology, the idea that we can discover more about God through a study of his Creation – nature around us. By combining Christian doctrine and Aristotle’s logic, Aquinas’s studies ended up laying the basis for modern science.

Shortly after Thomas Aquinas came Petrarch, a humanist. Humanism during this era was not what we know it as today – it was the view that humans, though creatures of a greater God, are rational and capable of thinking for themselves. This was in contrast to the views common during the Middle Ages, which looked very much towards the afterlife, and what must be done on earth to achieve Heaven. Petrarch didn’t deny the existence of God or the afterlife – he just said that life on earth didn’t have to be entire drudgery. We could still experience and actively participate in the beauty and joy of life in God’s Earthly Creation before we (hopefully) experienced His Heavenly one.

Aquinas and Petrarch are good examples of the general philosophies that outlined the Italian Renaissance, and stretched into its art and science. Paintings and sculpture achieved a sense of perspective and realism. Architecture adopted the elegant lines and columns of Roman temples, returning to buildings that were pretty to look at, and not just defensive like the castles of the Middle Ages. Scientific method emerged, and studies in astronomy replaced the geocentric model of the solar system with the heliocentric. Every facet of life was affected by the new cultural perspective of the Renaissance.

Gardens, of course, were very much so affected by the Renaissance, and mirrored the new thoughts and ideas of the time in their designs. Classical models of the Roman Villa reappeared, to be both "looked at and looked out from," as said Leon Battista Alberti, the embodiment of the Renaissance Man. No longer were gardens an afterthought, squeezed into an enclosed corner in a Medieval castle - instead, they were incorporated into the architecture of the villa, like the peristyle gardens of ancient Rome. The garden was just as important a part of the architecture as the building was. Also like in the classical peristyle garden, the gardens of the Renaissance were full of the sound of rushing water through many fountains, and numerous meanings and allegories could be found in the statues, water features, and plants.

But in the peristyle, the gardens were enclosed - now, they stretched out openly from the villa, a physical representation of the new outward-looking philosophies at the time. Just as scientific liberation and enquiry was beginning to take hold, so gardens mirrored this with more expansive, worldly designs. The residents of the villa would be able to look out over the garden, and even beyond onto the cities and fields technically not a part of their property, and yet still merged with it, a kind of "borrowed landscape." 

In the Villa Lante, the garden changed in design as it descended from the house. Higher up was the area called the Bosco, or forest, which was more informal and supposed to feel more natural and less constructed. But further down - following the water paths - the garden ended in a more formal section, as though expressing the ideas of the time that the world was something that could be rationalized and controlled by humans. 

The Italian Renaissance garden was an attempt at that control. It was an attempt to find the balance between man and God, the balance between artistic nature and real nature. If we were rational humans in control of our own lives, with the ability to create art for our own enjoyment here on Earth, how far could we go combining God's (supposedly perfect) Creation with our own efforts at perfection? 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What does the word "garden" mean to me?

When I was very young, we had a square fenced-in herb garden behind our house that we called the Secret Garden after the one in Frances Hodgson Burnett's book. It wasn't at all secret, but we liked the idea of being able to wander around the small round path amid the plants and imagine that the white picket fencing was actually a giant hedge, separating us from the rest of the world. When my sister and I tired of running around in the adjoining lawn, we would unlatch the little gate and pick some of the black currents growing on the far end of the garden. 

Later, when we remodeled our house, the Secret Garden was replaced with more lawn, and in exchange, my father built a long raised bed up against the garage. This was supposed to be a place for myself, my sister, and my mother to all grow our own plants, but my sister and I neglected our plots and eventually it was all taken over by my mom. Here, she grew vegetables, leafy greens, tomatoes, and – after my father added a lot more trellising – beans. The entire southern outer wall of the garage became a glorious mess of vines and leaves. For my mother, productivity and beauty always had to come hand-in-hand, and her garden was evidence of that.

Another favorite activity for my family was visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and, as a child, I loved exploring the rocky steps and winding gravel paths leading up to hidden waterfalls. The huge expansiveness of the Gardens, and the wide variety, provided a perfect venue for my imaginative brain. We would wander for hours, relaxing beneath the willow in the Japanese garden, running through the fountains outside the rose garden trellises, and crawling into the alcoves in the walls of the English garden.

These three examples show the impact of the garden on my life. The garden is a place where I, firstly, go to relax, whether it be from playing on the lawn with my sister when I was eight years old, or now, when I need a respite from the work of the day. It’s a place to let the creative mind wander and contemplate the world, even as a child running through the mysterious paths of the Botanic Gardens. It’s a place where we can commune with nature – without being in great danger of nature’s perils.

My mother additionally found peace by the actual act of planting and maintenance of a garden. She was thus able to work alongside nature to create something beautiful – and most of the time, it was edible and nourishing as well. So whether by experiencing the garden through its maintenance and care – as my mother did – or by simply enjoying it as a viewer, the garden will always be a place for finding solace, relaxation, and pleasure.