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Nature talking with nature.

Charles Jencks has always believed in the importance of symbolism in garden art. Here, he explains how he has used gardens to interpret humanity's place in nature and the cosmos. Many of the illustrations are from the Scottish garden created at Portrack House in Scotland by Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick.

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It is usual, when believing oneself original, to reinvent the wheel. In garden art and thinking about nature this danger is particularly acute, especially in an ecologically-sensitive age. John Dixon Hunt, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a useful analysis, Greater Perfections--The Practice of Garden Theory, that reveals how one designer after another reinvents a logical truism: that there are three fundamental natures. This tripartition is a trap lying in wait for unsuspecting garden designers who, like God, intervene in the world of natural laws and unfolding evolution trying to make nature or the world into a better place. Yet it is also a very suggestive way of thinking about design that can be added to and perhaps altered. What are 'natures 1,2,3'?

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The first is wilderness, the undomesticated wild that was common in the age of hunter-gatherers; the second is made up of productive fields, orchards and farmyards, among many Neolithic inventions; and the third consists in what is historically-speaking relatively recent: gardens, pleasurable places where art and thought are brought to bear on nature. 'Nature thinking about nature' the last type might be called, in so far as we consider ourselves a part of it. Christians might consider themselves separate from this realm for obvious reasons: Darwinian nature can be cruel and wasteful; sunscts, flowers and crystals can be vulgar and kitsch. But, on the whole, Homo sapiens since the first cave paintings has tried to relate itself to the cosmos, and understand it. Nature worship, 'biophilia' as E. O. Wilson calls it, and curiosity about the universe, are hard-wired into our species even as we know that natural selection is 'red in tooth and claw'.

Hunt's title is gently polemical. Gardens are a Greater Perfection than architecture because, in the words he quotes of Francis Bacon from 1625, they are the culmination of a civilizing process: 'When Ages grow to Civility and Elegancie, Men come to Build Stately, sooner than Garden Finely: as if Gardening were the Greater Perfection'. Today a cynical age would misunderstand his message as 'you pay for the building first and then if there's any money left it might go towards a garden or landscape', a vile idea.

Hunt shows how 'the idea of three natures' has underlain landscape design since the sixteenth century and been reinvented, consciously or not, ever since. Cicero, apparently, first described second nature as sowing corn, irrigating soil, farming generally and damming rivers. But it was not until the golden age of Italian gardens that 'third nature' was explicitly added to the corpus making it a kind of evolutionary progression from primitive wilderness to functional agriculture to aesthetic communication with God's work. It was a schematic evolution that we still follow today, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the Neolithic revolution to the age of great civilizations. For instance, one can follow such a progressive route at the Villa Lante near Viterbo starting at the wild park and then moving down the cascade to culminate in the sixteenth-century present, the ornamental fountains and the iconography of the Cardinal who commissioned the layout. That was an Italian version of progress. In 1541, Jacopo Bonfadio among others, coined una terza natura, as nature improved by art, and subsequently many designers so conceived it. The aerial perspectives of the Medici villas, the grand vistas of Louis XIV, the planning of English country houses show this sequencing of nature as seen from the architecture (2). Usually, unfolding from the house, it procedes from 'nature 3' to '2' to '1' (ornamental garden to domesticated fields to far wilderness), but any combination is possible and even when the English convention for 'naturalness' or 'informality' appears to dominate, a mix of types is usually smuggled in. The point is this tripartition is logical as well as epistemological and evolutionary: nature divides naturally into the untended, the functional and the intended.

The trap

So it is no surprise that, when lecturing and designing, I fell unwittingly into the trap. For a soon to be abandoned railroad track in Scotland that Network Rail can no longer use, and the bridges along it (2nd nature), I envisioned a set of small mounds (3rd nature) surmounted by shrubs left to go wild (that is, 3rd nature becoming 1st) (4). Old railroad cars will be filled with soil, put on the disused track, and have holes punched in the roof so trees can grow through the ceiling. A Surrealist dream of ageing industrial artefacts juxtaposed to living nature, and each treated as evolving, interacting beings has been around for generations. The project is under way and not very original except in the polemical oppositions of machinery and growth (as I shall explain).

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But, in one way, the tradition of three natures has been extended and inverted. For all of these types rest, conceptually, on what I have called 'zero nature', the planet, that level of nature that interests me particularly--the cosmos, its laws, the underlying physics. We say that a hurricane, earthquake or volcano is 'an act of nature' (and so from a legal and insurance point of view it is). Gravity, electromagnetism and light show 'the laws of nature' and all living nature--that is numbers 1, 2 and 3--derive from, and are dependent on, these more basic laws, their constants and materiality. Thus it follows that in landscape and garden design one is using nature to present different Natures in an artful form or, since we also grow, live and die, a garden creates 'nature talking with nature' (as my title puts it). Part of the point is acknowledging the juxtapositions and conflicts between the types. The Nobel Laureate, the chemist Ilya Prigogine, often spoke about the new sciences of complexity as being 'in a dialogue with nature' because they revealed the dynamic processes of feedback and change over time. This transformation is the essence of a garden, and those I am constructing are chiefly engaged with presenting zero nature in conversation with the others. Often this discourse is carried out, literally, with letters, phrases, a rebus, and unfolding DNA codes in short, an iconography referring to zero nature built with non-living matter, or sculpture (7). Zero nature, on one level, simply is dead, but self-organizing, matter.

One set of gardens concerns landforms made from sand, gravel, topsoil and turf sculpted into sharply edged curves. The curves derive from the context and various functional objectives, but the underlying iconography derives from the way nature often self-organizes into flowing fractals. Plato, Cezanne and Le Corbusier were only a little right. They thought that underlying nature were cubes, cones and spheres--the primary solids--whereas Benoist Mandelbrot has shown that most of nature is actually based on fractals. These self-similar forms are often pulled together by 'strange' or chaotic attractors. For instance, the weather has two attractor basins that, visually, produce oval swirls with a butterfly shape. And that form led to what is called the famous runaway process known as the Butterfly Effect. The heart and brain also produce attractor basins. Galaxies, like hurricanes, usually self-organize in highly visible spiral-attractors, and the biggest thing in the universe seen so far is the wall of galaxies given the Texan designation 'The Great Attractor' (because it pulls in everything around). It seems to me obvious that garden art should present these recently discovered truths about zero nature, and do so with drama and delight because they are the very ground of our being. What do landscape attractors look like?

Attractors in the garden

When sand and gravel are pushed around by ploughs, and eroded by rain, they naturally form into curved basins. I explored various such shapes and found that they also related to the Henon and Ueda Attractors (named after their discoverers) (5, 6). Functionally, landforms are superimposed pathways, but they are also something so obvious that it had escaped me: living contour maps. In effect, those layered models of cardboard, that every student labours to construct as a base for architecture, have an extraordinary aesthetic already built into them. It only waits to be articulated. But it took me awhile, and the construction of four such landforms, before I fully realized the potential for following and crossing these lines, and understood how important it is to get the curves continuous and sharp. The art of landforms, although primitive, consists in laying the topsoil with a sharpened edge so that when the turf is put on, it can continue the strong line. In morning or evening sunlight the curved paths then cast clear shadows, the shapes pop into focus, and the landform has a physical or haptic presence. Without such sharp lines they lack life. A comparable case for water can be made. Every landform needs its counter or opposite to bring out its quality, either a body of water, or a hard material like metal, concrete, plastic or stone (7). In effect, the underlying zero nature is being dramatized by third nature, a strange attractor presented by a highly artificial garden.

In a Scottish garden that I started with my late wife, Maggie Keswick, we worked on these landforms together; she designed the lakes, I the mounds, and they all followed self-similar curves. Later, after she died, I worked on many areas of the garden that needed completion and began to focus more clearly on the idea that one should use nature to interrogate nature's fundamental secrets and her main elements, or events, of self-organization. The atom and Gaia (the earth as a self-sustaining system) were obviously salient units, and after working with scientists on various models of these, I went on to explore the black hole, the DNA molecule, the universal notion of symmetry breaking and the universe as a whole (8). At this point, in 1996, I started to conceive of the project as 'the garden of cosmic speculation', and see it partly as a critique of reductive science and its dumb metaphors ('selfish genes', 'big bangs') and partly as a traditional instrument to celebrate the cosmos. In these two ways it was just a continuation of the post-modern project, a resistance to the reigning notions that architecture and art must be abstract and that we live in a mechanistic universe.

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Of course, the universe on one reading is highly abstract and some of its laws are mechanistic and deterministic. The argument for abstract art was partly motivated by this recognition and attempted to embody the fact that so much contemporary science could only be represented by equations (and they are a form of ultimate abstraction). Indeed, there is the argument put by Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher, that modern science was invented once and only once, in the West (and not in China where technology was much more advanced) because of the propensity of Western thinkers to believe that God, although laying down very complex laws, was a reasonable, mathematically-inclined geometer. His work was, as Einstein said, 'subtle but not malicious'--after inventive labour it could be understood. Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Confucianism and all the other faiths did not have the faith that the world was ultimately decodable into rational equations.

Western science, religion, art and architecture of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance were motivated by the attempt to find, and then represent, the underlying truths of zero nature--or the abstract laws. There are many wonderful paintings of this metaphysics and one in particular, The Creation of the World produced by Giovanni di Paolo in 1445, makes this and another key point (1). It shows a male God coming down from on high, generating, to the left, the abstract laws and constants: perfect inscribed circles, planetary orbits, and the elements of earth, air, water, fire. However, to the right, is the other side of Christianity that is so important to the unfolding of modern science: the narrative history of our place in the universe, the projection of ourselves into cosmic history, from the Genesis myth to the final judgement. On one reading, this duality presages the battle between science and religion that has dominated the modern world since the seventeenth century. And literally the picture shows the expulsion from the garden of Paradise.

Christian hubris?

But on a broader plane the whole painting, and similar ones of the time, depict humans built in God's image and undergoing a cosmic process, from initial creation of the universe through ancient times to the present. Put in psychological terms, they reveal an extraordinary confidence, even hubris. Compared to other religions that conceived mankind as insignificant, or subject to the will of Allah, or simply the victim of nature, they launch the species right onto the cosmic stage, its unfolding. Here is the most Faustian leap of imagination: we are actors in nature and time, essential parts of the universe story, main protagonists not doomed sinners or abject sufferers. It was this narrative that gave Christians the self-assurance to think they had an essential cosmic role to play, they could decode God's subtle laws, and believed that the universe was ultimately a benign, meaningful and just place. Hence the untiring motivation to discover the counter-intuitive laws of zero nature. The other idea that flows from this painting (or can be extracted from Judeo-Christian thinking) is the corresponding dual nature of understanding. The cosmos is both an abstract set of laws--the four elements, the perfect circular orbits, Platonic solids etc--and a particular history, a one-off event, a singular evolutionary chain. Therefore it must be grasped in two ways, perceived through opposite codes, the abstract and representational. Today in the Post-Christian West we still keep such a dual world view: the universe is conceived as having universal laws but unfolding in a contingent and unique narrative. It is this mixture of abstraction and singular history, necessity and chance, order and chaos that is so potent and engaging. It led me to present the history of the universe in three parts of the garden, that 13.7 billion year story that has sublated the Genesis narrative (and much else besides).

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Using a garden to narrate this singular event is particularly appropriate because one can use zero nature (non-living rocks, water, equations, structural forces, diagrams etc) and third nature (garden art) to tell the many-layered story of Nature (natures 0, 1, 2, 3). The place where this narrative is most developed is the cascade at the centre of the garden (9, 10). One approaches this heart through a zig-zag of resisted motion to find water flowing down the hill, while time flows up--from the beginning of cosmic evolution. Each major stage, or jump, in the universe story is given a platform and set of rocks to present both its abstract law and concrete moment, the duality of law and frozen accident.

The new universe story reveals a continuously unfolding, creative event--one still growing since the original expansion--and it includes us in its plot, even if we are not the pinnacle of evolution, or the centre of all things. Moreover, the evolutionary mythos that has begun to dominate thinking in most areas gives a new twist to the old metaphor, 'nature red in tooth and claw'. Not only does it show a Gaian nature, 'green and wrapped in an embrace', but a cosmic process, a cosmogenesis, 'unfolding in jumps towards greater complexity'. That is, it shows different levels and meanings of Nature. Darwinian nature, that view which dominates the Britain of Richard Dawkins and the America of Bill Gates, is only one of several and not, in spite of their efforts, the most powerful. Garden art should examine the tired, reigning metaphors and show their limits; a garden, as Ian Hamilton Finlay has said, is not just a retreat but an attack. How does this critique fit into our schema? In effect, cultural criticism, mostly nature 2 and 3 (that is, second nature as habit and third as art) is challenging the established habits of gardening, and dominant view of nature.

This conflict is presented several times in the Universe Cascade. In terms of the 13.7 billion year event, the story of human evolution from the primates gives meaning and intelligence to this extremely long but not infinite narrative. It gives an eye and heart to nature, not the first but the most sensitive and developed we know (the eye is a recurrent icon in the garden). Furthermore, the human story reveals the truth that culture, a form of second and third nature, uses its understanding of zero nature to change the world. Hence genetic engineering, hence the countless ways the laws of nature have been momentarily suspended (for instance, gravity has been overcome by assisted flight).

A type of new nature?

Lastly, and some would think most importantly, we are living at a time when culture and the economy are becoming so big with respect to the ecology of earth, or the self-organizing system of Gaia, that our by-products are themselves becoming a type of new nature. At the risk of coining a fourth type (writers are only allowed one neologism per article) we could say that the global economy (and its attendant pollution) is itself 4th nature. Why add to an already Byzantine set of distinctions? Because, ever since Adam Smith showed that the economy self-organizes as a by-product of primary intentions (self-interest plus regulated competition), it has been conceived as having its own semi-autonomy. Presidents and prime ministers may be able to tinker with the exchange rate, but no country has controlled the economy for long: it grows like a tulip and shrinks in anorexia, it explodes in booms and bursts as bubbles. Fourth nature, cultural by-products, are today the site of architectural investigation as designers study the implications of city growth and decline through their diagrams and datascapes. This area has particularly motivated the Dutch groups MVRDV and UN Studio, and the recently named science of emergence claims part of the territory.

The conflict between the global economy and the planetary ecology (4th versus 1st nature) culminates the period of modernity. This is why the modern rust belt and the contradictions of capitalism occupy a key platform near the top of the Universe Cascade, and they become a focus for iconography (11). Sculpture, flowing water, mirrors, growing moss, rocks, beautiful shells, money, rusting kitchen equipment, pizza knives and words vie with each other in this fundamentalist battle of the two ecos--the economy and ecology.

Is this the hybrid of Installation Art or just the old mixture of landscape and other things? My intention here and elsewhere is to produce a kind of cross-coding between levels of nature, to juxtapose and merge the laws of nature as diagram and performance with the other types of nature. Working with scientists and cosmologists I have come up with a diagram that shows the universe developing as a spiral-cone (12). It is held together, indeed balanced exquisitely, by the four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear force. Not only does it evolve gradually, but in relatively sudden jumps of organization. These can be diagrammed as platforms on a continuous spiral stair. So far, so easy, but then this diagram has to be translated into a planar cascade that leans against a hillside, and this requires all sorts of organizational decisions that manifest the underlying structure. The resultant new diagram thus becomes one of continual expansion in fits and starts, of progress with regressive moments, and the temporal order becomes a sequence of jumps two platforms forward, one backwards, and so on up the hill (13). (It would be nigh impossible to build a spiral leaning against the hill that one could climb up while water flows down.)

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Do people have to understand all this--for instance, be familiar with the evolution of the universe to respond to those parts of the garden where this story is told? It seems to me better in the first instance if they come on these installations in the right frame of mind, interpreting and feeling the garden according to their mood and the few cues provided, not as if they had to pass an examination in astrophysics. Since in garden art, as others, there is always more significance than intended, and since perception is best as an active, projective affair, the intended meanings can be secondary or left to be uncovered later. On the other hand, the kind of cosmogenic art that interests me engages the mind and makes claim on deep truths that are revealed at a certain time and place. It manifests such things as diagrams of nature forces, laws, mental constructs, truths of the universe--that appeal only to those who take the trouble to decode them. Symbolic art is most effective when it stimulates the search for meaning and turns it into a basic part of the experience. Of all the arts, gardening is well positioned to engage in that dialogue of natures--cosmic, physical, organic and human--that captivates the mind and senses.

Charles Jencks' The Garden of Cosmic Speculation was published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. October 2003. John Dixon Hunt's Greater Perfections, the Practice of Garden Theory, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
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Title Annotation:landscape gardening
Author:Jencks, Charles
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:3608
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