Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Modern Naturalism: Artifice in the Natural Garden

For several weeks now, I have been extolling wildness and naturalism as a virtue in the design of landscapes. My claim is that man-made landscapes need to embrace “nature” in a more intentional and expressive way. In making those claims, I have been perhaps too dismissive of the importance of artifice in designed landscapes. A few thoughts about that here.
First, any designer that calls his or her work “naturalistic,” “sustainable,” or “ecological” cites nature as an authority to justify their designs. Obviously, many landscapes claim to be natural that are entirely different from each other. What is abundantly clear in the age of greenwashing is that terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “green” are human constructs, loose signifiers that can be applied to almost anything--particularly anything in a landscape. Ideas about nature ultimately reveal more about us than it does about the landscapes they describe.

“Nature is an abstraction,” writes Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture at MIT, “a set of ideas for which many cultures have no one name, ‘a singular name for the real multiplicity of things and living processes.’” In landscape design today, naturalism is a science (ecology), a moral calling, and an aesthetic. Designers sling these terms around without much thought or discussion about what they mean.

So in all my eager advocacy for naturalism, I too have been a bit loose with the terms. Anne Whiston Spirn writes that “nature is both given and constructed.” I believe in both of those realities: nature as outside of me and nature that is inside of me. The line between those two is a fuzzy one. This is not reason to despair; instead, we should celebrate this fuzziness.

For me, the myriad of meanings for what is natural is no reason to reject naturalistic design. Instead, it is an invitation to explore this conceptually fertile ground. The medium of our art is living, ever-changing elements of plants, water, light, and soil. Designers get the rare privilege of working with an ephemeral palette, of asserting our control and then losing it. Lately, I’ve gotten much more joy out of losing it.

That is why I am drawn to designed landscapes that celebrate the evanescent with bold artifice. Trying to erase the evidence of human intervention feels inauthentic to me, as flat and unconvincing as a trompe l’oeil. All true naturalism must first be a humanism. The landscapes that captivate me both intellectually and spiritually are those that blur the lines between natural and cultivated, between nature as other and nature as me. Artifice is not only acceptable in naturalistic designs, but necessary. It prevents plagiarism by forcing the designer to show her hand. The benefit of artifice is that is grants the designer sweet catharsis: it reveals to the world that this design, like all good landscape design, is a blessed forgery.


  1. (Another thought-provoking post. Thanks.)

    Just so. And in fact, one could say that the frisson created by the correct human-made structure set withing a natural or naturalistic landscape emphasizes the value of each all the more. Thus Palladio, thus the Japanese tea house. Thus the low decorative fence that announces that the frontyard prairie is not a weed patch.

    One can take naturalistic too far: did Capability Brown really need to remove villages in order to "re-naturalize" parts of England? Did we need to turn that Romantic, naturalistic aesthetic into possibly the most artificial of landscapes, the American suburb? All weighty questions.

    I agree that forming some idea of what we mean by "nature" and "natural" is very important. Equally important is learning when not to impose our will. Who are we gardening for?

    As an ecological gardener, and not a designer or landscaper, I would add that for me a predominating rationale might not be so much a case of citing nature as an authority as one of trying to understand and accommodate natural processes and the natural history, as well as human history, of a place when making a garden.

    In an intuitive sense, ecological gardening could be considered an attempt to honor the "real" landscape of a place as the gardener perceives and understands it. In these terms, every ecological garden, every restoration project is a creative partnership between humans and all the other species that share that space. It comes down to a question of relationships.

    The vast, agglomerated idea that resides within the English word "nature," does, after all, ultimately refer back to something much vaster, wilder, more uncontrollable and dangerous than we understand. Perhaps that's why we try to make it abstract--it feels somehow safer that way.

  2. Thomas,

    I appreciate you discussing the idea of nature and artifacts. And, Adrian, excellent note.

    That to say nature as we often understand it to be even exists anymore is an illusion, and has been for sometime. We live in the era of the human, and have been making an artifact out of nature since.

    To say that nature, or any attempt to recreate is an abstraction I feel a correct statement. Even in the ecological sense, man's part is always a factor.

    So other then form, I believe there to be little differentiation between "forgeries" of natural settings and modern designs incorporating ecological systems.

    Keep up the good writing.


  3. Adrian & Adam,

    Wow, what a pleasure to have such excellent and thoughtful comments. Thanks for taking the time!

    Adrian, I do think the rationale for creating ecological gardens is to accommodate natural processes. Much has been written about the benefit this type of gardening has for nature. But I like to focus on the benefit for humans. Connecting with these natural processes on an intellectual or even spiritual level is, for me, a greater thrill than the joy of demonstrating my control over a landscape (which can be satisfying as well).

    Adam, your point about whether the difference in natural looking landscapes and modern designs that are ecologically functional is thought provoking. Maybe the differences are only representational. I am a big fan of modern designs whose ecology is more technological rather than aesthetic. However, I worry that in simplifying ecology into mechanistic systems, we may be precluding the benefits of natural systems that we don't even know yet.

    Plus, I tend to think representaion and forms matter. Expressive naturalism, especially in hyper modern or urban landscapes, strenghtens the dialogue between people and nature. The "frission" that Adrian talks about does raise the value of both. Modern designs whose ecology is less visible robs the visitor of that interaction.

    Thanks again for the great comments. Keep up the great work!

  4. Another thought-provoking post, Thomas. Can we all agree that "nature" and "natural" are human/social constructs? I don't mean that there is no biological/physical reality, just that the ways that we take some aspects of that reality and group them together as "nature" or "natural" is a way of interpreting reality. (BTW, as a sociologist, I would argue that humans have always and everywhere interpreted reality. I don't think it's possible for us to "know" a "natural" reality apart from human/social interpretation.)

    I think it's really interesting that, at least in the Western tradition, nature is almost always constructed as part of a duality of opposites: nature / nurture; natural / artificial; natural / constructed; etc. I think maybe we use the words "nature" and "natural" when we're making that the positive pole of the duality (as opposed, for example, to calling that pole "wild," which can have a negative connotation).

    Are gardening and landscape design always about linking the two poles of the duality back together again?

  5. Isn't nature really all of the free gifts that humans get without effort...and thus do not value because they have no 'monetary value' ascribed to them? Air, water, soil, plants, and all the organisms that rely on and support them. All of the things that will thrive in our absence. I love gardens of many types because, even at their worst, they honor these gifts of beauty beyond human capacity. It is encouraging that more gardens are now recognizing the inherent beauty in plants and in unconstructed spaces tho there is still a massive 'paving' going on especially in places where there is a fear of what nature will do if we don't contain it absolutely.


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