Sunday Opinion: The Authenticity Of Place

I met three new people yesterday.  A couple with a sizeable property working with an architect on designing a large open conservatory space and terrace that would allow them to spend more time and entertain out doors, were equally as interested in addressing their landscape.  I spent several hours with them, discussing the scope of their project. They were very interested that I understand why they had bought the house. He was very clear in comunicating that the house was relatively unimportant in their decision process; they bought on the strength of his keen interest in the property.  It is large, has many mature trees, and a very interesting and varied topography.  The house sits quite high; the view driving up almost suggests the house sits on a cliff.  He discussed at some length how much the placement of the house suited him.  Those of you familiar with Julie Messervy’s book, The Inward Garden, will recall her discussion of what she calls “archetypal gardens”.  Each child’s physical experience of “place” later in life culminates in a psychological concept of the world. ( This is an unfairly condensed version of her ideas; If you are a gardener, I could not too highly recommend reading this book.)  He feels a genuine connection to this particular place. 

He went on to discuss the importance of his family, and his relationships with them.  This in and of itself is not remarkable; many people value family above all else. What was interesting was his description of that life.  His interaction with friends and family was very much intertwined with his interaction with the natural world.  He wanted everyone in his immediate sphere to experience nature in some way. His children would be exposed to and learn about nature.  As to benefits, many people talk about a need for peace and serenity at home.  I can so well relate to that feeling.  He was especially articulate, describing how wearing the demands of  public life can be.  He emphasized how important the landscape and garden was in restoring and maintaining his sense of well being.  In conclusion, he told me that a house and home was no doubt a wonderful thing.  But no matter how nice a house might be, in the end, it would always be a cave. He would be happiest, outdoors.  His interest that the landscape be beautiful and well looked after is a personal and proprietary interest of his. He is interested that the landscape spaces flow such that he is able to entertain, teach his children, entertain and enjoy the beauty and excitement of every square inch of it.  Though I do not expect to see him turning soil, this person is a gardener. 

What interested me the most about meeting the two of them was how they had organized their first meeting with me.  They had thought a lot about what the landscape meant to them, and felt that this discussion was the first order of business. They made a distinction between the big scheme of things, and and all else that came under the heading of details.   I like when I see people thinking personally, abstractly, intelligently and passionately about the prospect of a garden.  They genuinely represented themselves.  I share with them an interest as a designer that the sculpture which is the landscape have an authenticity of place. 

Though I only know enough to be dangerous discussing the idea known as “genius loci”, the words translate literally from the latin as the genius of place.  I interpret this to mean that a landscape, authentic to the environment and culture from whence it comes, has a genuine and special beauty. In classical times, the actual meaning of the phrase meant not so much the place, but the guardian divinity of that place. Clearly nature is the guardian divinity of the property under discussion; they both made reference to this with as much delight as conviction. An idea much discussed in England in the 18th century, this distilled bit from Alexander Pope;  “Consult the genius of the place in all…”  The large landscape parks in England from this time period were designed with the idea that a truly successful landscape was a more civilized, less savage, and virtually indistinguishable version of what nature might herself create. Much later, Lawrence Durrell would say ” …you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place.”  As much as I (The aforementioned came largely from an article on genius loci from The Journal of Urban Design written by Jiven and Larkham) am interested in philosophical underpinnings, I am much more tuned in and trusting of the judgments made by the eye.  I think landscapes that don’t look or feel right, that are not seated in the environment in which they are made, that are disconnected, and lack a sense of authenticity, have that movie set aura about them to which I could never belong.

A sense of belonging is not so easy to come by, for anyone.  However, I clearly belong to my garden, and the gardens I make for others.   The third person I met at a dinner party last night.  I was introduced to him by both name and profession; he spent a few minutes talking to me about his landscape.  He said when he came home at night, and closed the car gates behind him, there was not a single visual clue anywhere on the property or in the landscape that would reveal that he lived in Michigan.  He had a classically formal French garden, perfect in every detail.  Every bit of this delighted him. I have not seen the garden, so I have no opinion about it.  But were I ever asked to do any design work for him, I would want to understand what would provoke such an intense longing for another time, and another place, that he would find such a dislocation beautiful.  I have designed plenty for people with a penchant for formal and edited French design.  Or perennial borders with an English flavor. But none the less, these are American gardens, set in Michigan. I happen to think Michigan is a very beautiful place, as do the clients I just met.  That we treasure our place is common ground.

Comments

  1. dave bockman says:

    I just arrived home after a long, bitter cold, and challenging day (e.g., taking site measurements in the snow) to find a package containing Ms. Messervy’s book awaiting me… thank you so much for that recommendation, I will enjoy digging into it this evening!

  2. Your thought-provoking post has helped give shape to an amorphous change that has been happening in my mind. I’ve long tried to emulate the English gardens that were such a strong influence on my early childhood… in England. But my Canadian space here doesn’t provide any of the essentials that make English gardens, English gardens. Now I realize that in the choices I’ve been putting on my revised wish list, I’ve not only begun to accept the realities of what will grow in my garden, I’ve begun to embrace my Canadian identity as a gardener, too. As Spock would say: Fascinating.

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