Tag Archives: genius loci

A sense of place

I illustrate this column with a few photos of gardens that have struck a particular chord, enduring in my memory long past the experience of visiting them. What they have in common is a strong identity and sense of place. 

 

I apologise for the fact that I can not recall the name of the creator of this very interesting house and garden landscape south of Blenheim but I understand he has since died. I have never forgotten this remarkable place

What is it that lifts a garden – a good garden – above other good gardens? I have seen that special character described with various terms over the years, including having ‘soul’ or ‘the wow factor’. Or, more pretentiously perhaps, possessing ‘genius loci’. I wrote about genius loci in a sharp column seven years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen gardeners, it now appears that the current term is that the garden has ‘a sense of place’. It is one that appeals to me more than the soul or wow factor descriptors because it is less subjective.

Gresgarth Hall near Lancaster in the UK

I came across the term twice this week, both from UK media. The first instance was a survey on the Thinking Gardens website, being carried out Janna Schreier. Searching for a more rigorous measure than the loose use of the descriptor ‘soul’, she defined ‘a sense of place’ as being one ‘with a distinctive character which fosters emotional engagement’. Her survey then listed possible attributes of that and asked the participant to rank each on a five-point scale. These were:

  • Uniqueness
  • Strong identity
  • Fit with surroundings
  • Thought provoking
  • Harmonious design
  • Brings back memories
  • Personal to the owner.

I would point you to the survey but it finished yesterday. In a subsequent exchange of emails, I commented that plantsmanship was missing from that list but was critical for us here when it came to top-level appreciation of a garden. I rank plantsmanship* as being of equal importance to harmonious design. But from that list, I probably ranked strong identity, personal to the owner and maybe uniqueness as most important. Though uniqueness is very hard to define – pretty much every gardener I have ever met who rates themselves thinks their own garden is both unique and original, though too few are. In my opinion.

Grahame Dawson’s small, urban, industrial chic garden in Auckland challenged my preconceived notion that such plots of land must, by definition lack genius loci

Two days later I saw a tweet from Dan Pearson*, the UK landscaper for whom I carry a bit of fan-girl torch.

Dan Pearson @thedanpearson 

Another inspiring day talking gardens with Troy at Sissinghurst. Sure progress with their project to key the gardens sense of place.

Could anywhere have a stronger sense of place than New Plymouth cemetery?

Aha! I thought. A sense of place is it, then. And I like that term. It is much more encompassing than just ‘genius loci’. Oddly, we have our own word in New Zealand. Our country is gently taking on more Maori words into our language, particularly when there is no word for word translation that captures the complexity of the Maori concept. The word is tūrangawaewae, about which Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says:

“Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.”

I recently described our garden as ‘our place to stand’. Must have been a bit prescient there? Though a “place to stand” is more about the personal experience of the garden-maker than the “sense of place” which is the experience of the fortunate garden visitor. Certainly there is something special that sets apart some gardens over others, that makes a few gardens particularly memorable. I am happy to consider that above design, context, plant content and maintenance, that special quality that sets them apart is indeed that they have a clear sense of place.

I have not often seen that special quality of a sense of place in public gardens but the Oudolf borders at Wisley are a notable exception

Footnotes:

*I continue to stick with Mark’s off the cuff definition of plantsmanship, even while I hesitate over the gender reference in the word: “The ability to use different plants in creative ways in the right environment and to feature unusual plants.”

*I subscribe to Dan Pearson’s weekly blog – Dig Delve. It is a gentle insight into plants and the very personal garden he is building with his partner, Huw Morgan.   There is no big-noting, self-promotion or even that faux modesty that is now favoured by many writers. Rather, it is quiet and modest, an insight into creating a garden from scratch that focuses on eco-systems, sustainability and soft-edged naturalism. I find it most refreshing and calming in this day and age when so much of gardening appears to be about whizzy-bang instant results to impress.

I had a special affection for Te Popo garden when it was in the hands of Lorri and Bruce Ellis and I now see that response as inextricably tied up with that strong sense of place that they created.

Te Popo again in Central Taranaki

Bury Court in the UK – much more than just beautiful buildings and an early Oudolf garden. A garden I wish to return to soon.

Wildside in Devon – a very strong sense of place is one of the defining features

 

 

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Decoding the jargon

Setting the standard for garden rooms – Sissinghurst

A newsletter from a gardening organisation arrived a few days before Christmas and I duly read it, coming across the following statement (warning: do not let your eyes glaze and brain disconnect before the end). “Outstanding gardens manage to respond to the genius loci using borrowed landscape, natural landform and native plants – often mixed with exotics – to create stunning indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour.”

Borrowing the jargon, shall we unpack that statement? Though I prefer to use the term decode because it is somewhat like a secret code.

Outstanding gardens manage to – that bit is fine.

respond to the genius loci – had to get out the dictionary for this. Loci is, more or less, a place or locality. Google then helped me track down the term genius loci which apparently dates back to early Roman times and means the protective spirit of a place. Latterly the term seems to have been adopted by the landscape architecture fraternity although it might be easier to understand if they simply referred to the well known words of English poet and writer, Alexander Pope who took an interest in garden design. He put it rather more simply when he wrote in 1731 (a mere 280 years ago), “Consult the genius of the place…” which has come to be interpreted as the principle that design should always be relevant to the location and natural environment. This of course assumes that your particular location has some genius loci attached to it but it is a little hard to see how much genius loci you can lay claim to if your lot in life is a small, flat, urban section with a house, be it large or small, plonked fair and square in the middle. Some of us are blessed with quite a bit more genius loci than others.

using borrowed landscape – that is the view of the neighbours’ properties, assuming you have neigbours with views worth borrowing.

natural landform – silly me. I thought that was part of the genius loci.

and native plants – I can’t quite work out whether this is using the already existing native plants in your own genius locus extending to your neighbours’ genius loci which would be a little limiting because it then tends to apply only to those whose patch is on the boundary of a national park, scenic reserve or at least a patch of native bush. Alternatively it may be that native plants are mandatory and pre-eminent in outstanding gardens. While advocating strongly for the use of native plants in tandem with exotics, I think this statement takes the position of native plants considerably further than is common in this country.

… – often mixed with exotics – yes, we are allowed to embellish with introduced plants (exotics are the vast majority of what we grow in this country. Even our lawn grasses are heavily dominated by exotics, as are all our fruit trees and vegetables). I don’t know what the word often is in there for because you would be hard pressed to find any environment in this country, be it natural or contrived, which does not have introduced plants in it. Even our national parks are invaded by weeds.

to create stunning – stunning… hmm. There is a very emotive word. Quality can be measured and evaluated. Emotional response is a matter of individual opinion.

stunning, indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour. I will let the compositions of form, line, texture and colour go, though I can think of clearer ways of defining good gardening as a combination of excellent design and skill with plants. But, indigenous compositions? Puh-lease. Indigenous – occurring naturally or native to the land. Gardening, by definition, is not indigenous. It is an imposition on the landscape, occasionally a natural landscape but more often a landscape already heavily altered by man.

So what I think the original statement says is: outstanding gardens make the most of their natural environment, using a variety of plants and really good design. At least, I hope that is what it says. There is no author named so I can’t check.

The classic garden door frame and passage at Hidcote – best in a garden with plenty of space, perhaps

Just a little further on in the same piece, there is the sweeping statement: “Gardens should be a series of outdoor rooms and should have walls, exits/ entries or passages between the rooms. Rooms should be well defined so the viewer is not distracted by what is going on in the next room although they might be tantalized at some point.”

What happened to open plan living, I ask??? Are we to be forever locked in to that format of the early twentieth century evident in the great English gardens of Sissinghurst and Hidcote? Do not get me wrong. We were very impressed by Hidcote when we visited, but perish the thought that all New Zealand gardens must follow the formula if they want to be seen as very good gardens. There are other styles of garden design. A woodland garden will never be a series of rooms with tight structure. A flowing landscape garden in the manner of Capability Brown relies on open spaces, not rooms. Must a tiny town section redefine itself as an area of poky little rooms surrounded by high walls? All those walls blocking out distraction can be damned oppressive, not to mention expensive if done in permanent landscape materials like brick, plastered concrete block or stone. Or high maintenance if done in clipped tall hedging with the added problem that all those hedge plant roots reaching out into the flower borders. It is also very difficult to accommodate large trees in those rooms, let alone worrying about the place of the genius loci in such a heavily contrived design.

Must the defined spaces of garden rooms, seen here at Great Dixter, become mandatory in good New Zealand gardens?

I could not disagree more. Garden rooms are but one device, one way of achieving a desirable end point. The underpinning principle is surely that a good garden should never be revealed in its entirety at first glance. There should be surprises to be discovered, changes of mood and variations in light and shade. The design should entice you to explore further. Using different types of plants in different ways is not only practical in that you have varying growing conditions but it also punctuates the changes.

If you stand back and look at your garden and decide that it is rambling, then it is likely that you lack that sense of design and flow as well as changes of mood. If you have repeated the same plants (oft claimed as a device to give continuity but actually more often, simply dull), then you exacerbate the sense of rambling lack of form.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not that I have ever wanted to subject a poor moggy to that exercise), there are more ways to design a garden than depending on tightly defined and enclosed garden rooms. After all, a mark of a good garden is surely a degree of originality?