Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Science of Culture/The Culture of Science"

March 6, 2003
Joseph Disponzio (Growth and Structure of Cities)

Changing Paradigms: Eighteenth-Century Natural Science and the Rise of Landscape Architecture

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Drawing on his dissertation on "Jean-Marie Morel and the Invention of Landscape Architecture" (available now in essay form in Tradition and Innovation in French Garden Art: Chapters of a New History, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Michel Conan ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), Joe traced a striking change which occurred at the end of the eighteenth-century: from gardening (which involved simply knowing what plants needed to flourish) to landscape architecture (which meant setting such practices in a global process, connecting them, for example, to the ways in which the water cycle alters the natural landscape). The earlier "formal," "regular," "symmetric" gardens were two-dimensional in design; the newer gardens were conceptualized in three dimensions. Landscape architecture "broke the wall that had surrounded the garden": the paradigm of the world as restricted and confined was replaced by attempts to create a landscape in a moving world, by "hydrodynamic configurations." Several hundreds of years of geometric gardening were eliminated, "without regret" (?!), in favor of a practice of respecting natural typography.

Where did this new notion of respecting nature, rather than imposing an alien order on it, come from? A series of late eighteeenth-century developments contributed to the change in paradigm:

Joe described how this "utterly new theory came into existence" over a fifty-year period, from the 1720's, when the first "irregular" garden appeared in England, until the first "slew of books"--over a dozen of them--on these new practices appeared in France in the 1770's. The designs of the first generation of gardeners had "no intentionality" and "little architectural understanding," but conventional garden design techniques were slowly adapted into the new practices. The first books recording this change actually included no diagrams or plans; they were "all description," all "appeals to the imagination"; several more generations passed before designs were actually included in such volumes. The earlier geometric plans had sprung "largely from the head," although of course they could not ignore the environment entirely, and (because topographic work was so expensive) could not blatantly obliterate its features. But what emerged during the late eighteenth century was a striking awareness of the need to understand underlying systems--the geology of a given landscape--in order to understand how a garden would work there, and to appreciate its beauty.

During discussion, questions were raised about how much "native" vegetation was employed in the new landscape gardens. Before the end of the eighteenth century, formal gardens had been tied to the rage for importing strange species, were actually a means of "giving order" to exotic specimens, of "creating microcosms" with them. How much did the choice of plant material change in the design visions? Earlier garden designs were "static," designed for a very particular period in the future. How much did the new designs embody a different notion of "gardens in motion," how much did they accept the idea of process, that if you leave an environment "to itself," it will change over time? Landscape design considered the whole cycle, was less about movement in time than "all time"; there were gardens designed, for instance, so that one could "see all the seasons in one view," either vertically or horizontally (because of changes in elevation contributed to changes in temperature).

Although the new aesthetic involved respecting landforms, the gardens exemplifying them were still completely artificial. All gardens, including those of newer design, still needed maintenance; there was no movement to let "nature take over." There was quite a bit a variety in these "picturesque," "natural," "non-symmetric" or "English" gardens, which shared only the feature of having no straight lines. These terms eventually became pejorative, a means of describing gardens in which the scale was thought too small, the follies too many in number.

Joe explained that one of the problematics of landscape design is negotiating the zone between "here and there," from "art to nature," from two- to three-dimensional, from regular to irregular, from "house to horizon." The garden of Eden had a wall, clearly demarcating the profane area outside; there was no transition between the two spaces. In her book on Italian gardens, Edith Wharton described the need for such a transition, from the garden (the space closest to chateau, which was the most regular), to the park (which was a little more natural), to the landscape, which was the most natural area. Such a continuum works very well as a description of the history of gardening (although it's not actually true that "nature never makes abrupt transitions"; such an idea emerged in Europe, which--aside from the Alps--has few startling landscapes).

The terminology of this period is really "muddled"; what we call the Enlightenment was a complex era, incorporating much of what we understand as "Romantic," including Rousseau's notions of the noble savage and his condemnation of civilization. Reference was made to Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which uses the ruins of a formal garden to figure Enlightenment rationality, and another picturesque garden atop it, as an offshoot of Romanticism.

This conversation is invited to continue on the On-Line Forum and resume in person at 1 p.m. (note the later time) on Thursday, March 20, when Dan Sarewitz (Managing Director and Senior Research Scholar, Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Columbia University, Washington DC) will ask, "Does Science Make You Happy?" Copies of a draft essay exploring this topic are now available for pick-up at the offices of Anne Dalke in English House, Paul Grobstein in Park and Tomomi Kinukawa in Thomas.

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