'Do you speak Design?' Salone del Mobile Milano 2023 to probe in its renewed edition
by Jincy IypeFeb 17, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anushka SharmaPublished on : Mar 30, 2023
How often does one seek comfort in nature? How many times have you found yourself taking a stroll in a park or tending to your house plants to ground yourself or to unwind?
Teeming with blissful childhood memories, gardens have, for centuries, been fairly personal fragments of nature, that have lived through a long cultural history—reflecting identities, dreams, and visions. However, in the recent past, our understanding of a garden has experienced a conspicuous shift—a renaissance, so to speak. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst in realising the importance of nature. From urban gardening and guerrilla gardens to vertical farms, the contemporary revival of horticulture highlights gardens not as romantic hideaways, but as places where concepts of social justice, biodiversity, and sustainability can be nurtured. Since the idea of a garden is in a constant state of flux, it begs the question: what will the gardens of the future look like?
Developing parallelly, and perhaps coincidentally, with this renaissance was a garden designed by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf in the campus of Germany-based Vitra Design Museum. Sprouting in the Vitra Campus, the ever-changing garden added a new dimension to the ground, otherwise characterised by buildings—sowing a new idea for the museum to probe. The evolution of gardens from a personal sanctuary to a platform of experimentation, now increasingly discernible, became the muse for the design museum's latest exhibition Garden Futures: Designing with Nature.
The exhibition exploring the history and the future of modern gardens is a first of its kind. “The garden is a place where we have always negotiated our relationship with nature, and the way we designed them is an expression of that relationship,” says Viviane Stappmanns, the exhibition curator, in an exhibition press conference. “We as a curatorial team kept asking ourselves for the past year: if gardens are always an expression of our relationship with nature, what could or should or will gardens look like today and from here on in?”
The exhibition, on view from March 25 to October 8, 2023, addresses questions pertaining to both the origin and the future of gardens. The curators do so by using a diverse range of examples from design, everyday culture, and landscape architecture—from deckchairs, vertical urban farming and contemporary community gardens to living buildings and gardens by international designers and artists including Roberto Burle Marx, Mien Ruys, and Derek Jarman. The show is curated by Viviane Stappmanns and Marten Kuijpers, while the exhibition architecture is formulated by the Italian design duo Studio Formafantasma. “Historically the garden has often been designed as an indoor space (Italian garden tradition) or with the aim to domesticise what is considered wild (the romantic garden),” share Formafantasma. “The exhibition design is purposely avoiding recreating or referencing any stereotypical idea of the garden or the outdoors as an idealise(d) dimension of nature and freedom. Instead, it presents the content of the show in a space that underlines the idea of the domestic, with the use of upholstered sittings and carpeted surfaces.”
When a part of nature is transformed into a garden, its layout and design speak of the individual's relation to nature—both at an individual level as well as at a societal level. This is enunciated in the works of diverse artists and architects such as Hans Thoma, Georg Gerster, Athanasius Kircher, Gabriel Guevrekian, Barbara Stauffacher-Solomon, Alvar Aalto, Thomas Church, Vita Sackville-West, and Luis Barragán, all featured in a media installation at the start of the exhibition. They depict the garden as a profound space that permeates through our daily lives—a place in which pragmatic function and symbolic, philosophical, and even religious significance juxtapose. Here, the visitor is invited to ponder on not just their personal beliefs, but also on cultural ideas about the garden. “A central piece I will point to there is the garden fence,” says Stappmanns. “Because gardens, as we think of them, have always been enclosed, perhaps not by a fence, but they are always an enclosed space. And that is a central theme that will dissolve later on in the exhibition.”
Every garden, that transcends its role of a retreat, is a reflection of social and historical developments, political and commercial interests, and cultural value systems. This aspect finds a place in the second part of the exhibition space, where visitors learn about staple plants of Western gardens that are deeply rooted in colonial history. The Wardian case, invented in the 19th century, made sending live plants around the world possible, but it also contributed to the spread of invasive species and played a significant role in breaking monopolies on important crops like tea or rubber—resulting in colossal benefits for colonial powers.
The 19th century also witnessed the emergence of numerous urban planning concepts aspiring to bridge the city and garden. In 1898, for instance, the British social reformer Ebenezer Howard unveiled his concept of a garden city where inhabitants would be able to cultivate their own food. Formed in the 1970s, The Green Guerrilla group co-founded in New York by Liz Christy, strives to redefine the garden as a place where social justice and public participation, coexist. But the questions raised by it continue to be matters of debate: who is entitled to a garden, what is a garden for, and how can gardens be integrated into an urban environment?
The third part of the exhibition sheds light on nine trailblazing garden makers from the 20th and 21st century. This includes Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx who garnered international acclaim for prioritising native plants, Piet Oudolf who crafts plant compositions that intrigue throughout the year, author and gardener Jamaica Kincaid who uses her garden in Vermont, United States, to address colonial history, repression, and cultural appropriation. Artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who confronted his looming death by creating a kaleidoscopic work of garden art, amidst the hostile seafront on the coast of Kent, England, near a nuclear power station. The Liao Garden designed by Chinese artist Zheng Guogu that draws inspiration from the aesthetic of the Age of Empires video game, bridging virtual and real milieus.
These captivating projects epitomise their makers’ creative approach and demonstrate how garden-making is a creative form of expression that calls for far more attention than it has received thus far.
The fourth and final section of the exhibition is a dive into the present and the future of gardens by examining forward-looking contemporary projects. In an age of climate crisis, social injustice, stifling biodiversity and social isolation, the garden offers a place to reimagine the future and come up with solutions—a place of healing, spirituality and learning. The walkable textile Meadow made specially for the exhibition by Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou spotlights the startling threat that climate change presents to innumerable landscapes. How the growing awareness of this threat can be translated into innovation in cities, buildings, schools, and other areas is interpreted in a six-metre scroll by architect Thomas Rustemeyer which, alongside contemporary projects, showcases traditional and indigenous practices. “We look at this idea that the garden is no longer a refuge, but a place that permeates our cities and communities in a much more porous way. And this kind of space serves in the interest of plants, animals and people alike,” the curator explains.
The design exhibition elucidates how gardens and gardening provide a platform to investigate global issues and how its ethos provides a refreshing attitude towards the practice of design. “A place where we can rethink our relation to nature; a place that is not only about nice flowers or plants, but about biodiversity in general, about the quality of life in our future cities, about natural resources, sometimes even about physical and mental health,” says Mateo Kries in the press conference. Ensconced at the intersection of visual arts, architecture and design, garden-making, as opposed to huge innovations revolves around collaborative action and small and local improvements, and most importantly, around taking good care. In this Anthropocene age, Garden Futures and the projects that adorn the exhibition space herald the emergence of a global garden—delineating the planet's semblance to a garden that humankind needs to cultivate, tend, and use responsibly.
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