THE WORLD OF GARDENS
By John Dixon Hunt, faculty
University of Chicago Press, 2012, $45.
By Marshall A. Ledger | In some ways, the landscape of John Dixon Hunt’s The World of Gardens is quite recognizable. The Penn emeritus professor of the history and theory of landscape architecture generally moves chronologically and covers familiar ground: designers and their patrons; the political, social, and aesthetic forces in a given era; the materials, plantings, the shapes, hydraulics, the placement of natural or manmade features such as benches or observation points—the “prose” of gardens, their infrastructure, the “pragmatic.”
But Hunt also focuses on the “poetry” of gardens, a word he intends in its deepest sense. Gardens offer sensual, especially visual, pleasures, yet they tap more deeply: They are “hospitable to a cluster of archetypal human needs and behavior,” he says. They have “shaped as well as given expression to basic human conditions and concerns.”
The garden directs some of this interior journey, but the visitors complete it, bringing to bear all of their past experience and associations, conscious and unconscious.
To plumb these depths, Hunt has cultivated two concepts, both of which have gained him fame in his field. One is a “taxonomy of movement,” in which he decodes the ways people travel on foot through actual gardens. In The World of Gardens, he verbally walks the reader through various landscapes, his prose stirring responses that the illustrations, though handsome and copious, cannot provide.
His second innovation is applying “reception theory” to gardens. Adapted from literature studies of how readers interpret books, the theory gives Hunt a window to understand how people experience gardens, “a sequence of site, sight, and insight.” He developed the model in The Afterlife of Gardens (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), which undergirds this book by explaining people’s use of gardens quite apart from the designers’ intentions or implementation.
His emphasis on reception gives Hunt great latitude in organizing his 20 chapters. Their titles, for instance, may highlight geography (China, Japan), cultures (Islam, Mughal), time (“western medieval”), garden type (botanical), or style (“natural,” Arts and Crafts).
He doesn’t worry about definitions. “We all know what a garden is,” he declares. Part of what we “know” is that gardens must be manmade and welcoming, and possess some sort of border and entrance, and a way of guiding the visitor through. They arouse surprise, curiosity, and a desire to explore, and they stimulate the aesthetic sense.
Like other arts—to Hunt, gardens are very much an art form—they may offer uncertainties (obstacles, tunnels, mazes, sharp bends that hide something beyond) that provoke a brief sense of danger or confusion, which, when resolved, makes us feel that the momentary risk made the quest even more worthwhile.
In short, gardens “do” something to us. They awaken the imagination. As defined, concentrated spaces, they prod us to relate to the larger environment, to reflect on and understand (in Hunt’s words) “what it is to live in the world.” They “help us shape our identity and give us a sense of belonging.” And we reciprocate by what we “do ‘to’ or ‘for’ a landscape” in the process of creating a garden.
This complex interchange leads Hunt to some surprising groupings. In the first chapter, he examines the “sacred.” Delphi is one place: a known religious site, deliberately constructed to elicit reactions of reverence and wonder from its original visitors, who knew what to expect, how to behave, and how to react.
Yosemite is another, sacred to Native Americans, he notes, but not to most current-day visitors. Yet its impact—especially on first seeing the valley—is akin to an experience of consecration and awe.
But how is a wilderness like Yosemite a garden? It’s mediated by roads, trails, facilities, and directions, all of which, as in more conventional gardens, help guide visitors to eye-dazzling vistas and the greater meanings they inspire. The fact that it is also commercialized (“dollarable,” says Hunt, quoting the naturalist John Muir) only underlines Hunt’s notion that gardens are a “dialogue between the landscape and our human interventions.”
The World of Gardens has two audiences. One is Hunt’s ideal garden visitor, the person alert to all imaginative possibilities. Hunt is the perfect tour guide, an erudite cultural historian who started his career as a professor of literature and is neither a landscape architect nor gardener.
The other audience is professionals and students in landscape architecture, for whom The World of Gardens could be quite instructive.
“Landscape architects often consider gardens elitist or negligible, something to make in a back yard,” Hunt says. Some students are so baffled by gardens that they insert them into plans without even indicating paths to reach them.
Yet “gardens are just as important as buildings,” says Hunt, who chaired Penn’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning from 1994 to 2000 and served as interim dean of the Graduate School of Design. The school, he says, “trains people to do things—build buildings, create landscape.” But they must also be alive to “the intangibles of the real world”—to which, Hunt suggests, gardens uniquely speak.
Marshall A. Ledger was the Gazette’s staff writer from 1976 to 1987 and its interim editor for the first half of 1996.