Unnatural Horizons by Allen S. Weiss

Gary R. Hilderbrand

The need for a literature that addresses the paralyzing gaps in landscape architecture’s intellectual history—or rather, the gaps in our critical engagement with it—will not be met by Allen Weiss’s new book, although it offers some promise. Coming from a writer whose subjects range from performance studies to French philosophy to literary criticism, Unnatural Horizons is ambitious and surprising and welcome indeed. The book is a clever and nervy—and at times preposterous—attempt to unpack the reasons why the garden has remained at the margins—not the center—of art historical discourse. There are those of us who secretly (or not so secretly) await the day when landscape and garden will occupy a more central ground in a history of Western art. This book claims that the constructed landscape’s vagaries, its contradictions and anachronisms, its confounding dialectical properties, have all but guaranteed resistance to the garden attaining an essential place in art history; but it puts forward the counter argument that precisely because the garden presents an intractable, slippery, and compendious ground, it might be seen as an expanded field, a complex, inclusive of many other intellectual spheres. In the heat of this argument, Weiss proposes that the garden be understood as one kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, elevating Dr. Carvallo’s immense vegetable parterre at Villandry, for instance, or Le Nôtre’s and Le Vau’s great garden spectacle at Vaux-le-Vicomte, to a status as rightful predecessors to the spectacular synesthetic experience of Wagnerian opera. Imagine. No surprise here.

The struggle to elevate the garden’s place in a cultural narrative is a valiant one. Fueled by recent studies inside and outside the discipline of garden history, a community of scholars and readers has emerged who now see the other nine-tenths of the iceberg approaching. French garden studies—at least that portion we know in translation—began some years ago to move beyond the primarily visual domain established by William Howard Adams’s or Kenneth Woodbridge’s well-rehearsed chronologies, or F. Hamilton Hazelhurst’s thesis on the supposedly calculable visual tactics of Le Nôtre at Vaux-le-Vicomte.1 Ten years ago, an odd but intriguing study by Denise and Jean-Pierre Le Dantec argued a different, less visual, and more subjective set of readings of French gardens from the cloister to the recent inventions of Bernard Lassus and Alexandre Chemetoff.2 This book took hermeneutic and scholarly liberties: the authors explored how historical texts and political philosophies were inscribed in garden form, and by bending the rules to incorporate an almost ahistorical tactic of storytelling, they bracketed for the reader the reality of a constantly shifting cultural basis for interpretation. Their fictional accounts, interleaved with a refreshing historiography of garden forms and ideas, were filled with astute period references and narrated by characters with supposed relationships to known historical figures—a Venetian typographer who devotes four years to printing Francesco Colonna’s Dream of Poliphilus; a dedicated field manager who labors inventively under the disruption of the religious wars; or a diligent greenhouse worker in Alphand’s Parc de Buttes-Chaumont, who is perhaps more fascinated with weights and measures and varied scenery than an ordinary, overworked 19th-century Parisian park laborer would have been.

In English and Italian garden studies as well, scholars attempted to push beyond the visual to rewrite garden history and criticism. Georgina Masson’s and Terry Comito’s works on the Italian garden, and again Kenneth Woodbridge’s contributions on the English garden, dealt more directly with the cultural underpinnings of the garden, emphasizing the narrative content in its iconographic program, the scientific content in its horticultural focus, and its concrete representations of behavioral norms and eccentricities.

Scholars began to explore more thoroughly the relationships between ideas and texts and garden form. Plants and horticultural practices, the application of hydraulics, tectonics, and theories of construction, and the employment of perspective, all became mechanisms through which the garden could be approached.3 Thus began the climb toward a literature that went beyond the old reliance on issues of formal analysis and representation.

Meanwhile, in America, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden of 1964 had augured a shift toward critical studies of landscape from a broader cultural view.4 Soon after, a series of studies promoted by the landscape architecture research center at Dumbarton Oaks and other centers of energy achieved scholarly status for garden studies and raised the questions that pertain to garden culture with assertiveness and defensible rigor. A direct progenitor of this new breed of studies, the work of John Dixon Hunt (who was then at Dumbarton Oaks) took aim at the vacuum of critical and literary studies of garden history in the United States.5 Like the Le Dantecs, Hunt saw the possibilities of literary studies of the garden before most—and he urged the field forward, but with caution (his liner note endorsement of the Le Dantec book was cool toward its fictional efforts). I remember him railing in various symposia, clamoring for more critical studies, in the same breath cautioning against the hubris of self-righteous claims of landscape architecture’s omnipotence, against the strident use of language, and against the misapplication of extradisciplinary theory. Through the proven methods of his native discipline of comparative literature, Hunt could demonstrate the relevance of examining the cultural origins and material construction of the ideas represented in the garden. An opportunist, he raised the stakes and helped change the field. Weiss, too, coming from another field with another critical apparatus, sees ground to claim. He has attempted to re-read the garden through lenses that have focused upon literature and architecture for decades—semiotics, science envy, positivism, surrealism, Sadism—but that have not been fixed upon the garden in any deliberative way. The question is: Can this focus stick? And does it offer anything we don’t already know? Is it what we need?

In his first chapter, “Syncretism and Style,” Weiss rehearses the 15th-century metaphysical awakening from which evolved the Renaissance garden as a cultural enterprise, an ambitious speculative work, and a complex reflection of multivalent intellectual energy. He brings attention to contradictions in the humanist garden, where pagan and Christian iconographic narratives flourished amid blatant inconsistencies that were swept under the papacy’s ideological carpets and robes. Here Weiss introduces a motif that will recur throughout the book: anachronism. He acknowledges the typical reading of Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia as a humanist dream, which has been taken to mean an idealized and coherent allegorical state for the garden, a set of instructions on how to achieve the condition of earthly paradise. As a theorist confronting this dream with plenty of heuristic artillery, Weiss cannot resist an urge to destabilize the myth of Poliphili with subversive Foucauldian conspiracies of the dark unconscious. It is at this point that I usually become suspicious, or at least cautious, about the tendency of voguish contemporary ideologies to overtake and obscure the simpler—but no less meaningful or productive—political or social practices that conditioned our knowledge of a work like the Hypnerotomachia in the first place. But I must agree with his conclusion: if we accept the garden as a constructed reflection of mental states, then we must acknowledge that it is naturally susceptible to corruption—by time, change, growth, decay, and death. Garden form may be ordered by some mathematical, platonic mechanism that yields a lovely mimetic or allegorical structure; but the reality of earthly circumstance delivers heterogeneity and chaos, and all we can do is stave it off—temporarily. And here is Weiss’s point: in its cyclical, unsolvable anachronisms and paradoxes, the garden resists the objectivity that could give it a stable narrative as a central subject of art history.

Other chapters argue the thesis less convincingly. In “Dematerialization and Iconoclasm,” an excursus on the Baroque French garden—the subject of his 1995 book Mirrors of Infinity—Weiss unpacks the complexity of movement in Baroque theater and its corollaries in architectural space; and once more he articulates his fascination with the sky as a domain of Baroque space in the gardens of André Le Nôtre. Again, using the destabilizing force of theory and seeking to shore up his argument for the recurring role of paradox, he renders the grand dramatic fusion of geometry, optics, and perspective in the French garden as a synthetic but unstable tension. I find his poetics of the Cartesian sky to be alluring; he very pleasurably invokes the symbology of clouds, Gaston Bachelard’s “dematerialization” of a soft and formless blue universe, the Catholic iconology of a vaulted heaven as the haven of angels and saints, and Pascal’s calculation of the great blue sphere of God’s omnipotence. And yet again, this time with an uncomfortable detour through a discussion of stage scenography that strikes me as out of scale with the absolutist horizon in the King’s garden, he concludes that this momentous construction of limitless space, ground, and sky is corruptible by a postlapsarian, chaotic nature clawing at its heels and threatening to overtake. Well, yes. Historians, add that to your little tale of the inevitable path to the French revolution. Ecology runs its course, and it doesn’t favor despots.

Weiss examines the post-Enlightenment tendency toward pictorial coherence, either rough or smooth or sublime, through a tale of libertine excesses. Here we find not Richard Payne Knight or William Gilpin as the usual chief protagonist, but rather the Marquis de Sade. Surprising, perhaps, but this account borrows from Anthony Vidler’s fine book of 1987, The Writing of the Walls, and its study of Sade’s literature in relation to the 18th-century asylum.6 What is missing from Weiss’s short detour into this complex inquiry is what made Vidler’s work so plausible: Vidler argued his thesis with great detail, examining the modes of representation, the tectonics of spaces, the mechanical and material implications of public health and penal codes in the works of Ledoux and Lequeu. Weiss, with a pace that seems too quick, tries to bring this to bear on a discussion of “the view,” but he includes few details of actual sites, ignores the ways in which physical designs situate the view, never discusses the precise uses of aesthetic distance and delay in picturesque encounters. The injection of pleasure into a discussion of landscape architecture’s scenographic dependency is fascinating in light of continued interest in the British controversy over the picturesque—where we’ve heard more about the cult of antiquity and the representation of Whig political ideals than about delight or sensual allure—but it may be stretching the point to end up in Sade’s theater of the erotic. Tasty, though not very English.

Two final chapters transfer the themes of anachronism to the American continent, where Weiss sees the garden leaving the domain of the royals and finding new expression in the landscape writ large. In “No Man’s Garden,” he develops a provocative take on the conquest of the land based on a changing perception of view related to travel and speed. We are accustomed to discussions based on the visual codes of Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire series, which trumpets the dilemmas of continental progress in mythological proportions; and we are familiar with the freighted image of the locomotive as catalyst and environmental villain. But Weiss turns up the heat by leaving behind the space of painting and the singular landscape; instead he takes up the panoramic vision enabled by the speed of cross-country train travel in the mid-19th century.

The railroad established the world as a panorama, where the combination of speed, enclosure, and framing created a new modality of landscape. This transformation of vision belies the Romantic condition of the organic totality constituted by observer and landscape. The scope of the “organic” becomes broader than that assimilable by instantaneous perception, since increased speed condenses space. Speed establishes a compression of locales that brings into contact, through rapid succession, aspects of landscape that were hitherto unrelated.

One further anachronism—one that exists between the lines of Weiss’s discussion of speed—puts an ironic fine point on landscape architecture’s professional development in America. In the extrapolation of a cultural imperative for the great Western natural sites that became emblematic of a conservation ethic, which persists today as a cautionary restraint on resource extraction and land development worldwide, Weiss suggests that the term landscape architecture doesn’t cover the territory—“barring consideration of the ‘divine architect.’” It’s a rhetorical point, but I must disagree. This very ethic of conserving and placing limits on land use, combined with a need to reconcile our crowded cities with the particularities of their sites and circumstances, drove the emergence of the profession of landscape architecture at the end of the 19th century in this country. The greatest paradox of any, perhaps, is that the largest of all gardens, the North American continent itself, would become the site where many of the conventions of historical garden typology would be altered or eradicated—and also that the continent’s European settlers would in turn both celebrate the garden’s cultural essence and continually consume and destroy its bounty.

So is this book what we need? I, for one, am pleased that a critic of philosophy has addressed himself to the problematic of the garden’s marginalized territory and landscape architecture’s struggling discourse. When was the last time that someone working in intellectual history directed his or her studies toward landscape architecture? So I say “yes,” this is what we need. But I wish it were more penetrating, more materialist, paying greater attention to the constructed artifact of the landscape, and its uses, its alterations, and its effects on the flows and forces of nature. We need a body of work from outside that pushes hard alongside the conventional inside—that roots out, as Weiss occasionally does, the connections of the work itself to building, to writing and painting and other forms of artistic practice, to science and technology, to power, to the means of production, to culture. Going outside the boundaries of conventional garden history practice is necessary and productive, but only if the implications of the analysis cycle back to the making of the artifact: to the roads and paths, the rocks and soil, the moisture regime in the rivers and the groundwater, the plants and their natural cycles, the wind and the sun. When theory avoids or ignores these things, as Weiss’s sometimes does, then what we get is too limited: we lose the possibility of a reciprocal, reconciling relationship between theory and making.

Often obscured in a thicket of facile references and complicated prose, the message of this book is ultimately simple and I think important: we have underestimated the garden. Weiss proposes that we think of the garden as the rockbottom paradigm of Umberto Eco’s open work: a living, dynamic, changing surface that absorbs and transfigures all the conventions and trends and avant-garde infusions that culture can deliver. The all-told, everything. The one great subject. His landscape architecture embodies all the “intertwining and hybrid histories of poetry, literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture, surveying, hydraulics, and botany.” All those things and more: for the landscape’s most potent and unyielding trait, more than any cultural association or disciplinary evidence, is time itself. Time operates on all categories of things; but with landscape, the effects of time are essential and inescapable. So in a deft move to uphold the root of his thesis, the garden’s mutability and instability, its historical expansiveness and its limitations, Weiss proffers a halting quote from Robert Smithson, who instructed the world to overcome its glib satisfaction with pastoralism and get on with the realities of site: “The gardens of history are being replaced by the sites of time.”

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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