Sunday, May 26, 2013

Borrowed Landscapes: A Study in the Evolution of Form

I was with my colleague Patricia Loheed at the fabulous Polesden Lacey National Trust Garden in Surrey, south of London. Pat gazed over the expanse of formal pathways, rich plantings, rose gardens, forest and field. She focused on the chalk hills across from the manicured property and exulted, "they designed this to be a borrowed landscape!" That summer we were planning a trip to the deeply historical region of the North Downs for design students from the Boston Architectural College. The Pound was worth two dollars, our students were poor, and the ambitious, expensive trip had to be cancelled. But we got to scout around in preparation for our doomed course, including rewarding visits to many National Trust properties and gardens. What did Pat mean by "borrowed landscape," and why was she so excited? The excitement was that we were getting a firsthand look at landscape architecture in the making. By incorporating the scenery outside, the visual footprint of Polesden Lacey was enlarged, dramatized, and made a good deal grander. Pat, whom I consider right on just about everything, taught me something valuable that day. But in this essay I'm thinking about a different kind of borrowed landscape.

    Polesden Lacey and its Borrowed Landscape

As a biologist I'm aware that few characteristics evolve more than once. We can uncover the relationships of “unrelated” species by looking at their DNA or more simply, by finding homologous anatomical features that have been inherited from a common ancestor. The world of plants, my area of study, is so rife with morphological similarities I wonder sometimes if there are any real differences among its species. For example I see patterns of fern-like growth (circinate vernation) in emerging shoots and flowers of many unrelated species, plants that evolved long after their fern ancestors. And we humans share so much in common with the rest of the living world that our common ancestry with plants, insects, and even fungi and bacteria, is a moot point. Even though we are only distantly related to say, sharks, we share an inherited vertebrate body plan, not to mention cellular, metabolic, and molecular features in common. 

So what about landscape evolution? What do built landscapes have in common? Are landscape ideas inherited, borrowed, shared, stolen? Or have they arisen independently in many different places and times? I have pondered landscape form and its evolution since I was an undergraduate anthropology student at Grinnell College. There we read the enchanting The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins during a year abroad. That slim book shaped a profound curiosity in me that followed wherever I traveled. Recently my interest in how landscapes develop brought me to a nearly deserted forest monastery, Magul Maha Vinhara in a remote jungle corner of southeast Sri Lanka. It opened a new landscape chapter for me. I could see there how human yearning for control and connection with the landscape brought about a unique design interaction with nature. I took pictures, rapid-fire, of the large reflecting pokuna (meditation pond). I was aware of the strange atmosphere of the pond, which bore a similarity to someplace else I had seen, far away. Uploading my pictures to flickr a month later it struck me. The meditation pond at Magul Maha Vinhara reminded me of a place I had seen in England. Was there a design connection? Do our garden designs come from a single ancestor, like our DNA? If not, who’s been copying whom?

My question goes back to a visit to the Stowe Landscape Garden in Buckinghamshire, England. This time, it was part of a study trip for undergraduates from Boston University. Stowe, like many of the premier landscapes in the UK was redesigned several times through its history. Chief among its designers was the 18th century figure Lancelot (Capability) Brown, who is counted among the founders of landscape architecture. 

Octagon Lake, Stowe Landscape Garden

We know that Brown had visual knowledge of Eastern gardens because he stated that he was familiar with "Chinese" garden design. It is doubtful that he ever saw a depiction of a garden from what was to become Sri Lanka. Certainly he never visited. Yet the qualities we find at Octagon Lake, the great reflecting pond at Stowe, are abundantly present in the disused tank at Magul Maha Vinhara and a hundred other places throughout Sri Lanka. Did Magul Maha and places like it represent a sort of prototype "Eastern" garden (one that Capability Brown might have envisioned) or do we humans just like reflecting ponds? No doubt the shimmering vision of trees reflecting on a lotus-filled sheet of water evokes a universal feeling of meditative well-being. Have we all been building reflecting ponds all along? 

Reflecting tank at Magul Maha Vinhara, Sri Lanka

My guess is that Brown was influenced by reflecting ponds from the East but the technology to make them, at least large ones, was a recent “discovery” in northwestern Europe. Brown enlarged Octagon Lake from a smaller one started by a predecessor. I am not a garden historian but I've seen a few, and from my observations extensive reflecting ponds are absent from earlier formal gardens of Europe. Moats, yes. Fountains, certainly. Large naturalistic reflecting pools? Not until technology made it feasible, and not until intensive contact with East Asia, which affected culture and aesthetics. Where Europeans were putting gardens into four-cornered patches, laying straight paths through lanes of pruned shrubbery, and developing a symmetrical "physic" of useful plants, Buddhist monks and the simple farmers of Sri Lanka had long since learned the art and science of impounding water.

So, landscape evolution, tradition, innovation, aesthetics, and science? How do they all come together? In terms of science and tradition the physic gardens were an innovation of 17th century Europe, places where beneficial plants known to the Greeks and Romans could be cultivated for use by healers. In the Sri Lankan world, a slew of beneficial plants had been known since time immemorial and they grew everywhere. They were (and still are) part and parcel of the Ayurvedic scheme. We know that some Latin plant names, for example Nelumbo (lotus) were borrowed from the ancient Sinhalese (nelum). We know that styles of sculpture and even architecture were shared between these two disparate parts of the world, but we don’t know who started it all. We know that the reflecting tanks of Sri Lanka came out of an ages-old tradition of the wewas and the kulams and pokunas, water tanks that were used for irrigation and for meditation. Europeans couldn't build huge reflecting pools like the wewas because they didn’t have the technology until the 18th century. Europe finally mastered engineering techniques that were old in Sri Lanka around the time of the "Enlightenment" (funny--did Europe borrow that term from the Buddhists too?). Meanwhile, designers like Capability Brown sought to bring the grace of meditative landscape to the richest patrons of northwestern Europe. But beauty, harmony, and peace were part of the everyday working agricultural landscape invented in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the East. 


  1. Inhabiting a landscape allows for the inhabitants to engage with the landscape information and learn about its arrangement, formation and heritage. Over time, we will be able to interpret the nuances of the landscape and develop practices which will help us identify them. We must understand what skills, knowledge and practices were used in developing the landscape in order for us to understand the journey. - ehwangISO380

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  3. Landscape architecture is a human response to negotiate and coexist with nature. However, the consequences of these negotiations mean we leave an indelible mark. Humans can take every measure to erase the previous state of a landscape, but some evidence of the past will always remain. If we consider Brown's attempt to construct Octagon Lake, the evidence of the old lake is likely to be present. Because the current lake is much larger, Brown had to flood over the old lake in order to achieve the current visual effects. Hypothetically, if Octagon Lake was to be drained or the volume of water diminishes due to climate changes, it is likely landscape evidence of the older lake could emerge. When it comes to nature, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. No amount of alterations to nature will completely erase the past.


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    1. With landscape evolution, there is definitely a borrowing component and an evolution component to landscapes. There is also a divergent and convergent factor to a landscape's evolution which allows for a variety of similarities, differences and detective work in order for us to find out why.

      Whether landscapes are evolving or not is important because we (humans) are planning on living on Earth indeterminately and we know that things evolve differently when we are present; we tend to persuade natural selection constantly. How will our landscapes look like in the future; will it be better for us or for “nature”? Who knows what is best for us: nature or us humans who are also a part of nature?

      Maybe we know that our world's landscape is going to be different in the future, in the same way that it was in the past. Questions about its evolution are the way that we create ponds of information so that in the future, we may be able to remember how things used to be.