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David Stuart


In the grounds of a pleasant turn-of-the-century house in Dumfriesshire, one of the most remarkable modern gardens in Scotland, if not in Britain, is slowly taking shape.

Started off nine years ago by Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick, parts of it are now fully created (and much photographed). Others are only partly finished, and the rest exists only as immense slithering sheaves of drawings and photostats on the huge dining table.

Charles Jencks, a professor of architecture at the University of California in Los Angeles, writer, critic, is a proponent of modernity. His wife, on whose family estate the garden lies, was more interested in the past, and her book 'The Gardens of China' is still the main text on the subject.

Apart from its great beauties (and occasional disasters), the garden they began is important because it is the result of passionate thought and enquiry, not into plants, or into gardening's past, but how a garden for the modern age should look.

Professor Jencks' writings on architecture stress the importance of having 'multivalent' buildings and cities (ones which can be read in many ways), and aim to provide 'ideas and guidelines for the future'. At the moment, he's obsessed by modern developments in the research on, and speculation about, the Universe, and he is attempting to make out of them, and in combination with modern developments in mathematics and genetics, a new theory of aesthetics - a language of design that can be used by architects and planners to make the buildings and cities of the future. And gardens too...

However, it is a design 'programme', in the sense that eighteenth century garden designers used a programme based on ideas about ancient Greece and Rome, or muddled ideas about 'China'. While some modern gardens raid Zen, or Tao, or the dictates of the vogueish 'feng shui', it is exciting to see one where the programme is based on modern scientific thought.

A programme, whatever its source, still has to be interpreted by the builder-planter on the ground, and can result, depending on the imagination of the interpreter, in anything from the vulgar to the sublime.

In Charles Jencks' garden, with its avowed cosmic programme, the experiments range from puns (like the 'black hole' dining terrace), to some splendidly serious exploration of modern ideas.

There are some considerable beauties. The finest is the area of water and sculptured earthen mounds created from a boggy area that was once the moat of a sixteenth century tower. Now, great swirls of dark, smooth water, reflect immense ramps of grass, that themselves intersect to make conical mounts, and terraces curved like a dragon's back.

Created after an almost endless series of drawings and models, it is serene, beautiful, astonishing, and packed with 'multivalence', though Professor Jencks' fascinating conversational barrage of concept, practicalities, wild speculation, plans for the future, is occasionally interupted as a freight train chugs down the adjacent railway line on its way to Dumfries, and the mundane world re-establishes itself for a moment.

One aspect of extra meaning are the two pathways up the great earth cone, not meeting until the top is reached. Charles Jencks points it out as a 'double helix', like the two backbones of every DNA molecule on the planet. This theme is taken up far more strongly in the other main section of the grounds, once the old kitchen garden, now the 'Physics garden'.

Divided into six plots to mirror the senses (one is 'Anticipation', or 'Intuition', which Jencks sees as an essentially feminine sense - other aspects of sexual stereotyping can be found in this garden), theory reigns with such density that the naive viewer might wonder if the plant inhabitants of summer, however grandly the lettuces might grow (there are three gardeners), won't look bathetic amongst the ideas. The fabric is thick with sculptures, with paths engraved with RNA coding, and even the greenhouse has a cresting made up of major mathematical formulae. Gate finials all symbolise various concepts of the universe, the gates (every one beautiful and made by local craftmen), echo the seismic shifts of matter in the first few seconds of the formation of our Universe, and almsot every flagstone seems carved with some verbal conceit.... It's all far, far too much - though will make every other country house kitchen garden look decidedly dull.

The final effect of the whole garden is wildly stimulating, leaving the visitor amused, exhausted, entranced, appalled, argumentative. The garden and its theories are also unashamedly elitist; if it really is a vision of the future of gardens, then owners of small gardens are, as they were during the landscape garden movement of the eighteenth century, once more disenfranchised.

Fortunately, we'll be left with the things that we had then too, and which Charles Jencks' garden, in spite of all the double helix models, and their allusion to the genetic diversity of the biological world, hasn't got: the vast, diverse, gorgeous, and thoroughly 'multivalent', array of plants.


Copyright david stuart 2004