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Expressions of interest – gardens with meaning
Andrew explores the rise of the conceptual garden in modern garden design

For the garden lover one of the great joys of travelling is visiting those great gardens around the globe that make up our shared garden history. Be it the Huntington Library Garden, Hidcote or Sissinghurst, the Alhambra, Versailles, Kirstenbosch or the Rikugien Garden there are so many to see. If they are the Turners and Monet of garden history then a new wave of conceptual gardens are the avant-garde modern movement representing the Damien Hirst, Ralph Hotere and Shane Cotton’s, the explorative art of modern garden design.

Essentially conceptual gardens explore questions outside of gardens. It’s not an entirely new method of creating gardens and history reveals gardens receiving inspiration from ideas often of classical tales, myth, legend, victory and peace but this modern movement looks to express an idea rather than provide any distinct story or solution to a landscape.

Until now there have only really been conceptual gardens exhibited at two major venues in Europe. Some 20 years ago the international garden festival at Chaumont in the Loire Valley, France started with the idea of exhibiting a range of designs each season hooked around a single idea. And then for the past 10 years the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Hampton Court Palace Flower Show has had a category of conceptual gardens that regularly attracts entries although over the past few years these gardens have dwindled.

The two venues differ widely as there is a very fixed focus on a seasonal theme at Chaumont each year whereas there is no lead from the RHS at Hampton Court Palace. The wide open nature of ideas at the latter is of great benefit because there is a much stronger element of surprise, of inventiveness and a feeling that anything might go compared to a more strictly controlled brief in France which benefits the almost 6 months that the gardens are open. Indeed, it’s always interesting to hear how people rate the two shows each year as invariably visitors see both close together in July.

Conceptual gardens are about ideas and the themes of ecology and environment have become commonplace in conceptual gardens debating the loss of habitat, how coral reefs are being destroyed and other ideas but have seen representations of community estrangement, mathematical concepts and individual challenges such as that of dyslexia. Look at some of Hampton’s earliest winners include Dan Lobb’s underground garden populated by a dystopian world of fungi and viewed through periscopes in 2011, and the Pansy Project garden in 2010 that explored homophobic hate crime and you get the sense that there are no boundaries to what can be created to express an idea.

Of course not all of them work and for as many clear ideas, simply portrayed there are many that become confused in the designer’s mind and are therefore lost on the viewing public. I have seen that the conceptual garden with the simplest idea that the viewer ‘gets’ without explanatory essays are the most powerful.

Having the free will to do anything in creating a garden is extremely attractive to teh designer who wants to explore beyond the normall gardens that you’ll see at Chelsea or other shows. Whether people love them or hate them is of almost no consequence. What is important is that there are places where people, not just garden designers, can use the medium of gardens to express and explore ideas.

People will anyway put their own story onto any landscape and we each view things in our own individual way. Tony Heywood who is arguably the best known maker of conceptual landscapes in the UK once told me he was happiest when people read their own stories into his creations, and he will forgive me for saying that his landscapes can be at once the hardest to understand and the easiest to love. Tony’s use of man-made materials, sounds, smells, lights and modern technology, yes almost anything but plants regularly get a resounding thumbs up from the most seasoned of garden visitors well before they notice the lack of plants. But then that’s another concept altogether that perhaps we’ve not been able to explore quite fully yet because both Chaumont and the RHS require plants to succeed.

I would love the RHS to say that in a conceptual garden you don’t have to have plants and if you do they don’t have to confirm to adages of right plant, right place. However, the current thinking is that it’s a flower show and no plants gives out the wrong message. But I suspect as more and more people look to other events they’ll be a lightening of attitude and a new breed of plantless, but thoughtful conceptual gardens in the future.