Modern Naturalism: Artifice in the Natural Garden

For several weeks now, I have been extolling wildness and naturalism as a virtue in the design of landscapes. My claim is that man-made landscapes need to embrace “nature” in a more intentional and expressive way. In making those claims, I have been perhaps too dismissive of the importance of artifice in designed landscapes. A few thoughts about that here.
First, any designer that calls his or her work “naturalistic,” “sustainable,” or “ecological” cites nature as an authority to justify their designs. Obviously, many landscapes claim to be natural that are entirely different from each other. What is abundantly clear in the age of greenwashing is that terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “green” are human constructs, loose signifiers that can be applied to almost anything--particularly anything in a landscape. Ideas about nature ultimately reveal more about us than it does about the landscapes they describe.

“Nature is an abstraction,” writes Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture at MIT, “a set of ideas for which many cultures have no one name, ‘a singular name for the real multiplicity of things and living processes.’” In landscape design today, naturalism is a science (ecology), a moral calling, and an aesthetic. Designers sling these terms around without much thought or discussion about what they mean.

So in all my eager advocacy for naturalism, I too have been a bit loose with the terms. Anne Whiston Spirn writes that “nature is both given and constructed.” I believe in both of those realities: nature as outside of me and nature that is inside of me. The line between those two is a fuzzy one. This is not reason to despair; instead, we should celebrate this fuzziness.

For me, the myriad of meanings for what is natural is no reason to reject naturalistic design. Instead, it is an invitation to explore this conceptually fertile ground. The medium of our art is living, ever-changing elements of plants, water, light, and soil. Designers get the rare privilege of working with an ephemeral palette, of asserting our control and then losing it. Lately, I’ve gotten much more joy out of losing it.

That is why I am drawn to designed landscapes that celebrate the evanescent with bold artifice. Trying to erase the evidence of human intervention feels inauthentic to me, as flat and unconvincing as a trompe l’oeil. All true naturalism must first be a humanism. The landscapes that captivate me both intellectually and spiritually are those that blur the lines between natural and cultivated, between nature as other and nature as me. Artifice is not only acceptable in naturalistic designs, but necessary. It prevents plagiarism by forcing the designer to show her hand. The benefit of artifice is that is grants the designer sweet catharsis: it reveals to the world that this design, like all good landscape design, is a blessed forgery.

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