History of Landscapes Starts with Stonehenge. Really.

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As threatened promised, I’m blogging the History of Landscape course I’m taking at the University of Maryland, and here’s my first post. The (fabulous) teacher I’ll be quoting is Caren Yglesias.

Interestingly to me, when I tell people I’m taking a class in landscape history I get questions like – does it start with Olmsted? English gardens? I love answering that it actually starts with Stonehenge because of the look of bewilderment on their faces.

So what IS a landscape, anyway? Wikipedia says, “A landscape is the visible features of an area of land, its landforms, and how they integrate with natural or man-made features.” And Stonehenge is just one of the paleolithic landforms we’re studying.

Bagh-i Fin Garden in Iran

Also from that era are the early desert gardens that made possible by feats of brilliant engineering, using underground qanats to bring water from the mountains to gardens in the valley.

On the left, the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt still uses the irrigation system that was created over 4,000 years ago.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon in Iraq are the best known example of an early desert garden, though they’re long gone. Too bad only the wealthiest could enjoy these oasis gardens with their orchards, vegetables, flower beds and open water that attracted songbirds.

Islamic Gardens

Moving on to Islamic Gardens, we saw spaces we’d all recognize as gardens, some that can still be visited. They use geometric patterns to precisely control the speed and direction of water to the garden. They’re lush and colorful, and not just from flowers but from tiled surfaces that are cool to the touch. Water moves in narrow channels and in fountains. Pavilions and porches create shade. These gardens are for sitting, not strolling in, we learned.

But to my 21st Century eyes, these gardens of the 1 percent honestly almost repel me. Yes, they succeed as pleasure gardens but at what cost in money, manpower and the bending of nature to man’s will? To me they’re examples of the bad old days of gardening, and good riddance.

The most common form of Islamic Garden – using four garden spaces and water in the center – is called a charbagh. The Taj Mahal, the ginormous shrine to a very rich man’s wife, is the most famous variation of that form.

We also studied the Moorish gardens of Alhambra, a fortress palace that survives intact and is a popular Spanish tourist attraction today. Washington Irving called it a “terrestrial paradise.”

Fountain Garden within Smithsonian’s Enid Haupt Garden

Yesterday’s class brought us all much closer to home with the professor’s talk about a small Fountain Garden at the Smithsonian Institution along the National Mall. She did this to illustrate the Analytique technique of presentation that the students will all be using when presenting similar gardens and landscapes, mostly in D.C. Practice with this technique will help them prepare for the real world of presenting their designs to the panels that award bids and review projects.

This garden was the gift of the philanthropist Enid Haupt, quoted as saying “Nature is my religion.”

I’ve walked through this garden many times but didn’t realize it was based on Alhambra, or that there’s a critical flaw in the seating and water designs for the space. The bench is unusable half the year when the water feature is turned on because a small rill flows just behind where people would otherwise sit. Water splashes onto them and onto the too-flat bench, where it pools instead of draining away. (I learned that 7 percent slope would have been enough to drain the water.) People sitting on the bench also have to contend with a too-close privet hedge.

Thinking about it, maybe the failed seating design is why I’ve never spent any time in this space. It’s just something I’ve walked through on my way to something more appealing to me.

We heard about another example of water-related problem for visitors, one caused by the scrim of water in New York City’s much-loved High Line. Turns out people who get their feet wet in it are slipping, falling and suing the city over it!

Get ready for more criticism because we learned that the entire National Mall has been named the 5th Worst Park in the World by the Project for Public Spaces, a resource the professor recommended for student projects. It’s cited for lacking “the strong management necessary to coordinate events, partner with neighboring institutions, and add amenities that draw people in.” It’s all there in the organization’s Hall of Shame.

Other resources the professor used for this presentation are The Cultural Landscape Foundation and the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Photo credits: StonehengeTaj Mahal, Fountain Garden.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The Egyptians had some pretty cool gardens as well! Susan, did she really mean a 7% slope? That is noticeably steep and not comfortable to walk on. Water will flow over a 1% slope if the surface is smooth. That would be a drop of 1′ over 100′. That is typically the slope of a well installed patio.

    • Interesting. A guy in the class who has experience making patios spoke up to say that a 1 percent grade is the closest you can get to flat and still have the water drain off – if it’s installed perfectly, of course. Susan

  2. I hope Professor Yglesias explained that the Taj Mahal is less than half the original project completed. The master plan by Shah Jahan was to build a matching but black marble mausoleum for himself across the Jamuna River, the two connected by (if memory serves), a bridge of gold. You know, sometimes you just can’t scratch together enough rupees to build the wall you really, really want, even if you are emperor. Wife Mumtaz was lucky to die when business was good.

  3. I agree a 7% slope sounds excessive. That is close to the maximum slope recommended for an ADA accessible ramp of 8% (1 in 12). While 1% would be ideal, when putting in patios of brick, block or stone, the general rule of thumb is about 2%, basically 1/4 inch rise per foot of run. This takes into account irregularities in materials.

  4. No don’t be too harsh on the gardens of the 1%. That is pretty much the main reason you can even have a class on the history of landscapes.

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