Friday, March 31, 2006

Splice garden

In Anne Whiston Spirn’s book The Language of Landscape there is an entertaining chapter in which she thinks up landscape equivalents for figures of speech: alliteration, anachronism, clichĂ©, euphemism, litotes, metonym, synecdoche etc. etc. Some are more obvious than others. Looking for the more obscure figures of speech I was interested in her discussion of meiosis. Meiosis is defined here as a “reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature”, and their example, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is the Black Knight’s dismissal of the loss of both his arms in a fight with King Arthur as “just a flesh wound”. In landscape design, Spirn associates this kind of belittling understatement with the work of Martha Schwartz. Schwartz’s playful, conceptual gardens reject the ‘Nature Fantasy’ that underlies traditional landscape design. She aroused fierce criticism when Landscape Architecture Magazine featured her Bagel Garden on its cover in January 1980 and she remains a controversial figure. In a recent article by Tim Richardson in the Telegraph, for example, he says “it is surprising what fury Schwartz's work arouses among some horticulturists - in the past weeks, several contributors to this newspaper have told me they think that Schwartz is a trickster.”

The designs of Martha Schwartz can also be used to illustrate other figures of speech. Spirn discusses her Splice Garden (Cambridge Massachusetts) as an exemplification of paradox, oxymoron and conceit. This rooftop space (the location itself to some extent paradoxical) includes plastic flowers and witty juxtapositions, like a formal French clipped tree encircled by the raked gravel of a Zen garden.

Update 2015: Since writing this a lot more material has become available online and it has become possible to embed video clips in blog posts, so here is a Martha Schwartz lecture from Vimeo..

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