The chance of rain diminished hourly—50% at noon, 40% at 1, 30% at 2—so we went ahead with our class visit to Dumbarton Oaks this past Tuesday. By 2:30, after the 30+ students with a few extra Germans had listened to a brief introduction from the docent and filed out of the orangerie, the rain had indeed stopped and an implausibly picturesque mist had settled into the cracks and creases of the hillsides of Rock Creek Park. Without the distraction of a blue sky, the moist gold and red colors of the landscape glowed. And, I didn’t think to bring a camera. (photos here are from the garden's website)
To paraphrase the comment about Bryce Canyon—“it’s a helluva place to lose a cow”—Dumbarton Oaks is a swell place to lose some students. So I found myself sitting alone in the vaulted and mosaic-ed porch outside the changing rooms by the pool contemplating both the landscape and The Landscape. Washington landscape architect Jon Fitch, who’s teaching studio with me this semester, often reminds our students that the discipline of landscape architecture is technically straightforward, even simple, but conceptually extremely difficult. It probably seems just the opposite to them; cool ideas come easier than mastering the fundamentals of techne. Actually, it is conceptually difficult to understand why it is conceptually difficult.
Every time I visit Dumbarton Oaks I mull the same questions, enjoying the different answers the place provides me. What purpose does a garden serve? To what question is this an answer? In architecture we have so much function that we’ve been arguing incessantly about its causal relationship with form. All those arguments will eventually trudge back to the question of architecture’s origins in either the temple or the hut, that is, in either our desire to reify our position in the cosmos or our need to get the heck out of the rain.
Certainly landscape architecture has its own parallel question; its origins lie either in the Garden of Eden, or the garden of eatin’. The demands of program, though, are not the same. I’m not sure there is an architectural parallel to the garden as exemplified by Dumbarton Oaks. More like a poem, or a piece of music, such a construction serves absolutely no “function,” yet, as with poetry or music, the world would be lesser, baser place without it. Maybe its function is in fact representational, in the full sense of the word. In a chiasmus of architectural and natural elements, stone is carved in the form of leaves, flowers and fruit, trees are pleached and instructed to behave like columns. On the one hand, the pleaching, pollarding and espaliering—what a great vocabulary we have to describe this strange pseudo-construction—represents our prowess, our domination over nature. Look what we can do! But in these elisions there is a careful parsing of the fine differences between the natural and the cultural.
Maybe we re-present nature to ourselves in such a way so we can begin to comprehend it, otherwise it simply can’t fit in our minds. In Dumbarton Oaks the “wilderness” of Rock Creek Park is just outside the fence. The garden is itself is acts as a sentry, keeping the untamed at bay. The landscape architect is lion tamer then, oh so carefully getting a much more powerful force to behave itself and perform. I imagine Beatrix Farrand herself with chair and whip in hand, knowing that the minute she turns her back the trees call a meeting and the bosque sets its own agenda.