Monday, 8 October 2012

Genius loci - the ‘sense of place’

This week is being kicked off with another guest post, this time from Clare Hickman who addresses the subject of the Genius loci...

Something that has always struck me over the last decade of garden visiting has been the ‘sense of place’ that some gardens have. It is one of those indefinable characteristics that give some landscapes an emotional resonance beyond a visual or more sensory appreciation. Take Lyveden New Bield near Corby in Northamptonshire as an example. 

Lyveden New Bield
Lyveden is an unfinished late sixteenth century garden building with a watery landscape, also only partially constructed, created by Sir Thomas Tresham as a declaration of his Catholic faith – a risky business under the reign of Elizabeth I. Now looked after by the National Trust, this is a landscape perched on the top of a hill with an orchard, mounds, semi-completed moats and areas of woodland. It is not a floral garden or an exotic collection of trees yet there is something about the space which always takes my breath away. I can’t really define what it is and I sometimes wonder if this is just my very personal response – although I have taken enough students and other garden historians to the site over the years to think that there is something else about the site. 

Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Maybe it is its scale. Not unlike historic Japanese and Chinese gardens, which use a technique known as ‘shakkei’ or borrowed landscape, it is constructed of scaled down hills, lakes and forests. As a garden adventurer you get to explore a miniature world with its snail mounts and waterways. 

Brown's landscape at Castle Ashby
The art of the garden designer is perhaps to create new worlds which in some way are reflections of the wider landscape around us. ‘Capability’ Brown with his rolling lawns, lakes and shelter belts achieved a similar scaled-down and tidied up version of the English landscape. 
Image from The Transition of Consciousness
More recently the snail mounds and lakes created by the late Maggie Keswick and Charles Jencks at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland also fulfill that desire for the elements of land, water and sky on a human scale. 

Lyveden New Bield
For me Lyveden, for whatever reason, is where these elements coalesce and create an emotionally powerful space. As an academic I tend to use the term ‘therapeutic landscapes’ to talk about gardens that either are or used to be associated with medical institutions. On a personal level I would also the term to describe the effect places such as Lyveden have on me – therapeutic and rejuvenating landscapes. 

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