INTERPRETING THE FORMAL GARDEN

They built a new hotel here last year, in the heart of the city. There’s no water view but there is a terrific restaurant wrapped around a courtyard garden. Though I could wax on about the imaginative menu — the grilled lamb is sensational — it’s the garden I want to discuss, because it demonstrates the hazards of adopting a style rather than adapting it.

The garden is English formal, planted on top of the parking garage. Kudos to the architect for an imaginative use of dead space, but it’s English formal in Portland, Maine. I don’t mean we’re unsophisticated or inelegant, just that we have our own interpretation of grace and English formal isn’t it.

I went to a party a few years ago on Peaks Island, which is a little blip in the ocean about twenty minutes offshore. It was the moment I realized I was back home, truly, and for good. The hosts were newly married, the second time around for both, and threw themselves a party to celebrate with their friends. I came with sheaves of deep purple lilac and quince, the old-fashioned, lipstick-coral kind, wrapped in yards of satin ribbon. I came in a flowing silk skirt and a vintage, Mandarin-collared silk jacket. And I came in Naots, the Israeli version of Birkenstocks, because you walk on island, and you don’t do it in heels.

It’s practical elegance we’re after, easy, unpretentious, relaxed. You don’t get that with parterres and tight little topiaried conifers. You don’t get that with archaic cultural references. You only get it when you root the garden in time and space, by establishing the where and the when.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew this and conceived his Prairie Homes in the long, low lines of the actual prairie. They became signature houses, perfect expressions of their era, and even Taliesen West doesn’t design them anymore. The architects who have continued Wright’s firm do new work, equally connected to the land but representative of this time, this century, this culture, in the best Wright tradition.

I did a six-week intensive at Harvard several years ago and every morning began with a presentation by someone in the discipline of architecture, landscape architecture or urban design. One particular morning the speaker was showing slides of buildings whose architects had failed to match design to place and he pointed, with great amusement, to a bank in Maine which appeared literally to sink into the ground. All the audience joined in his derision except for me, because I got it.

It’s a wry image, burying your money in the bank. It’s not an outright joke, mind you, it’s just a wink, a nod to livelihoods that are pulled from the sea or planted in the earth. I didn’t like the building, but I loved the fact that the architect played to the acerbic wit of the locals. It was a perfect expression of the ethos of place, and this is what the designers of the hotel garden missed.

Here’s what else they missed: if formal design is defined by fixed, explicit line, then any pattern with fixed, explicit line will be formal. The design they missed was the compass rose; the opportunity they missed was cultural resonance. Combine that with historical accuracy and you have a winner. Imagine what could have been done if they’d played with that design, made it abstract or minimalist or modern. Imagine the key directional points as raised beds of polished granite filled with white everything; imagine the key points as paths to a water garden core; imagine the whole thing as a water garden.

In my imaginary granite planters — dark, polished, with fragments of the compass rose carved into the sides — the flowers are white, considered the most formal color. White also has the advantage of luminosity, and whether I’m dealing with a restaurant or a client who works seventy hours a week, I play to the night. I play, too, with the most formal versions of the most formal color. In my garden, I have single peonies that stand tall without being hooped, because Mainers are an independent people, and a rose called Blanc Double de Coubert that should be planted for its name alone but comes with a scent that is heaven itself and root stock as hardy as Rugosa. I have a Rose of Sharon named Diana and a day lily called Irish Linen. I have Miscanthus, tall as reed grass, and Siberian iris and columbine and flowering crabapple and a daffodil called Cheerfulness.

And that’s the final element that’s goes wanting when a designer fails to match design to place — the fun of creating something unique. My garden is formal without being stuffy, whimsical without being saccharine, witty without being comical. It pays homage to the past but remains rooted in the present. We’re not preserving Jefferson’s Monticello here; we get to play. And speaking of play, the ancestral forms of the silly, spiraled juniper and bastardized blue spruce we now see everywhere were grand, often wildly imaginative works of art. Topiary is fixed and explicit, yes, but it was never meant to be rigid or staid. Have some fun with it.

I remember seeing, when I was a kid, a great billboard just outside Boston advertising a hotel restaurant. I don’t remember the hotel, but to this day I can close my eyes and see the sign: Haute Cuisine, not Haughty Cuisine. I say the same about formal gardens; they are meant to be grand, not grandiose. Just for fun, I turned to my beloved Roget’s to get some synonyms for formal and came up with artificial, awkward, stiff, stilted, stuffy, pompous, boring, dull, and stodgy. Sounds like the aristocracy to me, and we left them behind.

So here’s a plea for American formal: clean, crisp lines that mark an easy, elegant space. Let’s celebrate who we are from the ground up.
c.2004

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