For several weeks now, I have been extolling wildness and naturalism as a virtue in the design of landscapes. My claim is that man-made landscapes need to embrace “nature” in a more intentional and expressive way. In making those claims, I have been perhaps too dismissive of the importance of artifice in designed landscapes. A few thoughts about that here.
First, any designer that calls his or her work “naturalistic,” “sustainable,” or “ecological” cites nature as an authority to justify their designs. Obviously, many landscapes claim to be natural that are entirely different from each other. What is abundantly clear in the age of greenwashing is that terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “green” are human constructs, loose signifiers that can be applied to almost anything--particularly anything in a landscape. Ideas about nature ultimately reveal more about us than it does about the landscapes they describe.
For me, the myriad of meanings for what is natural is no reason to reject naturalistic design. Instead, it is an invitation to explore this conceptually fertile ground. The medium of our art is living, ever-changing elements of plants, water, light, and soil. Designers get the rare privilege of working with an ephemeral palette, of asserting our control and then losing it. Lately, I’ve gotten much more joy out of losing it.
That is why I am drawn to designed landscapes that celebrate the evanescent with bold artifice. Trying to erase the evidence of human intervention feels inauthentic to me, as flat and unconvincing as a trompe l’oeil. All true naturalism must first be a humanism. The landscapes that captivate me both intellectually and spiritually are those that blur the lines between natural and cultivated, between nature as other and nature as me. Artifice is not only acceptable in naturalistic designs, but necessary. It prevents plagiarism by forcing the designer to show her hand. The benefit of artifice is that is grants the designer sweet catharsis: it reveals to the world that this design, like all good landscape design, is a blessed forgery.