Denatured

Rosemary Hill

By 1815 London was the biggest city anyone had ever seen. It was the most stable and prosperous Western metropolis and had been enriched further by a flood of Continental refugees and by works of art similarly cast loose on a tide of war and revolution. There was now an interest in European painting among the British unequalled since the days of Charles I, and despite the war, English art and architecture, in particular the Gothic and the landscape garden, had many admirers in France and Germany. Napoleon himself ordered Gothic furnishings from London. In the years after Waterloo it was inevitable that cultural tourists should flock to Britain to see at first hand what they had for so long been reading about.

The French made a nuisance of themselves by following Walter Scott in the street, demanding to be allowed to draw him. But they were disappointed by British art, and of the modern buildings Defauconpret could only mutter: ‘des briques, des briques et toujours des briques.’ The Germans, however, were noted for being more systematic travellers with a wider range of interests. In 1826, as The English Journey describes, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Privy Counsellor for Public Works in Prussia, came to this country specifically to look at the bricks, the cast iron and other modern construction techniques that were transforming the landscape that lay beyond the Picturesque parks of the country houses. Britain’s internal stability had encouraged industrialisation – as well as the art market – and Schinkel was one of those who understood that this was where visitors might learn the most instructive lessons. His ambition was to create for Prussia an architectural style that was new and yet historically grounded.

The visit was greatly enhanced by his friend and travelling companion Peter Beuth, head of the Prussian Department of Trade. Beuth had visited Britain before and wrote to Schinkel from Manchester in 1823 that ‘only here ... the machinery and buildings can be found commensurate with the miracles of modern times – they are called factories.’ Beuth was looking for examples in England of What Prussian manufacturing might do – and what it might avoid. He was also carrying out a little light industrial espionage. Under his influence Schinkel saw more of the factories and less of the country houses and historical sites than he had intended. The pair nevertheless visited Holyrood and the ‘Ossianic isles’ of Staffa and Iona. Schinkel’s journal reveals how often he saw the industrial landscape in terms of the Picturesque. Factory chimneys are ‘smoking obelisks’ and the potteries, spread across the valley floor, ‘wonderfully Egyptian-oriental forms’. In Edinburgh he was impressed by the Gothic gasworks and noted that it had been designed by Walter Scott himself. No one has been able either to prove or to disprove this astonishing attribution, but the fact that Schinkel made it indicates the extent to which industry and picturesque romance could still be associated in the early 19th century.

Schinkel’s Romanticism made him seek an architecture of social responsibility in which the needs of the individual and the glory of the nation state were both satisfied. He brought to his subject a moral seriousness quite unknown in England at the time. During his visit he nevertheless hoped to meet someone who occupied a professional position in London similar to his own in Berlin. One possible equivalent was John Nash, the royal architect: had they met, their interview would have made a great, if unconsciously comic centrepiece to the journal. Nash and his work epitomised the Regency and its stucco-fronted standards, high taste and low morals. In his ebullient vulgarity and lack of any broad social vision he could not have been more different from Schinkel. Sadly for posterity, however, Nash was out when Schinkel called; though Mrs Nash received him. ‘He lives like a prince,’ Schinkel noted, with some disapproval. He found Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park, in which palatial facades unite rows of what are, in fact, quite small private houses, pretentious and deceitful.

Schinkel was perhaps being prim, but more typically, and more important, he was in step with (or ahead of) his tune in both taste and intellectual stance. Nash’s star by contrast was in decline. At the new British Museum, under construction at the same time as his own Museum am Lustgarten in Berlin, Schinkel found the galleries that were complete by the time of his visit ‘restful and satisfying’. They accorded with the notions of progress towards categorisation and professionalisation in the arts and the sciences which he rightly sensed to be the direction in which European culture was moving. The gentleman antiquary, like the amateur in every field, was being squeezed out. Sir John Soane’s house, with its jumble of objects, arranged in the antiquarian fashion to create atmosphere of a theatrical sort, rather than to impart systematic information, Schinkel found more curious than impressive.

Some of his judgments were idiosyncratic. Overall, however, the English reader of his journal can only note his prescience with a mixture of admiration and regret that what was so plain to him still seems obscure to British governments. Schinkel was appalled by the speed and lack of co-ordination with which the English built the new industrial towns – ‘monstrous shapeless buildings put up only by foremen without architecture’ – and by the wretched conditions this created for the workers. A free-market policy had allowed speculative housing developments to run riot over London. There was no central planning. In Schinkel, as Alan Powers has said, we set what England lost in the early 19th century in terms of breadth and seriousness of approach by its failure to come to terms with German thought.

Schinkel returned home in August, his search for an appropriate modern style materially assisted by the notes and drawings he had made of English Gothic, English brickwork and warehouse construction. David Bindman and Gottfried Riemann have edited these notes, interleaving them with Schinkel’s letters home to his wife and they have added contemporary illustrations from other sources, showing places and artifacts referred to in the text. Enhanced by the two introductory essays and the excellence of the translation. The English Journey is an inspiring instance of a historical fragment meticulously and vividly restored to life.

The same could be said of Dorothée Imbert’s The Modernist Garden in France, for although these gardens were all created within living memory scarcely any survive. Some were destroyed in what the author, in her Epilogue calls acts of ‘horticultural revenge’. Fortunately for Dorothée Imbert and for her thorough and oddly compelling book, the gardens were created in the age of photography, in a period when the Picturesque could be said to have been replaced by the photogenic as a criterion for design. Indeed, reaction against the Picturesque was one motivating factor for the Modernist garden movement.

Black and white photographs enhanced the linearity of the designs and the autochrome – a technique as short-lived as the gardens them selves – threw unifying veils of pointillist colour over decorative schemes. This process set the garden and its image into an exactly opposite relationship from that proposed by the Picturesque. Instead of interpreting a painting into its landscape equivalent, adding variety of viewpoint, physical depth and development, through the cycles of growth and the seasons, the Modernist garden, if it was not created for the photograph often looked its best in one. It was usually meant to be seen from a single point of view. It was both an instant creation and, for the most part, fragile. Its peak Was the moment it was completed. Falled leaves, movement, growth, all detracted from the effect.

The French Modernist garden was thus fraught with contradiction. Function always eluded it – despite a desperate succession of beehive gardens, solaria and landing strips. Cubism, too, for reasons that might have been obvious, usually failed to translate. Perhaps no genre was more doomed from the outset except Cubist upholstery, of which Dorothée Imbert illustrates a spectacularly unsuccessful example. In Germany the Jugendstil gardens expressed, if not a strictly functional, then a rational Modernism in which work and recreation, culture and nature flowed together in the spirit of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. There was also an effective campaign for allotments. Foreign models, however, were unacceptable to the French.

Despite the apparent frivolity of many of the designs, there was a strong nationalist impetus behind many of the Modernist gardens. Their origins can be traced to the turn of the century with a reaction against the landscape – or English – style, which had dominated France since it had first been admired by Schinkel’s contemporaries. Nationalism and nostalgia for the formal gardens of the Ancien Régime, with parterres, gravel and bedding, led designers first to restore old schemes and then to develop a new, Modernist style régulier. The book charts the process by which Le Nôtre’s Versailles met the Jazz Age head on – a complete transformation and at the same time a logical progression.

If the French began by rejecting the influence of England they continued, for much longer, to be driven by a desire to assert themselves against German design, which posed an ever-growing threat to the traditional preeminence of French taste and craftsmanship. Indeed for historians of the decorative arts, the two world wars sometimes appear merely as the continuation by other means of a France-German battle of styles that raged throughout the first half of this century. Immediately after the 1918 Armistice the French set about triumphing over Germany in ‘the arts of peace’, planning an exhibition to reassert their superiority. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – from which the smarter term Art Deco was later derived – was held in 1925. According to imbert, it marked the beginning of the Modernist garden movement.

The difficulty the French faced in getting industriel and moderne into the unwieldy title reflected a real problem. It was the luxury crafts in which they excelled – lacquer-work, pâte de verre, goldsmithing, couture. They made tubular steel furniture, but couldn’t resist covering it with ruched tulle. The crowds who came to the exhibition to see what they’d been promised – high-quality mass-produced goods – were faced instead with designs for the ‘Hôtel of a Rich Collector’ and the ‘Apartment of an Ambassador’. It was an age in which, as a contemporary critic wrote, one might meet one’s best friend ‘buying a jade leather coat just to match the jade line on her new car’. One may think of it as a return to the spirit of Versailles in more ways than one, but the writer felt that it demonstrated a new ‘ordered scheme of fitness’ in design – and it was undoubtedly typical of what the French understood as Modernism.

The garden exhibits at the 1925 exhibition were created on this ensemblier principle – that is, designed as a whole, like an interior, and en suite with the house. Full of mirror-glass, oil-cloth and concrete, the best had the exquisite elegance of enamel cigarette cases, which they much resembled, but offered nothing to the ordinary exhibition-goer or indeed the plant-lover. In many of the 1925 exhibits and in the gardens created afterwards there is something queasy, almost menacing, in the use of such unnatural materials. The highly-wrought elegance often had an over-wrought, hectic quality more suited to the nightclubs of the Twenties and Thirties than to fresh air and nature.

It is not only with hindsight that the decorative arts of Europe between the wars cause us now to dwell uneasily on what was to follow. A reviewer commented on the Italian Pavilion that it was ‘a mausoleum built by a speculative builder in readiness for the death of a Fascist demagogue’. In the pair of designs created by Jean-Charles Moreux and Paul Vera in the early Thirties for Jacques Rouche the layout côté cour is a demi-swastika and côté jardin a thunder flash. Both are used quite innocently of course, but it is worth noting how thoroughly (and how much more than we now care to remember) Nazism was rooted in the prevailing culture. It may seem trivial to point out how Deco Fascism was but for those who interest themselves in the question of whether applied art is merely reflective of broader cultural forces, or sometimes actively expressive of them, these gardens make an interesting case-study.

In support of the suggestion that something disturbed and dénaturé lurked in the Modernist garden it is noticeable that many of the most successful schemes discussed in the book could more accurately be described as surrealist. The patrons of Max Ernst and Buñuel, the de Noailles, commissioned a terrace from Robert Mallet-Stevens with rectangular windows in the surrounding wall framing ‘scenes’ in the landscape. These look the Picturesque round the last bend to its illogical conclusion. The natural landscape was now a series of landscape paintings and could be viewed or ‘taken down’ by replacing wooden shutters in the wall. For the Villa Noailles, Gabriel Guevrekian designed a triangular garden, ‘a chromatic and vegetable palette completely alien to the surrounding landscape’, its apex ending with a revolving statue by Lipchitz. It was perhaps more Expressionist than surreal and Imbert draws apt parallels with the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, made in 1919. Quite how she squares these with the assertion that within the garden there was a ‘feeling of calm’ is not clear. The de Noailles cannot have found it restful either, not least perhaps because it required five gardeners to maintain the ‘image of nature frozen in time’ that its creator intended. Completed in 1928, the garden had been drastically altered by 1934, and later disappeared altogether – it is now being restored.

Perhaps the most truly surreal scheme was created, with input from his client, by Le Corbusier, on the Beistegui Roof Terrace, in Paris. The terrace included roofless rooms floored with grass; one had a Louis XV fireplace that parodied the Arc de Triomphe visible in the distance; in another a pre-Revolutionary portrait in a massive gilt frame, its exposure to the elements giving it an air of vulnerability at complete odds with its intrinsic aristocratic self-confidence. Le Corbusier used a hedge which moved on electric rails to open and close the surrounding views of the city. The whole thing was a wonderful jeu d’ esprit, marred only by the fact that the work went 600,000 francs over budget, the client was furious and the hedge jammed. Significantly, the only tree on the terrace died. Le Corbusier was no gardener, though that did not stop him from advertising his services as a designer of gardens. It is he who is the hero, or as it might be the villain, of the book, the most important designer and the one whose influence endured and helped to remake the cities of Europe after the Deco age, with its brittle gardens and jade car coats, had been swept away by the war.

At the 1925 exhibition Le Corbusier’s Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau had sat, cool and white amid the flim-flam, like a time-bomb on a flower stall. It was set in a lawn with scattered shrubs, a tree in the courtyard grew out through a hole in the roof but otherwise, as Imbert says, ‘Le Corbusier opposed the sophistication of the Pavilion with only a lame image of nature.’ From this he moved towards a theory of unembellished landscape, and Imbert compares him with William Kent, the architect who became the first ‘landscape’ gardener. Kent was said to have ‘leapt the fence’ and seen that all nature was a garden, but the comparison will not hold: Le Corbusier’s case was quite different. He espoused the ideal of unmediated landscape but not because he loved nature. Unlike Kent, he simply could not do anything with it. Kent’s schemes involved a great deal of artificiality: Le Corbusier’s a wilful, almost sadistic maltreatment of nature. He designed a ‘sunken vegetable garden’ where nothing would grow. He planted trees too close to houses so that the roots interfered with the foundations – any jobbing builder knows not to do that and he planted them in place where they could not grow.

Le Corbusier saw that there was nothing for him in the garden and he set out to annihilate it. He talked disingenuously about an architecture that could be planted straight into the landscape, allowing the inhabitants to be ‘inserted in a Virgilian dream’. Nature would flow uninterrupted under the building between the pilotis, and roof terraces would replace gardens. As Imbert writes, chillingly, ‘once the specific identity of the garden was removed and the landscape typified, all sites became interchangeable.’ This idea was in itself perhaps no more impractical than some of Kent’s. For individual houses, built for people who could afford to own a chunk of the unspoiled landscape in which to insert themselves, it was successful, The awful irony, however, was that Le Corbusier’s influence coincided with the long-awaited moment when the state replaced the private individual as patron. This meant that buildings were created for people who could not, like the de Noailles, simply wait until the architect had gone and change everything back again. As Le Corbusier knew, roof gardens are complicated and expensive to maintain. That’s why public housing schemes rarely attempt them; nor do they insert housing estates in large landscape parks; and nothing flourishes naturally between pilotis except rubbish and muggers. The inhabitants of his Virgilian dream found, and still find themselves, in an urban nightmare.

Dorothée Imbert has done a great deal of work on these fragile vanished gardens and they will probably never attract, or require, another study on this scale. The book’s design is as carefully thought out as that of The English Journey and, being elegant but rather confusing, equally appropriate to its subject.