Garden of ideas

With a new multimedia website, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn makes a secret garden public and explores how ideas create form.

You are standing in a garden. Surrounding you are green walls of tall hawthorn hedges, clipped to produce inviting archways into sun-dappled rooms. As you wander, surprises appear around every corner: a secluded grove strung with ivy and vines, a kitchen garden of fragrant herbs, a broad green with hawthorns trimmed into the shape of giant hens striding among bright purple onion flowers.

One moment it’s bright summertime, the next the hedges are bare and covered in snow. And every so often, the garden’s designer and tender for more than 50 years appears to explain his changing artistic vision.

That’s the experience that Anne Whiston Spirn, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT, strives to create for visitors to her new multimedia website project, Marnas: A Journey through Space, Time, and Ideas. The subject is Marnas, a garden in Sweden designed by Sven-Ingvar Andersson, a landscape architect who designed Amsterdam’s Museumplein and Vienna’s Karlsplatz, among other projects. At the same time, he tended his personal garden at his summer home from 1954 until his death in 2007.

Andersson — who went by the monogram SIA — named the garden after a woman who had formerly inhabited the house, which he received as a wedding gift from his parents. During the next decade, he laid out a series of seven “rooms” surrounded by hedges to create a labyrinthine garden where he experimented with ideas about art, life, and death, among other themes.

“Gardens aren’t just about plants, they are about ideas,” says Spirn, whose own writing often explores the interplay of form, feeling, and meaning in landscape. “The question is how you bring together a form that supports the meaning and evokes the feelings that bring home the ideas most forcefully.”

Spirn first encountered Marnas while visiting Europe in 1990 to give a lecture at the School of Architecture of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where SIA was a professor. She and her husband stayed overnight at SIA’s summer home, and she was immediately hooked.

“It’s a magical place,” says Spirn. “We were just captivated by it.” Spirn’s own long-time project involves working with a low-income community in West Philadelphia to transform a landscape of buried floodplains and vacant lots into a network of community projects. While there might seem to be little in common between an impoverished American neighborhood and a formal Swedish garden, Spirn immediately saw the connection between their projects.

“You establish a framework congruent with the deep structure of a place, one that is consistent with the natural processes and human infrastructure that exists,” says Spirn. That structure can then become a “framework for action,” in which many actors can improvise to create something new.

Spirn began returning to Marnas every year or two to give lectures and meet with SIA at the University of Copenhagen. The two bonded over a shared vision for landscape architecture. “Part of our conversation was always about what was going on in West Philadelphia, and how do you adapt to circumstances and serendipitous events that are outside of your control.”

SIA had his own struggles with unforeseen mishaps. During one winter, for example, many of his meticulously trimmed hawthorn hedges were decimated by heavy snow. Instead of trying to rebuild them in their original rigid structures, he worked around the damage to carve them into new undulating forms that completely reinterpreted the space. “He’s in a dialogue with the plants,” says Spirn. “They are like actors, and they had their own ideas about how they were going to grow.”

Every year Spirn took photographs to document the changes, developing her own practice of using photography as a research tool. “Every time I came back, something had changed,” says Spirn. Supported by a faculty research grant from the HASS Fund, Spirn combined hundreds of her own photos with hundreds more that SIA took since the 1960s to make the website, realizing she had an almost complete photographic record of the garden over time (now part of the MIT Libraries Special Collections).

As visitors to the website take a self-guided tour, they encounter glowing squares hovering in the paths. When they click on them, they open a 30-second to 2-minute video with Spirn reading excerpts from SIA’s writings on the decisions behind the design.

Visitors can choose to watch the videos back-to-back in a single film, but Spirn hopes that they will encounter them while immersing themselves in the virtual tour. “I wanted people to really feel the connection between the ideas and the place,” says Spirn. In one video, for example, SIA describes the process of creating his hawthorn “hens,” which he grew from small bushy “eggs” into 12-foot-tall striding abstract forms that even outgrew his original vision.

Each hawthorn, SIA explains in the film, has a unique structure based on its genetic qualities, and while a designer can prune them into a desired shape, he or she must also be mindful of their limitations. People, he adds, are the same way — endlessly adaptable, yet limited by their own inherent genetics. “A lot of the ideas in the videos are not just applicable to plants,” says Spirn. “There is a life wisdom that he puts forward with a certain wittiness, but one that is also really deep.”

Spirn hopes to reach a broad audience with the project, not just landscape architects and designers, but gardeners and garden lovers alike. “I have written in the past that landscapes are like literature, but the library is scattered all over the world. So how do you read these texts and experience them?” Spirn asks. Through the multimedia experience of the website, she hopes to be able to transport visitors to a place that might delight and inspire them, where they may never go themselves. Indeed, she says, while a website might be a poor substitute for actually going to a place, it is the only way that SIA’s vision — changed since his death — can still be experienced. “It’s such an important garden” says Spirn. “I am trying to make it available to the world.”

Story originally published March 8, 2018, by Michael Blanding, School of Architecture and Planning for MIT news.