On my recent trip to New Zealand, my hosts suggested a walk around the Hamilton Gardens. Although it was August (winter down under), and very little was in bloom, this place was stunning to me and one of the most memorable places I experienced in a land of legendary landscapes.
Hamilton Gardens is organized to allow exploration of “the history, context and meaning of gardens through five garden collections”. These collections are entitled Paradise, Productive, Fantasy, Cultivar and Landscape.
Given the strong Maori cultural presence in this region of New Zealand, I visited The Maori "productive" garden first. This includes a large cultivated plot enclosed by a palisade of sharpened spikes and carved heads placed at intervals appearing to "guard" the perimeter.
By contrast, the gardens in the Paradise collection are mostly self-contained or extend into an idealized landscape. The Paradise collection includes representations of a Chinese scholar’s garden, English flower garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, American Modernist garden, Italian Renaissance garden, and an Indian Char Bagh garden.
Although necessarily removed from their original historical and geographical context, these gardens feel integrated with the North Island landscapes they inhabit. For example, the serpentine path at the heart of the Chinese scholar’s garden affords surprising views along its entire length. Perhaps most striking is the sweeping view, at the end of an enclosed stepped ascent through dense bamboo, over the Waikato River, which runs along the southern edge of the entire gardens complex (as well as being the central organizing element in the city of Hamilton).
The designs include architectural elements which help illustrate intentional relationships between the gardens proper and the overall built environment of which they are a part. In each garden, building elements are anchored in the landscape, demonstrating the spatial, processional and experiential characteristics unique to each type.
In the Modernist garden, a pavilion opens onto the patio surrounding a pool, and is flanked on one side by a mosaic of a Warhol Marilyn Monroe. An amusing choice for this garden is the trio of Adirondack chairs situated at the edge of the pool.
This Modernist space is created with a couple of glazed walls capped with a thin flat roof slab, all set into an irregularly stepped stone wall; or a sort of mash-up of Miesian themes spanning from the Brick Country House project to the Barcelona Pavilion. This example is of particular interest to me, as it distills the fundamental balance between inside and outside, what I like to call the in-between.
I've long been attracted to these types of space, that are neither clearly indoors nor outdoors, Particularly in our early childhood practice, we endeavor to integrate intermediate spaces that deepen the threshold between inside and out.
The pavilion in this garden, a fragment of Modernism which blurs distinctions between inside and outside, epitomizes the in-between. The very ambiguity of enclosure in this example merges the architecture and the garden.
This integration of architecture and landscape is of course not unique to Modernism, but is evident in different ways in each of the paradise gardens. Maybe the common denominator in these gardens’ renderings of paradise is that eternal search for the perfect balance between immersion in, and protection from, nature.
At a basic level, architecture for me strives to find this same balance, between enclosure and exposure. In my firm’s design work with early education, we seek to encourage engagement with the natural world, and balance that with expectations for safety, comfort and protection. Seeing these garden examples from across the globe was highly inspirational; people have endeavored in all cultures throughout history to find an ideal balance between the wild and the tame. Architecture affects us at the most primal level, perhaps, when straddling wilderness and civilization.
Each of these paradise gardens is somehow bounded, expressing a desire for a refuge from the outside world. “Paradise” is a concept of perfection, and perhaps the appeal of these designs is their attempts to perfect what is known. With a foot in each, these gardens occupy the gray zone between the real and ideal worlds.
I was ruminating on this concept of paradise while listening to the horrific news of 50+ people killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan at a volleyball tournament this past November. Trying to make sense of this, I recalled what I've heard about the beliefs of others who've sacrificed their lives like this; that their martyrdom in the destruction of non-believers will lead them to paradise. Did volleyball, glorified in summers by relentless TV coverage of bikini-clad athletes competing in Olympic Games, somehow represent to the bomber a heathen paradise? Was there belief that destruction of an earthly paradise would more emphatically secure the destroyer's place in the paradise of afterlife?
Voltaire's Candide travels and explores the world, seeking a form of paradise (the best of all possible worlds), under the guidance of the idealistic Dr. Pangloss. Candide eventually matures to view Dr Pangloss's myopic optimism with worldly realism, and ultimately counters that we must "cultivate our garden".
Jane Campion's recent miniseries "Top of the Lake" takes place in part in at a "Paradise" setting on New Zealand's South Island. A loose agglomeration of shipping containers on a lakeshore meadow, this 'paradise' is a retreat for alienated women seeking companionship and wisdom from a laconic oracle (played by Holly Hunter). The camp occupants feel more like boxcar hobos drifting through time than counter-cultural Utopians. Seemingly transitory and un-grounded, they are not cultivators aspiring to the creation of their own paradise gardens, Rumor has it there will be another season for this story; I look forward.
Recently, It was brought to my attention that the Hamilton Gardens received the prestigious “International Garden of the Year” award from the International Conference, Gardens without Limits in Metz, France in 2014.