Understanding the garden as place-to-be: Approaching embodied experiences and the feeling of felicitously being at rest

The contemporary landscape discourse tends to move towards an open conceptualization of its central term of discussion (Franzen & Krebs 2006). Instead of solely understanding landscapes as aestheticized and idealized forms of nature (a perspective that at least has been common-sense since the 18th century, see von Buttlar 1989 or van Dülmen 1999), the scope has been broadened.

Studying social, political, and economic aspects of landscapes is no new paradigm. However, in an open conceptualization of landscapes, they are supposed to be embraced. Yet more crucially, this new conceptualization tries to cope with the changing forms of human movement that emerge within our complex cultures and societies shaped by processes of urbanisation.

An open conceptualization of landscapes is concerned with spatial structures that have become evermore patchwork-like. Contemporary landscapes have become more dynamic and particular; they have become more complex. Or as policy makers would say, today there simply are more stakeholders whose perspectives must be considered.

Instead of talking about a new aesthetic of the garden, I will therefor try to grasp onto the episteme of it. In the broadest terms of this concept, I understand the episteme of the garden as the root upon which we can establish different understandings and meanings of it. And I will try to outline this root of contemporary gardens, public and private, in what is the embodied experience of them. The embodied experience of human movement in what is the complex spatial structures we call garden today.

Thanks to my good friend Helena [1], I use the term embodied experience for the reason, as she said, that one immediately understands and feels what is meant. Within this immediacy, I hope to show how gardens allow us to gain hold onto the immediacy of the world. In understanding them as place-to-be, I will try to show how in their embodied experience we can gain hold onto something like the ‘unconcealment of being’. Experiences of our human embodiment that we might describe as beautiful, or, put more broadly, as felicitously being at rest.

Following conceptual reflections on the nature of space and the form of the garden, in situating these experiences, we will hence try to show their importance and reach. Leaning on fieldwork in the Schönbrunn Gardens, the Heiligenstädter Park, and at a garden party in Lower Austria, we will approach the embodied experience of contemporary gardens with a focus on their spatial structures.

Conceptualizing space

Understanding space as something that constantly is made, unmade, and remade, the political task that is spatial planning has a long-standing history in the fields of quantification and mathematics (Behrisch 2006). Mathematics and geometry are thus the appropriate tools to shape space in its physical materiality. However, culture, the relational space of symbolic representations and orderings of the world, is the tool to shape the possible meaningfulness of spaces. Hence, “a social order is hidden in the order of space” (Lefebvre 1974: 288).

In this juxtaposition of an absolute-physical and relational-cultural space, we can situate phenomena like ‘lieux de memoire’ – sites of memory (Nora 1984). They are material spaces that in their symbolic representations and social functionality are vested with historical significance. We can situate ‘heterotopia’ – other spaces (Foucault 1984). They are simultaneously mythic and real spaces, taking the form of contradictory sites. In this contradictory nature, they are entered through specific ways (and rituals), break with traditional time and representation of the world in creating a microcosm. We can situate ‘topophilia’ – approaching felicitous spaces (Bachelard 1958). They are the spaces we love and protect. They are the spaces we do not only experience in their geometrically orderedness, but in the intimate imaginations we live and lived them in.

The form of the garden

Gardens, public and private, appear to take the shape of all the above phenomena. They are today often sites of memory, places where we remember historical events and progressions. Accompanied with museums, they make the past present again and are supported in this functionality through the display of symbolic representations in the form of signs and tours, guiding our movement and view. Yet gardens are contradictory sites, bringing together different parts of the world. They are part of nature, but nature ordered by humans to display views of the world. In the words of Foucault, ‘the garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world’. They are places we love and protect. They can be quite intimate places, as only in the contemplative movement and imagination that emerges from the views they create they reach their full meaningfulness.

Reading through a portrait of André Le Nôtre, the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France (Orsenna 2001), one can immediately see the importance of geometry and culture in creating such garden spaces. For had he, apart from his formal education, rested his career in close relationships with philosophers and artists. His mathematical obsession was paired with an understanding of beauty influenced by Italian culture through his teacher Simon Vouet; though Le Nôtre only visited Italy at the end of his career (and was disappointed).

Yet his career also is a reminder for the importance of pragmatic political and economic aspects, inscribing the social order of a time into the garden. Apart from the task of allocating and managing the necessary resources, Le Nôtre often was confronted with adapting the symbolic representations created within Versailles in ways that corresponded to the image it was supposed to communicate to guests, political and private.

But still, Le Nôtre’s gardens only reached their full meaningfulness, for him and others, in what is walking through them. He has been described as always walking, though in a sense never covering any distance – and since he spent his entire life working, he only ever travelled from one of his gardens to another. For him the eye, the view is as important as is human movement, because only in the movement the view is vested with life. Accompanied by eye and movement, walking in the same garden all over again, the same continuously becomes something ephemerally different yet remaining already known.

Walking without covering distance might hence be associated with what one can understand as ‘unconcealment of being’ or ‘event of truth’. While the view allows for the emergence of things being there, it is in the horizontal movement that is walking without covering distance that we are able to gain closeness to these things. In this closeness, they can have an appearance, present themselves, put simply, touch us (Gumbrecht 2004: 64–78). And it is in this touch of our surrounding material environment that we can experience that form of ‘inspiration of the mind and an activation of the body’ we might call human life (Gumbrecht 1997: 137-139).

Schönbrunn Gardens

Concerning the embodied experiences connected to such movement, I think the first aspect of the episteme of the garden rests in the ways a garden is entered. More precisely, in the way a sense of knowing is established. For is it that upon the moment a garden is entered one has not yet become an actor in the dyadic roleplay of the knower and the unknown. And I think the Schönbrunn Gardens in Vienna have the potential to be an exemplary case of a spatial structure nurturing this feeling of knowing.

In this sense, I don’t want to undermine the historical significance that lies within this space and the way it is presented and made present again in the various museums and tours offered. I also don’t want to undermine the importance of what is the landscape and garden art present or its history. Yet I am neither equipped with the disciplinary tools nor with the intentions to focus on these aspects (if interested in Viennese gardens from this perspective, see Berger 2016). However, while I think there is one other aspect that has the same constitutive force capable of differentiating this from other gardens, namely the views created while ascending the garden hill, I’ll have to disregard it in this piece.

It is within the different gates available to enter the garden that not only the particular and dynamic uses of it become visible, but also that the garden as distinct space from the surrounding city is created. However, in focussing on the available gates, especially the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ on the north west side of the gardens, we can outline the Schönbrunn Gardens to be a complex spatial structure. It is this complex structure that creates a representation of the city located in by experiencing the feeling of knowing upon entering.

The first thing one notices quite heavily when entering the garden through the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ is the change in ambient noise. More radical than at any other of the possible five gates to enter the garden does the sound of the surrounding city and traffic break this fast (The main entrance is still accompanied with the typical city noise of tourist streams; the ‘Meidlinger Tor’ requires you to move through two gates to enter the gardens, hence breaking with the city much slower; the ‘Tirolertor’ is embedded in the accompanying ‘Maxingpark’; ‘Engelstor’ and ‘Maxingtor’ are only being used by the gardening and forestry facilities; the ‘Maria Theresia Tor’ might have a similar effect, yet who uses this gate anyway?). Put differently, the break takes this kind of odd auditory effect that when turning around after walking a few meters you still can see the city and cars moving but not hear them anymore already.

What follows this break immediately is a view of the garden created at the intersection between ‘Palmenhaus’ on the right side, ‘Postwiesen’ on the left side, and the ‘Finstere Allee’ in the centre leading towards the ‘Große Parterre’ infront of the Schönbrunn Palace and ‘Neptunbrunnen’. The gate still in the back, behind oneself on the left side cars of the gardening and gastronomy facilities passing onto the ‘Hietzinger Fahrstraße’, on the right groups of students, families, and couples walking towards the Schönbrunn Zoo.

It is at this intersection that one is confronted with the made-nature of cultural heritage on the right side, less symmetrically ordered nature and broadly open space on the left side, and a distanced but focussed view on an open space of cultural heritage occupied by streams of tourists in the centre. Within this view that is experienced upon entering the garden, an image of the city is presented within the garden’s structure. Its embodied experience creating a feeling of knowing as one is presently situated in Vienna; a city vested with culture and history which one most of the time inattentively lives by, falling back to less ordered spaces that are yet more open and distanced from tourist streams, hence surrounding oneself in the traffic and presence of those living and working the city. The contemporary experience of the garden is shaped by the dynamic experience of what is moving through the city. Yet in being an image, a parcel presenting the totality, it is much easier to gain hold onto this dynamic and be at rest.

Garden Party in Lower Austria

Upon being in a garden, I think the second aspect of its contemporary episteme rests in the embodied experience creating a sense of functioning. Functional purposes of gardens today are presumably more complex than just the idealized display of nature (and maybe always have been, yet not broadly and publicly available I assume?). More dynamic and particular, their spatial structure must hence provide the possibility for varying leisurely and social activities to unfold within the same space. In unfolding these spatially ordered activities, functional purposes are transformed into a lived-in, a functioning space. And I think a garden party in Lower Austria I was invited to can be seen as exemplary case in establishing such embodied experiences.

The key parameters in creating a fitting spatial structure nurturing the embodied experience of functioning are proximity and visibility – laying the grounds for what is movement without covering distance. Yet again it is necessary to mention that I am not capable of discussing what is the garden art and history of this space, at the same time do not want to undermine its importance for appears the garden to be presently well thought and worked through. Hence I’ll try speaking of visibility and not view for am I not concerned with a perspective created and contemplated, yet.

The core layout of the garden party can be seen in three horizontally aligned main areas. On the outer left a small setup soccer field and tennis court accompanied with some open space and a ping-pong table. Both areas divided by a small and I presume most of the time empty area with bar tables. The overall area separated from the centre area by a straight garden path with the visibility being blocked by the pool house on the upper and bushes on the lower side.

The centre main area of the party featuring a put aside yet used trampoline and setup archery range on the lower part. Behind the two an open space on the left and seating area on the right side featuring a food stand and benches behind it facing towards the outer right main area. A straight line of bushes dividing the main area in two parts. The upper area commencing with open space and bar tables, small buffet and band. In front of the pool house on the upper left side a lowered seating area and fire place, inside a bar plus couches and tv to watch the soccer world cup. On the upper right side the pool surrounded by seats and deck chairs.

The outer right main area almost entirely consisting of water from the pond surrounding the garden featuring two rowing boats and two inflatable swans. On the other side of the pond, hidden in low-hanging tree branches what I assume to be something playground-like. The overall variety of activities, seating areas, and foods available perfectly balanced on the grounds of choices haven been made, yet still there being room to make them on their own within.

In this setting the variety of different activities present were placed in that kind of proximity and visibility that they at the same time allowed kids to be on their own yet still in auditive and visual reach of their parents. Pool, archery range, and trampoline featuring the clearest visibility. Soccer and playground offering limited visibility but yet still clear sounds. Tennis court and accompanying open space neither establishing clear visual or auditive connection to the central main area. Seating at the food stand and bar tables in front of the pool house offering the most visibility and proximity to all areas. Lowered seating at the pool house and seating behind the food stand only limited visibility yet still centrally positioned. Bar and tv area mostly hidden yet connected to the central open space. Seating around the pool offering varying degrees of proximity to the main area.

In the way all different areas and activities are weaved together through their varying degrees of proximity and visibility the embodied experience of movement (be it directed towards carrying out an activity, seeking openness or closeness from others, or to contemplatively stroll around) nurtures a feeling of functioning. The movement never becomes functional and hence distant from what is the leisurely and recreational space of the garden party. It is a movement that covers no distance. All the particularities brought together in what is the entity of the garden space are hence experienced in a form of readiness-to-hand. They are not distant but in reach, not theoretically functional but empirically functioning. And I think in this certainty of things being in reach, of possible otherness we can experience in our movement and hence our self lies the ground upon which we can easily feel at rest.

Heiligenstädter Park

The third and last aspect of the garden episteme lies in a feeling of being, yet more precisely not a feeling of being evoked upon entering or inside the garden and not while leaving, but in the acts of remembering and reflecting the embodied experiences made once the garden is left. Such acts being highly individual, I reckon there to be no exemplary case. Hence I’ll try to describe this aspect of the episteme in what is my experience of the Heiligenstädter Park in Vienna.

Yet again, I am not able to provide any real depth into what is the history and structure of this space. From its early stages shaped by Josef und Leopoldine Kugler to some kind of geopolitical significance within the Vienna Danube regulation to a Beethoven memorial and heritage-protected lodge of the Rothschild-Gärten, there seems to be a lot to remember within this park. And within its history and present structure, the Heiligenstädter Park appears to always have been a more or less complex recreational space.

It is accompanied by the Döblinger public swimming pool, Hohe Warte Stadion, and an allotment garden (which in the bureaucratic wonderland of spatial planning that Austrian authorities must be allows two-story buildings within a garden; while I never knowingly talked to a German allotment gardener, I assume this is something they spend their entire gardening life dreaming of). Featuring multiple basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds for kids, lots of open space areas, and an oddly well placed fenced area for dogs to go about their business, the park seems to be very aware of what is serving the needs of its stakeholders today.

In this assemblage of particularities one finds within the Heiligenstädter Park, remembering the embodied experience made while walking through evokes a feeling of being. And I think it is best described as a feeling of felicitously being at rest. Walking through the garden, what in my case was a single five to ten minutes ascension of the hillside that is the Heiligenstädter Park, it is not the strong sense of an image of the city as I found in the Schönbrunn Gardens nor is it the certain sense of functioning I found at the garden party in Lower Austria.

Sure, all of the three cases presented in this piece have the qualities of all the outlined aspects of what is the garden episteme. And all of them, in their different ways and forms allow to set the path to feel felicitously being at rest. Yet, in what is my experience remembering the Heiligenstädter Park, I only afterwards found that rest of what is acknowledging the clearness within the complex spatial structure of the garden.

I reckon the contemplation of the views and movements experienced does not lead to any kind of fundamental epistemic consequence, something I think Le Nôtre hoped to find in Italy. But rather does it evoke a sense of appreciation for that form of contemporary human life inscribed into the spatial structure of the garden that aspires to have nothing more to itself than itself. It is on this ground that the garden becomes constituted as a place-to-be.

In this sense, however poorly equipped this piece is with historical perspective and evidence, and in accordance with what Jan Georg Söffner and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2014) have written about barbecues in Germany, we might assume: The gardens as such, public and private, remained the same, yet have become more complex – are not the same anymore.

[1] Writing this piece I am both thankful and fearful at the same time. This piece, as so much of my work, would not be possible without Helena. She is more historically educated, more presently situated, more driven towards the future, put simply, more human than I could ever be. For within her continuous feedback and support I owe so much to her. And hence I fear that this piece won’t be able to match the richness of what is experiencing the garden the way she showed me.

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