For centuries, gardens have reflected immense symbolic potential, often becoming private, personal places of contemplation and romantic refuge from everyday problems. In recent decades, they’ve served as spaces for experimenting with ideas of social justice, biodiversity, and sustainability. Now, Garden Futures: Designing with Nature—a wonderful traveling exhibition designed by Italian design duo Formafantasma, on view until Oct. 3 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany—is exploring the history and future of modern gardens.
Sure, Modernist architects and designers like Alvar Aalto and Roberto Burle Marx have made gardens as paradises—beautiful idealized and formalist spaces based on their imaginations—but what makes this exhibition so compelling is that many of the gardens included have been less of a refuge and more of a battlefield and testing grounds than we perhaps have thought, especially given the examples of radicality that designers have embraced in designing garden spaces. For example, there is Mien Ruys (1904-99), a Dutch Modernist landscape designer, plantswoman, and publisher who set out to democratize garden design and saw the garden as a cultural phenomenon, believing that color, variation, and aesthetics of gardens could fulfill human needs. Stateside, when dense parts of New York fell into decay in the 1970s, there was Liz Christy, who lived on the Lower East Side and co-founded the Green Guerrillas, a group of gardening activists that attempted to redefine the garden as a place where social justice and public participation were key to improving urban development.
The exhibition includes more recent projects, too. For instance, there is the work of Jamaica Kincaid, whose Vermont garden for the past 30 years has been a springboard to question and challenge colonial history, cultural appropriation, and displacement. The exhibition also showcases the work of the Malaysian landscape architect Ng Sek San, whose community garden is a wonderful example of how civic engagement and community participation can transform wasteland into sustainable, socially just, and thriving gardens. As rapid development in the city of Kuala Lumpur has wiped out public green space, these community gardens have become a haven for families and volunteers but have also turned into part of the system of local supply and waste management.
Probably one of the most inspiring projects highlighted in the exhibition is the work of Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, who has spent the last three decades preserving and restoring the once abundant woodlands of his native Ethiopian Highlands. Working with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which believes that forests are sacred places, Eshete and the priests are saving small pockets of ancient forest, which have become key sites of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.
In short, the garden has become an avant-garde space. The exhibition shows that however we define this place, our relationship with nature must change. The whole planet is really just one big garden—in light of the climate emergency, we all have to learn how to better take care of and tend to it.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.