The Oaks News
Verena Conley on Exoticism, Europe, and the Jardin d’Essai
Verena Conley teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. She is currently at work on a project entitled “From Colony to Ecology: Theory and Practice of the Jardin d’Essai,” a celebrated colonial garden in Algiers, and another on “The Care of the Possible: Ecology, Technology, Sensation, Worlds.”
Brief Q&A with Verena Conley
In your talk you mentioned literary perspectives on the garden, specifically the writer André Gide, who I know has a curious little book, The Fruits of the Earth, that talks about gardens. What is his experience with the Jardin d’Essai?
Well it’s a very brief moment—I think it’s in book three, when he travels to North Africa—and he mentions this garden, just in passing, really, and he says he has never tasted fruit, dates, like this before. And the dates that he tastes are probably not indigenous; the trees would have been imported. Gide is one of the first who doesn’t simply say, “Oh, wow, here’s this magnificent tableau.” He actually describes how he moves through the North African landscape, how he experiences it through his senses and how it affects him—what the smells are, the sights, the tastes. Gide’s sensuous text made a big impression on young Jacques Derrida, who says in interviews later on that when he was growing up The Fruits of the Earth was a formative book for him; he said he knew it almost by heart.
And I don’t know if you’ve read Gide’s The Immoralist? There, too, the protagonist goes to North Africa. In the book, the narrator relates how he went south, first to Italy and then to Algeria. He tells his interlocutor how, in the course of his journey, he completely lost himself and sacrificed everything to the senses. And it’s dicey—he has these encounters with young boys—but in The Fruits of the Earth, it’s just a discovery of the landscape, especially gardens, through the senses.
Is the visiting of these gardens a sort of cultural phenomenon? How does Gide relate to that?
There’s this whole obsession in Europe with going south. The north is always seen as a very repressed place; the place of books and culture. As the exotic counterpart, the south is the realm of the body and the senses. In many ways, southern Italy is the same as North Africa—I don’t think Gide necessarily distinguished between the two. But in The Immoralist, you have a married couple, and they go down to a place in Algeria called Biskra. He is sick, but recovers with the help of his wife and the place. But when his wife becomes sick, he loses interest in her; instead he becomes obsessed with a young boy.
In your talk you mentioned the conscious exoticizing of gardens—how is the Jardin d’Essai connected to cultural understandings of the exotic over time?
Colonial gardens—and especially the Jardin d’Essai—are really a way of showcasing empire, of exhibiting what a country possessed from all the different parts of the world. The empire is always global; it’s expansionist, and then it tries to show you, to display, how it possesses all these lands, and how it can take from them and acclimate its new possessions. The creation of the Jardin d’Essai in 1832, that is, two years after the French conquer Algiers, is a clear gesture to mark the territory, to appropriate the land. The Jardin was a farm, a test garden, before it became a garden of acclimation and also a public garden.
The theory of acclimation, as it’s embodied by the garden, will be really important. You know, there was a whole craze in Europe around this theory, which led to the infamous attempts at anthropological and zoological acclimatization that culminated with the exhibits in Paris in the 1930s, where you construct entire street scenes from the colonies to showcase people and animals; and the French and other Europeans walk by and just gaze at them.
To come back to the Jardin d’Essai: it still exists today. A very popular public and botanical garden, it reopened in 2009 after several years of extensive work. It’s also a garden that is popular with artists and intellectuals. Many philosophers, writers, and filmmakers have written about the Jardin (Hélène Cixous, Assia Djébar, Jacques Derrida, and others). It’s now more of an ecological garden where children learn about water conservation, indigenous plants, and the ecological importance of Algeria and the Mediterranean basin.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires Seventeenth-Century Monument Guide
When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.
Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.
The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.
The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.
Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.
For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.
Authors Strassberg and Whiteman Recognized for Contribution to Garden History and Landscape Studies
Dumbarton Oaks Publications is pleased to announce that Richard E. Strassberg and Stephen H. Whiteman, authors of Thirty-Six Views: The Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate in Poetry and Prints, have been awarded the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies. The award is given to books that break new ground in method or interpretation and that contribute to the intellectual vitality of garden history and landscape studies. This is a prestigious award, and we could not be more pleased and proud of the volume and the authors who envisioned and created it.
Thirty-Six Views presents for the first time a complete, annotated translation of the Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat (Yuzhi Bishu shanzhuang shi), originally published by the Kangxi emperor in 1712. The emperor published this unprecedented book to commemorate his recently completed summer palace; it contained poems and descriptions of thirty-six of the palace’s most scenic views. He was closely involved in the production of the book and ordered several of his outstanding court artists—the painter Shen Yu and the engravers Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng—to produce woodblock prints of the Thirty-Six Views, which set a new standard for topographical illustration. He also ordered Matteo Ripa, an Italian missionary serving as a court artist, to translate these images into the medium of copperplate engraving, which introduced this technique to China. Ripa’s hybridized interpretations soon began to circulate in Europe and influenced contemporary aesthetic debates about the nature and virtues of the Chinese garden. This unique artistic collaboration between a Chinese emperor and a western missionary-artist marked a significant moment in intercultural imagination, production, and transmission during an earlier phase of globalization.
Richard E. Strassberg received his PhD in East Asian Studies from Princeton University and served as a Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He specializes in traditional Chinese literature, with a particular interest in landscape and garden culture. He has served as an adjunct curator at the Pacific Asia Museum and was a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. He is currently a member of the advisory committee for the Liu Fang Yuan Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Stephen H. Whiteman is Lecturer in Asian Art at The University of Sydney, Australia. He received his doctorate in art history from Stanford University and has been the recipient of fellowships from Dumbarton Oaks, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. His essays on garden history and historiography have been published in Ars Orientalis, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, and the anthology Chinese History in Geographic Perspective.
Strassberg and Whiteman have been invited to be guests at the Foundation’s 2017 Place Maker I Place Keeper benefit on May 10, where Thirty-Six Views and their valuable contribution to the field will be recognized.
Abbey Stockstill Probes the Hidden History of Urban Development
Abbey Stockstill is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She received her BA in 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and is currently a Tyler fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks.
Stockstill’s research report, “Crafting an Imperial Berber Identity: The Almohads and the Urban Landscape of Marrakech,” outlined the interactions between two successive dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads, on the urban development of Marrakech. Her work focuses on the repurposing of existing architectural structures—buildings, walls, fountains—and the underlying thought processes that determined the use, and reuse, of these elements in the formative years of urban development in Marrakech.
A Brief Q&A with Abbey Stockstill
How did you shift your research focus from urbanism and architecture to ecology and landscape?
Well, I’m trained as an architectural historian, so I didn’t really consider urbanism and landscape to be a key component of this material until I did a landscape workshop here in November 2015. John Beardsley and Anatole Tchikine had put together a workshop for graduate students, both in art history and landscape studies, to come and talk about how the two fields come together. One of the takeaways from that project was that architectural historians are always looking at this material as an object, while landscape historians think in a completely different way. After that I kept thinking about how better to integrate this material and to think about urban landscape more holistically, rather than as a compendium of different sites. I’m still working on that integration, and for this material in particular it’s just not very well served by that traditional way we look at architectural history.
Your talk touched upon the ways in which cities can be structured by ceremony—the qibla, for instance, has to be incorporated into the design of the city. What is the mediation between practical and ritual concerns? And was there anyone in charge of mediation, of keeping track of that?
To start, I’ve been really influenced by Paula Sanders’s work on Fatimid Cairo. She’s written how the Fatimid caliphs employed ceremony in very public ways, both as imperial propaganda and as religious performance, so there are a lot of resonances in my own work with the theory and way she addressed ceremony.
In the particular case of Marrakech, I haven’t seen anything in the records specifically talking about individuals organizing these ceremonies, but there must have been, and that’s something I’m still working on as part of the dissertation. But I think the key to a lot of this is that it’s not entirely religious, and it’s not entirely political, either—the two were very much integrated, political legitimacy and religious authority were very much tied together within the dynastic conception of the Almohad. That’s true specifically of the Almohad, but it’s also true in general in this period and region.
I find the repurposing of hallowed spaces fascinating. But are there problems that arise from this? How do you balance holding onto these traditional structures while also allowing the city to expand naturally?
One of the things that’s so unique about Marrakech is that by the time the Almohads arrive there, it’s still a relatively new city—it had only been founded about a hundred and twenty years earlier. So there aren’t a lot of urban remains to contend with, and they really do have the room to make their own mark on the city. Now, that said, they sort of follow a precedent of systematic removal of architectural reminders of the dynasty that came before. This happens again and again and again with successive dynasties. They come in and destroy, for instance, the palaces built by the previous dynasty. But destroying mosques is a contentious topic, with worries about sacred space, and in Marrakech this is exactly how they approach the Almoravid reminders. It’s actually unclear in the primary sources whether they completely destroy the Almoravid mosque or merely close it and let it fall into disrepair—a sort of passive destruction, if you will.
But with the palace they take very specific reminders and employ them in their own architecture. The palace itself was destroyed, but one wall remained that was the original qibla wall in the first mosque. There’s also a system of cisterns and fountains from the previous palace that they end up using for their mosque fountains, rather than trying to completely destroy those. They’re very smart about the reuse of materials. It’s a very conscious adoption of previous dynastic architectural reminders. And then, later, one of the things that I find so fascinating is that it never has this moment of being completely destroyed. The first one falls into disrepair, but we know that it exists—and the Almohad palace is destroyed but that whole area is continually rebuilt. So there’s something in the topography, or there’s something in the urban relationship between royal and public, that makes that space and that part of the city retain a connotation of sanctity and empire.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Saskia de Wit Contextualizes the Metropolitan Garden in Landscape Studies
Consider the following six gardens: Tofuku-ji Hoto in Kyoto, St. Catherine’s College Quadrangle at Oxford University, the pocket-sized Paley Park in New York, a reflection pool on Bainbridge Island just outside Seattle, the Garden of Birds on the A837 motorway in southwestern France, and a man-made geyser in a suburb of Germany.
To most people, this is just an eclectic list of destinations. But to Saskia de Wit, who is an assistant professor at the University of Technology in Delft in the Netherlands, as well as a recent one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks, these gardens are the “smallest reflections of landscapes” and as such afford insights into the significance of place in design.
In a swift yet incisive presentation that launched this semester’s Mellon Midday Dialogues, de Wit examined how these six gardens represent not only the many different ways in which humans have transformed the physical world, but also their designers’ sensitivity to their particular contexts.
Landscape scholars incessantly debate the concept of “place.” To some, it is inseparable from what is known as genius loci, a term taken from Roman religion that connotes a site-specific atmosphere. To others, it is about creating new possibilities and new ways of experiencing space. For de Wit, though, place always starts with what is already there, and reveals something about the site that we do not already know or see.
If de Wit is particular about her definition of place, it’s because, to her, even the word “particular” is important. “Every one of these places is unique,” de Wit remarked. “I can analyze ten more, and they’ll all be different.”
Indeed, seen through her perceptive eyes, each of the six projects revealed itself to be uniquely adapted to its urban setting. Paley Park, for example, has been shaped as much by active landscape design as by the aftereffects of New York’s fervent development—squeezed into an undeveloped plot, the park feels like an oasis in the surrounding urban space.
But de Wit isn’t just interested in theory. In addition to her role as an educator and scholar, de Wit also boasts a portfolio of realized garden designs located throughout the Netherlands. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s attuned to the sensory experience of walking through places—an aspect that is not always emphasized in previous scholarship.
To make her points clearer, de Wit focused on the geyser park in Germany, properly known as the Wasserkrater. The park, which sits between existing suburban houses, belongs to what de Wit calls a “suburban field,” or a large area of generic and scattered urbanization.
Instead of superimposing a design onto the landscape, the designers, working with natural fault lines beneath the site, created a geyser that draws attention to the geological properties of the location. As a result, a visit to the Wasserkrater involves more than just the sense of sight (the tall column of water erupting into the air). The smell of spring water, the moisture condensing on one’s skin, and the boom of the artificially induced eruptions become inextricably twined.
Ultimately, de Wit’s goals are as multifaceted as the subjects of her investigation. “I think of my work as serving two purposes,” she concluded. “On one hand, it provides a set of tools—or rather, ideas—for practicing landscape architects. On the other, it is a reflection on the metropolitan landscape.”
We are pleased to welcome Saskia de Wit who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a one-month research awardee from January 9 to February 7, 2017.
Saskia de Wit is an assistant professor at the University of Technology in Delft, where she helped establish a master track in landscape architecture and now teaches landscape architecture, planting design, landscape theory, and history. She also leads her own office, Saskia de Wit Garden and Landscape, with realized works in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
While studying for her master’s degree in landscape architecture at Wageningen University, she was introduced to the notion of landscape architecture as a transformation of the existing landscape. During an exchange year at Delft University, architecture and an integral connection to urbanism were added. Her interests in both the garden and the characteristics of landscape are expressed in several books, papers, and articles, notably The Enclosed Garden (coauthor Rob Aben; 010 Publishers, 1999), and Dutch Lowlands: Morphogenesis of a Cultural Landscape (SUN Publishers, 2009). Gradually her focus deepened on the garden as the most condensed expression of landscape—as a core of the discipline of landscape architecture—and in 2014 she finished her PhD research on “Hidden Landscapes: The Metropolitan Garden and the Genius Loci.”
Currently she is working on transforming her PhD research into a book for a broader audience. While at Dumbarton Oaks, she will be working on two essays on the role of interstitial spaces in the metropolitan landscape and on the sensorial properties of place. These notions come together in her understanding that interstitial spaces might hold keys for opening up often-hidden landscape qualities “underneath” the metropolitan tissue, qualities that can be defined as “place,” if they can be perceived as such.
Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens
Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.
Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.
Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets
In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?
So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.
That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.
In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.
In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.
But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.
You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?
Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.
The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.
That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.
I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.
Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?
It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Deirdre Moore on Cochineal Insect Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico
Deirdre Moore grows her own bugs. On the broad, mitt-like pads of prickly pear cacti, carefully cultivated fuzzballs house the illusive insect known as the cochineal. On October 31, Moore, a 2015–17 Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, delivered a talk entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico,” which traced her research into cultivation practices and the economics of the cochineal market.
As Moore explained, cochineal were valued in centuries past for the red dye extracted from their ground-up bodies. Throughout the eighteenth century, the cochineal was aggressively grown in Mexico, especially the province of Oaxaca, which boasted one of the few climes favorable to large-scale cochineal farming. Eventually, it became one of the first truly transcontinental cash crops, dying everything from Oaxacan wool to the red coats of the British military.
Yet northern European understandings of cochineal were only hazy at best. The intelligentsia hotly debated whether the cochineal was a bug or a plant (the dried insect resembles a crunchy, long-deceased pea). Moore’s research has sought to compare Oaxacan expertise in cochineal farming with the bevy of European misunderstandings wrought by the cochineal trade.
A Brief Q&A with Deirdre Moore
What is the actual ink-making process like? There’s a long period in which it’s a really popular dye—but are there any evolutions in the process during that time?
There were three traditional ways of curing these insects. You can boil them—killing them by immersing them in hot water and then drying them—or you can toast them as you would normally toast your corn, or you can dry them in the sun. Different areas within the Oaxacan region preferred different methods -possibly for climatic reasons. During the eighteenth century, there was pressure from colonial authorities to try to standardize the way cochineal was cured. Archival records indicate that these colonial authorities preferred cochineal to be dried in the sun because they thought there was less opportunity for fraud and adulteration of the end product. But drying in the sun often ended up being a more lengthy curing process. Also, if you dry cochineal in the sun, sometimes the insects will give birth to their babies before dying. Then the product is less valuable since the weight decreases and it is mixed with baby cochineal dust. So there was a certain amount of resistance from some growers. Of course, the concerns about fraud and adulteration were also real. Some people even made fake cochineal by passing wet clay through a fine mesh, drying the result and then mixing it with cochineal to bring up the weight of their product. Various types of adulteration were common during the eighteenth century.
In terms of the actual dyeing, I was surprised when I watched the process. I assumed it would be a fairly set recipe, but it was very ad hoc. The local weaver and his wife whom I visited, ground up their dried cochineal and then appeared to add things at whim. They were mostly using baking soda as a mordant but it was not measured out with the precision one might imagine dyeing textiles would involve. They also disagreed with each other frequently about what shade of red they wanted and how much of this and how much of that to put in to dye their wool. There were a couple of hours where they were periodically adding fistfuls of things. They were changing the color as it developed. Every batch they make ends up being a different shade of red. The colors they ended up with were beautiful.
The other thing that surprised me was that they were using copper and various other metal implements, and of course metals can affect the colors of dyes. When I asked them about this they said, “No, no, not at all,” the types of metal weren’t going to have any kind of effect. But they did tell me that a women once came to visit while they were dyeing with cochineal. When they put the wool in the pot it turned brown instead of red. So they asked this woman, “Are you pregnant?” And she said yes, and they asked her to move further away. They dipped the wool again, and it turned orange. Then they asked her to leave altogether, but they said they never got a good red on that occasion. This kind of scenario does appear in a variety of texts in other places in the world—the idea that an unborn baby has an effect on the dyeing process.
A question that came up after your talk asked about the social aspect of cochineal production. What are the social issues or changes that spring up along with the market?
Well, from the very beginning of the colonial period, right after the conquest in the early 1500s, a lot of social problems arose around cochineal. You have people who were previously subsistence farmers suddenly making an extraordinary amount of money selling cochineal to the Spaniards. In the tradition of the newly wealthy everywhere, they’re carrying on poorly, buying all sorts of alcohol, getting drunk on Sunday, wearing all the best clothes, and buying the best thick chocolate. There’s even an anecdote—that these get-rich-quick folk were served the thin chocolate more commonly drunk by the lower-classes—and threw it out on the ground in front of their hosts. The moral outrage from their social superiors, who recorded these behaviors, is still palpable over four centuries later.
Moving on into the eighteenth century, you see a continuation of the social problems caused by cochineal wealth. It’s a cash crop, and people are making a bit of money off it comparatively. Many farmers chose to grow less corn since cochineal was more profitable. There are entire areas where the authorities complain that locals are not growing food. With the arrival of a larger market some people stopped growing corn altogether, because they could buy food with the profit they were making off the cochineal and still have money left over. There was a manuscript that I mentioned in my talk in which a priest tells his bishop in the eighteenth century, “I can’t even get the children to come to school, because they’re all growing cochineal.” Cochineal is widely assumed to have had a significant long-term effect on the history of Oaxaca. Currently, Oaxaca remains the area of Mexico with the most indigenous people still living on their traditional lands and speaking native languages. That is less common in many other states in Mexico. In many cases people had to move away from their traditional areas much earlier on for economic reasons. Cochineal was a cash crop that was viable and lucrative even when it was grown on small plots with poor soil. In certain cases, those circumstances allowed people to stay on their land.
What is the spread of cochineal today? Where are they located? Where are they still being farmed?
Currently, the vast majority of cochineal is being grown in Peru, and—this is interesting—a large proportion is still coming from smaller areas of cultivation. There is a large plantation in Chile. A much smaller proportion of the global supply of cochineal comes from the Canary Islands, Botswana, and other areas. Very little comes from Mexico these days. There are two lines of thought on domesticated cochineal in Mexico. One is that it arrived in Mexico—that it evolved in Peru and somehow was transferred in the Pre-Columbian period. But one of the strongest arguments for cochineal evolving in Mexico rather than Peru is that domesticated cochineal has a lot of coevolved parasites preying on it that are local to the southern Mexican landscape. Frequently, when you see a relationship like that it indicates that the biological entity evolved over a long period of time in the same area as its parasites. This is also why it is often easier for plants and insects to flourish, or even become invasive, in areas where they are not native. Competition with a large population of parasites makes it much more difficult to grow and tend to cochineal in Mexico. There was a lot of skill involved in knowing how to grow native cochineal and deal with the many parasites of cochineal in the Mesoamerican landscape. During the early nineteenth century, people started trying to develop an industry of domesticated cochineal in Guatemala. Certain reports indicate that the venture did not succeed until native Oaxacans were sent along with the cochineal to teach the local population insect growing skills. They kind of end up stealing Oaxaca’s thunder. Guatemalan exports of cochineal surge and Oaxacan exports slump. The viability of growing cochineal in other areas eventually caused Oaxaca to lose its monopoly. I’m fascinated by the transfer process because it involved local knowledge and understanding of the life cycle and predators of cochineal.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Denis Ribouillault Delivers the 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies Public Lecture
When, in the waning years of the sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V was presented with an elaborately illustrated compendium of city views, he was also regaled with the idiosyncrasy of its production. The artist, working painstakingly to prove a point, had illustrated the entire volume using only his left hand.
That artist, Girolamo Righettino, was the subject of this year’s Garden and Landscape Studies Public Lecture, delivered on November 9 by Denis Ribouillault, an associate professor at the University of Montreal and a former summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks.
Ribouillault’s talk, titled “Glorifying the City in Counter-Reformation: Girolamo Righettino Rediscovered,” traced Righettino’s involvement in the political life of Venice in the mid-sixteenth century, employing his sole surviving work of art as a case study: a view of the city of Turin executed in 1583.
Righettino, as Ribouillault made clear, was an anomalous figure. Though testimony survives comparing his lost oeuvre to the works of the celebrated mapmakers Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator, Righettino was decidedly less professional. His city views were a hobby, one pursued largely for his own amusement. Lacking traditional training in surveying, Righettino frequently cribbed the technical aspects of his city views from preexisting works, among them Jacopo de Barbari’s famous Map of Venice.
Early in his talk, Ribouillault focused on the political implications of Righettino’s art. A theologian and Lateran canon, Righettino employed his skills as a draftsman diplomatically, attempting to serve his religious order and his Venetian patrons. His illustrations of cities like Rome and Genoa gained him favor with political figures like Marcantonio Barbara; he moved in the same intellectual circles as the luminary Palladio, and was held in high esteem by Venetian senators. Much of this fame derived from the use of his city views as diplomatic gifts—Sixtus V would not have been the only one presented with an original Righettino.
The absence of the bulk of Righettino’s work allows for rich and intriguing speculation, aided by newly discovered contemporary documents. For instance, as Ribouillault demonstrated, it is entirely possible that the aesthetics behind Sixtus V’s large-scale and controversial urban reform program were influenced by the collection of city views given to him by Righettino.
Righettino’s works were often blatantly flattering; their status as diplomatic gifts was even encoded in their composition. The view of Turin displays an act of gift-giving in the lower left corner: a ducal figure beneath a flowing baldaquin receives a book from a diminutive figure, half-boy, half-man. (Righettino, accounts attest, was famously short.)
In the second half of his presentation, Ribouillault began to analyze the ideology of the view of Turin, focusing on its elaborate ornamental and allegorical fecundity. Righettino was not a cosmographer or geographer, as Ribouillault argued, but rather a fine panegyrist whose view of Turin might best be described as an example of “chorography,” that is, a detailed delineation of a particular district or region.
Indeed, Ribouillault took pains to suggest that the most evident spiritual dimension in Righettino’s work was its detail; for the Italian artist, detail was tantamount to prayer. And yet the larger iconographical program of the view of Turin carries its own spiritual weight. As Ribouillault pointed out, the entire composition, in which the image of the city is cloistered within a geometric, ideal order, continuously oscillates between topography and allegory; the city is a grid, and also, by Ribouillault’s analysis, a “ladder toward paradise.”
According to Ribouillault, Righettino was working squarely within the “epideictic tradition of chorography,” in which the image of the city became a visual paean and the traditional cartographic view—top-down and essentially omniscient—was equated with the view of God.
As fantastic and as impressive as Righettino’s view of Turin is, the complex commingling of personal, political, and aesthetic concerns that helped to produce it was not unique to the Italian theologian, even if it does act as an exemplary case study. Toward the end of his presentation, Ribouillault recounted an anecdote about the fourteenth-century Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti that he believed threw light on Righettino’s own career.
Commissioned by a civic group to deliver an upbuilding triptych, Lorenzetti set about composing The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by imagining an ideal city. It was only after he had begun painting that he made sure this city was Siena.
Bliss Symposium Award Recipients Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy Reflect on the Garden and Landscape Studies Colloquium on Hubert Robert
The Bliss Symposium Awards provide Harvard graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to travel to Dumbarton Oaks and participate in the annual symposia or colloquia in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies. Two recent award recipients, Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy, attended the Garden and Landscape Studies colloquium on “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” which took place on September 27. They reflect on the colloquium and their visit to Dumbarton Oaks below.
PhD candidate, History of Art and Architecture
The colloquium was an invigorating addition to the recent exhibition on Hubert Robert at the National Gallery of Art. The talks were as diverse as Robert’s own artistic practices, and the speakers illuminated Robert’s multifaceted engagement with history, antiquities, and landscape and garden design. The speakers simultaneously explored and expanded the boundaries of the French picturesque, a term mostly associated with English gardens except for Claude-Henri Watelet’s Essai sur Jardins (1774). Joseph Disponzio contextualized Robert’s work within eighteenth-century continental picturesque garden theories, and Gabriel Wick highlighted Robert’s sequencing of natural spaces in relation to eighteenth-century antiquarianism. John Pinto additionally located Robert’s artistic activities alongside those of his contemporaries in the historic and ruinous environs of Rome. Other speakers introduced refreshing approaches to Robert’s projects: Susan Taylor-Leduc reconsidered rocks as a medium that intimated the temporality of sculpture, and Elizabeth Hyde undertook a close analysis of the inventory of plants in the royal gardens. Sarah Catala’s talk on Robert’s drawings in relation to women amateurs was particularly fruitful for my own research on eighteenth-century French drawings. For me, it was an immensely productive day that reframed my experience of Robert’s oeuvre. The conference offered tantalizing glimpses into novel approaches to the art of Hubert Robert and eighteenth-century French visual culture.
MLA candidate, Graduate School of Design
I was honored to be able to attend the special colloquium on the work of Hubert Robert, in conjunction with the exhibition of his work at the National Gallery. The assembled panelists presented a number of interesting perspectives of Robert’s work, particularly in relation to his involvement in garden design and improvement projects. As an aspiring landscape architect with a background in art history, this conversation was of particular interest to me, with many of the speakers discussing—and at times complicating—the relationship between picturesque painting and the developing field of landscape architecture. Joseph Disponzio’s talk on the relationship between Robert and Jean-Marie Morel was particularly illuminating on this subject, as were John Pinto’s discussion of Robert’s relationship to ruins and Elizabeth Hyde’s talk on eighteenth-century French horticulture. The closing conversation attempted to find commonalities and connections between the growing scientific understanding visible in the work of Morel and the historicist themes in Robert’s paintings and garden designs.
Beyond the subject matter addressed in the colloquium itself, it was a distinct pleasure to make my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks. I was struck by the wide variety of disciplines and methods encompassed within the department of Garden and Landscape Studies, which speaks to the depth and relevance of the field itself. And while I wasn’t able to visit the museum or main house, it was amazing to be able to spend even an hour in Farrand’s gardens, and I hope to return very soon.
We are pleased to welcome Beth Meyer, who will be joining Dumbarton Oaks as a visiting scholar from November 1 to November 30, 2016.
Professor Meyer is widely recognized for her theoretical writings about the intersection of modern conceptions and experiences of nature, environmental ethics, and contemporary landscape design. Her recent publications include “Sustaining Beauty. The Performance of Appearance,” “Slow Landscape. A New Erotics of Sustainability,” “Grafting, Splicing, Hybridizing: Strange Beauties of the Australian Garden,” and “Beyond Sustaining Beauty: Musings on a Manifesto.” During a 2016–17 sabbatical, she is completing a book manuscript, The Margins of Modernity. Theories and Practices of Landscape Architecture.
In 2015, Meyer founded the UVA Center for Cultural Landscapes, a transdisciplinary initiative. Since Meyer’s graduate studies in landscape architecture and historic preservation, she has been fascinated by the thick description of landscapes—places replete with cultural memories and biophysical processes. This perspective has afforded her opportunities to research, interpret, plan, and design significant cultural landscapes such as the UVA Academical Village (EDAW 1980s), Bryant Park in NYC (Laurie Olin 1980s), the Wellesley College campus outside of Boston (MVVA 1990s), the St. Louis Gateway Arch Grounds, a modernist memorial landscape designed by Saarinen and Kiley (MVVA 2000s), and the White House Kitchen Garden (NPS 2016).
Meyer is a registered landscape architect who has worked for EDAW, Hanna/Olin, and Michael Vergason. She taught at Cornell University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design before joining the UVA faculty, in 1993, where she teaches design studios and theory courses. She has served as the dean of the School of Architecture as well as the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. Meyer currently holds a Presidential appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a seven-member design review board responsible for the monumental core and significant public spaces of Washington, D.C.
Sonja Dümpelmann on the History of Street Trees
Walking along a residential street in the middle of a city, you might briefly consider the shade-casting branches of overhanging trees, or the sough of leaves mingling with the whir of distant traffic. You probably wouldn’t reflect, however, on the embattled histories of individual trees, the aesthetic theories that (often literally) helped to shape them, or the intricacies of city-planning that either frustrated or ensured their existences.
Sonja Dümpelmann thinks about just these things.
On October 19, Dümpelmann, a landscape historian and associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, as well as a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, delivered a lecture as part of the Mellon Midday Dialogue series which outlined her recent research into the history of street tree planting and its relation to urban development.
Though the book Dümpelmann hopes to write on the subject will focus on twentieth-century Berlin and New York, her talk, “Street Tree Stories: On the Politics of Nature in the City,” stepped further into the past in order to examine the curious and oftentimes dramatic stories that have sprung up around urban trees.
Historically, trees have been prone to personification. In ancient times dryads roamed the earth in the guise of beautiful women; when spotted, they swiftly transformed themselves into oaks. Even today, as Dümpelmann explained, a bit of paganism resurfaces in the wintertime as children pack snowballs onto trees, forming eyes, a nose, a winning grin.
In simple terms, this mythological baggage means that, in more recent times, trees have often functioned as epicenters of emotion. Place a tree in the middle of the city, as Dümpelmann illustrated with a series of anecdotes, and the emotions tend to run even higher.
Dümpelmann recounted the story, preserved in a newspaper snippet from 1897, of the Matthews family, who woke one morning to find that a telephone company had dug three postholes in the front yard of their home in Brooklyn. When the family members learned that the company planned to topple their large shade tree to make room for a skein of telephone wires, they promptly leapt into the postholes and refused to budge.
As cities continued to grow in complexity in the early twentieth century, conflicts concerning their trees turned theoretical and oftentimes scientific. The science of arboriculture spread, and the position of city forester became professionalized.
What is the ideal tree, its type, its shape? While cottonwoods, as some argued, were initially appealing, their cloudy seedpods had a tendency to stick to the clothing of those passing under them. At the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, the newly invented dendroscope—basically a large wire cookie cutter for trees—promised uniformity in the pruning of trees, and came in a variety of ovoid iterations.
Displaying images from pruning manuals and handbooks, Dümpelmann explained that the process of standardization, made manifest in the Victorian-era innovation of the dendroscope, presaged the widespread practice of arboriculture. With time, aesthetic concerns gave way to concerns over the interactions of architecture and verdure, and even to questions of public health.
In the early years of the twentieth century, street trees had become such a prominent concern that rampant debate about their pros and cons could materialize even in the literary realm. To close her presentation, Dümpelmann read an exchange of poems between a leading arboriculturist and a writer for The New Yorker. Pithy, humorous, and mutually dismissive, like parodies of pastoral verse, the poems nevertheless encapsulated the fervent hopes and beliefs sprouting from the contentious trunks of the city’s trees.
Garden and Landscape Studies 2016 Colloquium on Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture
On Tuesday, September 27, the Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, held its annual fall colloquium. Entitled “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” the colloquium, which featured six speakers, sought to examine the artistic and cultural contexts of the French painter and landscape designer’s work. The colloquium was held in conjunction with the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808, on view at the National Gallery from June 26 to October 2. (Dumbarton Oaks has a set of four pendant paintings by Robert.)
After brief welcoming remarks from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Therese O’Malley, associate dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, spoke of the long history of collaboration between the National Gallery and Dumbarton Oaks, and cited the current colloquium as a welcome effort to revivify relations between the institutions.
Sarah Catalla, a PhD candidate in art history at the Université Lille III and a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, began the day’s presentations by examining a lesser-known aspect of Robert’s work. Her talk, “Hubert Robert and the Amateurs: From ‘Educating the Eye’ to Composing the Landscape,” sought to foreground Robert’s time as an instructor of drawing to aristocratic amateurs.
In the course of her talk, she suggested not only that this endeavor helped, in a professional sense, to secure Robert connections with wealthy patrons, but also that it molded his understanding of the potentialities of the picturesque style and helped to shape his latter-day style.
Drawing on a rich corpus of sketches and drawings, Catalla discussed how the practices of teaching, touring, and sketching were linked with the evolution of Robert’s garden interventions. She limned the amateur milieu prevailing at the time—in which the work of women amateurs was granted equal value—and raised settings and themes that would recur throughout the day, including the Tour de Guy at La Roche-Guyon, an important site in Robert’s career as landscape designer.
Dovetailing with the theme of an amateur milieu, Gabriel Wick’s presentation, “Between Artifact and Artifice: Hubert Robert and the Mise-en-Scène of History in the Aristocratic Garden,” charted Robert’s development during a period in which he helped to compose a series of landscape gardens for aristocratic amateurs.
At the outset of his presentation, Wick, a PhD candidate in history and cultural geography at University of London, Queen Mary, attempted to parse the precise nature of Robert’s involvement in the design of several landmark sites: Ermenonville, La Roche-Guyon, Betz, and La Chapelle-Godefroy. This is a difficult task, as Robert rarely worked alone, but often undertook his interventions with others, including, in one instance, a team of antiquarians and theorists.
Engaging in his own theoretical discussion, Wick went underground in an effort to explore Robert’s construction of false historical palimpsests. Highlighting the underground passageway, implemented by Robert, that connected the Tour de Guy with the main estate at La Roche-Guyon, Wick suggested that the motif of underground passageways was a significant one for Robert. Like the passageway at La Roche-Guyon, the series of grotto chambers implemented at Méréville implied a historical narrative of great age in the grounds.
Describing Robert as a “specialist in distressing and displacing,” Wick explained that in constructing simulacra of age for aristocrats, Robert helped them to reinforce their historical lineage, putting the landscape garden to sociopolitical use.
A theme that quickly emerged from the day’s proceedings was the difficulty of classifying Robert’s work as a landscape designer, a thread taken up by Joseph Disponzio in his presentation, “Neither Painter nor Gardener Be: Hubert Robert and Eighteenth-Century French Picturesque Garden Theory.”
After a brief sketch of perceptions of Robert’s work throughout the years, leading all the way up to the twentieth century, Disponzio, a preservation landscape architect with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, segued into an analysis of Robert’s anomalous position with regard to French picturesque garden theory.
Despite the majority of his design work taking place after an explosion of theoretical texts in the 1770s, Robert’s efforts were nevertheless at odds with the dominant theories expounded by these tracts, which posited that landscape design and landscape painting were not, in fact, twinned arts, but were instead deeply at odds with one another.
Analyzing Robert’s design work through the lens of its conflict with theory, Disponzio’s talk presented a picture of a well-admired designer who nevertheless stood apart from many picturesque trends. Though it is often easy to classify his work as falling within the French picturesque, Disponzio contended that he was an artist whose approach to garden design was always, first and foremost, through the canvas.
If, during his lifetime, Robert often seemed misplaced in his theories and vocations, it was a theme that carried through to the appointments he received, as Susan Taylor-Leduc, dean of Parsons Paris, the European campus of the New School, explained in her talk, “Designing in Rock: Hubert Robert and the Politics of the French Picturesque.”
When, in 1778, Robert accepted the title of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi from the French monarchy, he filled a vacancy left by the famed formalist Le Nôtre in 1700—a designer with views nearly antipodal to his own.
Setting out to elucidate the subtle political messages encoded in Robert’s work for the French monarchy—that is, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Taylor-Leduc’s talk primarily traced Robert’s work with stone. Though the Baths of Apollo, situated at Versailles, were considered a failure by contemporary critics, Taylor-Leduc identifies the display as a node of political allegory, in which the transmutability of stone, embodied in the contrast between natural rock and statuary, played an important role.
Elizabeth Hyde, an associate professor and assistant chair in the department of history at Kean University, went on to develop similar themes in her presentation, “‘Such Things as Would Enrich France,’ or Planting the Eighteenth-Century French Garden.” Focusing on Robert’s use of foliage in his designs, Hyde emphasized early on that though Robert demonstrated little knowledge of plant life itself—his depictions in his paintings often lack any botanical precision—plantations were nevertheless key to the political messages his work evinced.
Commissioned to record in painting the replanting of the gardens of Versailles, Robert’s depictions of the felling of barren and frequently lopsided trees corresponded to his use of overgrown vegetation in his famous capricci. For Hyde, these depictions display a political consciousness to Robert’s work; as she suggested, the decaying foliage Robert painted seemed to embody a starkly linear conception of time that contrasted sharply with the cyclical time—or rather timelessness—redolent of the age of the Sun King.
The French picturesque, as Hyde suggested, sought to evince the twinned concepts of renewal and timelessness, and, in order to do this, gardeners had to reach beyond the borders of their own state. Hyde detailed the far-flung botanizing missions undertaken by royal gardeners in this period, an expeditionary effort perhaps epitomized by the botanist André Michaux, who established botanical gardens in what are now New Jersey and South Carolina.
In concluding the colloquium, John Pinto, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Princeton University, returned to the heart of Robert’s fame in a presentation aptly titled “Robert des Ruines: Landscape and Antiquity.” Echoing Catalla’s presentation, Pinto emphasized Robert’s time in Italy (1754–65) and the sketchbooks he completed there—which Robert referred to as promenades—in the development of Robert’s later aesthetic.
Presenting the painter’s Italian years as an apprenticeship of sorts, when Robert interacted with contemporaries like Gian Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Pinto compared Robert’s work to that of his contemporaries. Piranesi’s depictions were darker, of course, though Robert’s interest in “the tenebrous interiors of imaginary ruins” and his belief in the expressive nature of ruins could be traced to the Italian artist’s influence.
Though Robert’s painting is inventive and oftentimes fantastical in its blending of settings and transposing of monuments, Pinto made a point of emphasizing, through a series of anecdotes, Robert’s physical engagement with his subjects. Robert, accompanied by a coterie of fellow painters, was said to have once thrown an apple over a barren arch and, charging through the connecting ruins, to have caught it on the tip of a penknife.
In his spry youth, he was also known to climb the fading monuments he encountered, shimmying up columns and resting at perilous heights—an experience curiously echoed by his painting L’Accident. On the canvas a yearning suitor, having gathered a bouquet from atop a decayed temple, falls through the air, betrayed by a crumbling capital—and the somber ache of ruins is made tragically manifest.
Meredith Miller on Confronting Climate Change through Design
On Wednesday, October 5, Meredith Miller, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, delivered the first of the year’s Mellon Midday Dialogues. The series, which serves to highlight urban aspects of landscape studies, will continue throughout the academic year.
Miller’s talk, “Making Post Rock: Material Research through Design,” reflected her longstanding interest in the intersections of architecture and ecology. Recently, Miller has undertaken a series of projects aimed at confronting global climate change through the lens of its representation.
How can one effectively represent such a largescale phenomenon? Is it possible to make the crisis, which can seem both temporally and spatially abstract, more concrete, more urgent, and thereby more tractable? In attempting to answer these questions, Miller has focused her research and design efforts on a modern oddity: plastiglomerates.
The crude, amorphous lumps—“perhaps the first material of the Anthropocene age,” as Miller puts it—most often form when natural materials (sand, stone, wood) and bits of man-made waste accrete around a base of molten plastic. Constituting an entirely new class of material, plastiglomerates are highly variable in structure: some are formed by beach campfires, while others are produced in the middle of the ocean in large floating landfills, where the crushing pressure of tidal currents combines with UV radiation to slowly glue together detritus.
As a result, a plastiglomerate may simply consist of three detergent bottles warped together, though the masses can also appear subtler and eerily natural, like a dirtied clump of pumice or a volcanic stone. Because plastiglomerates have such a curious provenance and appearance, they offer unique design opportunities.
As Miller asserted in her talk, plastiglomerates have the potential, when used in construction, to tether the idea of climate change more solidly to the resulting structure. Because plastiglomerates are neither wholly man-made nor entirely natural—because they embody, in a strictly physical way, the often nebulous interactions between humans and the environment—Miller believes they are a promising starting point for representing climate change through architecture.
Working with a team of designers, Miller has experimented with creating her own plastiglomerates, which, by and large, are more photogenic than the “naturally” occurring specimens. Miller’s creations, which she calls “post rock,” are typically of a uniform color, their surfaces smooth and often gleaming, though familiar shapes (bottles, cups, furniture) are still discernible beneath the gloss.
In closing her presentation, Miller dwelt on the models that she and her teammates recently designed for a proposed installation at the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Not quite sculptures and not quite buildings, the models strike a middling note: like the material out of which they are made, they are at once attractive and unsettling. Some—earth-toned, pitted and rough, with geometric portals and windows—seem to suggest caves, and the distant origins of the human race. And yet others—white, cloudlike, almost lunar—gesture forward, into the perilous future and outside the world that made them.
Karen Lewis on the Trail’s Evolving Identity
Familiar as a musty myth of struggle and American perseverance, taught for just a week or two in middle school, the Oregon Trail can sometimes be difficult to imagine in anything less than the broadest strokes. And yet, Karen Lewis, an associate professor of architecture at Ohio State University and a one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks in September, is attempting to do just that.
At a lunchtime talk on September 14, Lewis summarized her research on the trail, which attempts to move beyond a standard cultural interpretation of the space that she humorously diagnoses as “enthusiastic literalism.” On this reading, the trail is seen primarily as a tourist attraction, its length dotted with outsize bits of Americana: overscale wagon wheels, buildings fashioned as Conestoga wagons, giant statues of straining oxen.
Lewis has worked with extensive geospatial data, gathered from archival materials and contemporary maps and surveys, in order to revisualize the Oregon Trail as an infrastructural system. Looking beyond its boom period as a center of physical migration, she has focused on the trail’s evolving identity as an infrastructural core for other industries—from the mail services and railroads of the late nineteenth century to the oil, gas, and internet conduits of today.
Lewis, whose prior research has explored issues of architectural representation through graphic systems, displayed several digital maps and timelines of her own design during her presentation. The images—breaking down, scattering, and reinterpreting the trail, which appeared sometimes in the semblance of a bar graph, sometimes as a black braid against a white map—dispelled historical visions of the western trail, breathing new complexity into an old story.
Tyler Fellow John Davis Creates Online Map of the D.C. Watershed
As in so many other cities, water is everywhere in Washington, D.C.—and yet it remains largely invisible to most of us, taken for granted or ignored. But D.C.’s waterways and plumbing shape the civic, social, and even commercial lives of its residents just as much now as in the past: the Anacostia, the Potomac, the C&O Canal, Rock Creek. And the crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shown that the questions of where and how cities find their water have tremendous importance for public health, down to the last pipe.
“It’s interesting to be able to visualize things that aren’t always apparent when you’re walking around the city,” says John Davis, Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. “It’s a totally different conception of how the city works.” During his time at Dumbarton Oaks, Davis, a PhD candidate in history at Harvard working on the history of engineering and infrastructure, has created a digital atlas of Washington, D.C.’s watershed. The “Water Atlas,” as he calls it, shows the development of the city’s water infrastructure over time, from large features like canals to the sewer grid and water treatment facilities.
Unlike a traditional atlas on paper, the online atlas gives the user a clearer sense of the relationship in scale between a city block and the course of an entire river. It also facilitates visualizing changes over time in layers or phases, rather than having to combine those phases into a single diagram or distribute them over several maps. Davis’s atlas further highlights how different the city’s landscape might have looked if certain rejected projects had been realized. One area of the map allows viewers to see how a proposed dam on the Rock Creek would have created an enormous reservoir in the north part of the city.
Davis created the Water Atlas using a free open-source application called QGIS, which is widely used for cartography. By tracing information from scans of historic maps found in archives onto existing geospatial data from the United States Geographic Survey, he was able to create a single digital composite that could illustrate changes over time. Davis says that he could imagine this approach being adopted to illustrate infrastructural history for any city: “Every city has documents and maps—the exciting project is assembling the paper data and then digitizing it.” Indeed, he adds, if you had such data for multiple cities, the payoff for historians would be that you could “compare cities and their infrastructures.”
Davis hopes that the Water Atlas will be useful for both the general public and professional researchers, and also that it might help bring the two groups together. Asked to envision an audience for the project, he describes “a range of people, from academics, or people who have an academic interest in D.C. history, to people in the D.C. area who might be curious about how their water gets to them.” It’s important for academics to invest time in projects like this, he notes, because of the likelihood that the skills of cartography and digital publication will continue to be important to future work in history and the humanities: “Digital maps increase accessibility. You don’t have to go to a library to use them.”
Davis and Dumbarton Oaks hope to release the Water Atlas to the public by the end of the summer. Please watch this space for updates about the project in the months ahead!
A Reading of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” in the Gardens
On Monday, June 13, the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens became a main stage as actors from the D.C. area offered a stunning and lively reading of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia.
The gardens, last used as a performance space during a 2010 production put on by the Byzantine Studies department, were an ideal setting for Arcadia. The play, a tragicomedy that explores modern ideas in the context of the past, is centered around an English estate. One plot line tells the story of its nineteenth-century inhabitants, focusing on a young girl’s relationship with her tutor and with her family. The present, a twentieth-century storyline, acts as a foil for the earlier plot, tracing concerns of contemporary academia, including poetry, science, mathematics, and philosophy, back to these characters. It is a work that resonates with arts admirers and science enthusiasts alike, perfect for bringing together communities with a wide variety of academic interests.
The idea of staging the play in the gardens came from a discussion between Tyler fellow John Davis and Emily Townley, a local actress who would become the producer—and one of the stars—of Arcadia in the gardens. Townley and Davis spent two months putting together the reading.
“They call it a reading that is ‘lightly staged,’” Davis said. “They were reading from scripts, but there was a director who gave them direction on where to stand, when to enter, to actually make it more dynamic.”
The dynamism of the performance extended to the setting, as Arcadia’s main stage separated itself into the Fountain Terrace, the Lovers’ Lane Pool, and the Orangery. The actors and audience moved from space to space as the production progressed. Davis and Townley, seeking to emulate the play’s original English country estate backdrop, chose these parts of the gardens strategically. Townley opened the play on the Fountain Terrace, utilizing its balconies and staircases to introduce the characters. From there, the scene transitioned into the Lovers’ Lane Pool. The amphitheater layout of the pool, which had been drained for cleaning, served its purpose as an area designed for entertainment. As the sun went down, the play moved to the well-lit Orangery for its final scenes.
At the play’s end, “the enclosed nature of the Orangery provided a level of intimacy that was especially appropriate for the changes in narrative and tone,” noted Kaja Tally-Schumacher, a student attending the Garden and Landscape Studies summer school. “The transition from very open spaces to such an intimate and small space really heightened emotion and the sense of community between the audience members and the actors.”
For Tally-Schumacher and other summer school students, the play evoked the themes they have explored in the two-week course, such as the origins and cultural practices of gardens and design landscaping. “The history of gardens is integral to the setting and plot of the play,” added Thalia Allington-Wood.
Similarly, Davis mentioned the inclusion of theories about order and chaos in nature that are studied by the students and elaborated on in Arcadia, specifically through the effects of staging. The temporality between acts, coupled with the unchanging nature of the play’s props and setup, also related to discussions on the memory of place and the passage of time within gardens. However, many noted that one of the greatest consequences of staging the play in the gardens was the intimacy experienced by the audience in such a setting.
“I was very happy that that’s the way it turned out,” he said. “Just because we were that close and just because there wasn’t the separation between a stage and an area for an audience, I think it became intimate . . . just by the way that it was done. And it was good in that way. I hadn’t planned it but it worked out very, very well.”
Dumbarton Oaks in the News
In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda calls Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau’s Letters of a Dead Man, recently published by Dumbarton Oaks as part of its ex horto series, a “classic of travel literature,” comparing the prince’s account of his time in Britain to Stendhal’s writings on Italy. “This richly illustrated edition of the Letters of a Dead Man is one of those books that bring an era to life,” Dirda writes. “En route to England, Pückler visits the aged Goethe in Weimar; in London, he dines with the great financier Nathan Rothschild; later, he flirts with the Duchess of St. Albans, a foundling raised by gypsies who slept her way to the top.” You can purchase Letters of a Dead Man on the Harvard University Press website.
The Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins meditates on the role of designed landscapes in academic life, including a mention of Dumbarton Oaks and a few words from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies: “Harvard University’s research center at Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks provides the sweetest blend of landscape and academia, even if the Georgetown garden started life as a private paradise.”
In another piece, Higgins features an installation on the Arbor Terrace that recreates a sixteenth-century physic garden in Padua. He also explores Dumbarton Oaks’ links to the Paduan model through Beatrix Farrand and the Rare Book Collection.
Urban Landscape Outreach Launch
The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is located on the tree-filled grounds of the historic gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. But its mission, as its name suggests, is to extend landscape studies into the city. In April and May, the program did this literally, launching its outreach program for students from underserved schools in Washington, D.C. Over a hundred students were given tours of the new LEED-certified Fellowship House, the recently designed pollinator garden by the Garden Court, and the historic gardens themselves.
The first of these workshops, titled “Biodiversity from Garden to City,” built upon the landscape and architecture curriculum at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, located in northeast Washington, D.C. Students toured the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, paying particular attention to landscape design, topography, and water management, and met with Luís Mármol, gardener and horticulturalist. They were shown different types of plant beds—from the highly aesthetic Rose Garden to the more functional Kitchen Garden—and the Wilderness, an area located in the South Lawn, just before R Street, that serves to absorb water as well as to provide a contrast with more formal areas. Tyler fellow Deirdre Moore, who designed the new pollinator garden, discussed issues of water management as well as the connection between certain plants and the insects they attract. The field trip ended with a pop-up exhibit of Moore’s drawings and maps of the pollinator garden in the Lower Refectory, where students were given the opportunity to ask questions about the design process.
In May, we expanded outreach initiatives to include elementary school students through the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, a group that organizes field trips for public and public charter schools across the District. The “Tree Notebooks” workshop, given to fourth, seventh, and eighth graders from Achievement Prep in southeast Washington, D.C., introduced the basics of tree identification and emphasized the importance of trees in urban sustainability and well-being. Students were first asked to identify the uses of trees, ranging from wood and food to spiritual renewal in some cultures. Then they sketched particular trees in the garden—an exercise aimed at reinforcing some of the elements of tree identification as well as landscape design. Another workshop, “City of Trees,” was given to sixth graders from McKinley Middle School. Using the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, students were shown various ways in which ecological issues enter the city, from gardens like the ones at Dumbarton Oaks to water management and biodiversity at the pollinator garden and LEED certification at the Fellowship House. Throughout the tour, students also paid particular attention the gardens’ topography and various strategies for controlling the flow of water from garden to park.
The National Building Museum’s Teen Council, a part of the museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program, came to Dumbarton Oaks in mid-May to explore design features, hydrology, and historical topography in the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park in a workshop called “Private Garden, Public Park.” As those familiar with Beatrix Farrand’s work know, the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park used to be connected, giving the visitor the experience of going from a manicured garden to a more “wild”—but just as designed—space. The more feral parts, which lay at the bottom of the hill by the creek, were given to the National Park Service in 1940, the same year that the gardens and museum collections were transferred to Harvard University. After an extensive tour of the gardens, students walked through the gate at the base of the Forsythia Dell to Dumbarton Oaks Park. They saw remnants from the pre-1940 era, including the stone bridge, dams along the creek, and stone benches along the path, and then imagined new transitions from garden to park.
Outreach is just one aspect of the Mellon grant, which was awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's “Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities” initiative and runs through 2018. The program also provides fellowships for scholars working on urban landscape issues all over the world and organizes a variety of events aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue. The outreach component of the grant, however, is unique. It provides an opportunity to foster new collaborations between Dumbarton Oaks and outside organizations, such as the National Building Museum, and to rethink the gardens as the basis for a series of workshops on landscape and planting design, urban sustainability, and biodiversity in cities. In addition, preparing for these events drew together people inside Dumbarton Oaks, from the gardens staff and Garden and Landscape Studies program to the Director’s Office.
The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is excited to build on these workshops with more events next year with these and additional institutions. Extending scholarly research in urban landscape studies to students in secondary education occupies an important position in Dumbarton Oaks’ overall mission to support the humanities and serve the wider public and to find ways for local schools to use the gardens and museum as an educational resource. Dumbarton Oaks might have some very old relics in its possession but they are being looked at through younger and younger eyes.
Thirty Young Diplomats Also Visit Birthplace of the United Nations
On the occasion of China’s “Youth Day” on May 4, Dumbarton Oaks received a visit from Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, who was accompanied by thirty young diplomats from China. The group was eager to see the Music Room, where the conversations that laid the groundwork for the United Nations were held in 1944, and also were given a tour of the museum and gardens. Dumbarton Oaks presented the ambassador with gift copies of its new publication, Thirty-Six Views: The Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate in Poetry and Prints. In the picture above, the ambassador presents Dumbarton Oaks with a gift book from the Embassy of China.