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Found in a Phaidon book, left in place of a Gideon Bible in a bou­tique hotel, a quote from Ray­mond Pet­ti­bon: It’s nice to have an audi­ence, but it could be just one or two peo­ple.” It seems bet­ter suit­ed for the land­scape design­er, espe­cial­ly one with a pri­vate clien­tele, than an artist with at least two size­able audi­ences to his cred­it. For most of the land­scape designer’s audi­ence is not like­ly to know that some­one is speak­ing to them.

I have been read­ing Rus­sell Page’s Edu­ca­tion of a Gar­den­er and not enjoy­ing it very much. For one, there is a dis­con­nect between Page’s per­fect­ly nice prose and what he was actu­al­ly after in design­ing. Rarely have illus­tra­tions of a gar­den seemed so beside the point; what­ev­er ref­er­ence Page was car­ry­ing for what a cor­rect col­or, tex­ture, or space might be is not includ­ed in the pic­ture. Nor could it be; Page’s aes­thet­ic sense is oper­at­ing accord­ing to two con­texts at least, nei­ther of which could be con­tained in two dimen­sions. On one hand, Page is try­ing to be faith­ful to site in a way that is not derived from over­lay analy­sis or sim­ple visu­al sig­ni­fiers (the lime­stone of this place, the pines of that), the kind of thing we teach stu­dents to plain­ly demon­strate in the first board of their pre­sen­ta­tions. Page is work­ing as the expe­ri­enced or naïve land­scape design­er would, in the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al space estab­lished through the glean­ings of per­son­al expe­ri­ence – oth­er work in sim­i­lar places, talks with knowl­edge­able locals, a few half-trust­ed ref­er­ence sources. He can tell us what he is after; his writ­ing can­not con­vey where he got that goal from.

More mys­te­ri­ous­ly, Page is design­ing for a sense of right­ness that, as he stress­es sev­er­al times, is not down to obey­ing any style for the sake of style. He is not part of any school, though con­fus­ing­ly he is hap­py to fall into the man­ner of a prece­dent if it seems to accom­plish his goals. More­over, he has plain­ly avoid­ed the temp­ta­tion to make pic­tures of fea­tures, to be shown from a sin­gle van­tage point. The pic­tures shown in my edi­tion of the book seems elu­sive, incom­plete, in part because you lack the abil­i­ty to mea­sure indi­vid­ual show­pieces in the work against one anoth­er – this rock gar­den com­pared to that – and in part because Page is design­ing for spaces in rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. The lawn as seen from the din­ing room; the ter­race as fled to from the street. Maybe it would be nice if Page had made copi­ous plans for us to demon­strate this; it would cer­tain­ly have been a more demo­c­ra­t­ic way to pro­ceed. As it is, we have to take his word that so-and-so wealthy Parisian sub­urb has bad soil, or that x ter­race does not con­flict undu­ly with the sea along the Riv­iera; we could only test it by vis­it­ing our­selves. So what do we know of Rus­sell Page? Are we an audi­ence for the design­er, or only for the writer?

And hey – what was Page, the writer, try­ing to say? He cer­tain­ly found an audi­ence, peo­ple who can con­nect to his species cita­tions, or relate to his rar­efied clien­tele. But he isn’t giv­ing them a method to take for them­selves, and spread fur­ther. And he real­ly has very lit­tle to say about his own edu­ca­tion, which might be bet­ter called accul­tur­a­tion. As a writer, he is a sort of M.F.K. Fish­er, who can give the read­er ref­er­ence points, who can impress on the read­er with style and bio­graph­i­cal author­i­ty a cer­tain way of approach­ing a plea­sure. Like her, he is one step over from being a tastemak­er, or an author­i­ty; rather he offers a mod­el of being rav­ished by that top­ic. More mys­te­ri­ous­ly, unlike Fish­er, Page earned his keep design­ing, not writ­ing; so why both­er shar­ing any­thing beyond the work itself? You’d guess that he want­ed to share more broad­ly the unsayable move­ments of mak­ing such places; and per­verse­ly suc­ceed­ed in shar­ing the cir­cum­stances of mak­ing but not the inner neces­si­ties that made his work stand out from any­one else’s.

Justin E.H. Smith was com­plain­ing recent­ly that read­ers today are demon­stra­bly more inter­est­ed in read­ing about writ­ing fic­tion than actu­al­ly read­ing some­one else’s fic­tion. The most com­mon and least pres­ti­gious use of any how-to on cre­ativ­i­ty is to pre­tend to be cre­ative, to sub­sti­tute the sim­ple prob­lem of fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful writer’s exam­ple for the dif­fi­cult prob­lem of writ­ing some­thing worth read­ing. This leads to an utter­ly uncom­fort­able series of social sit­u­a­tions for would-be writ­ers, who can­not tell the peers they have who are are blind­ly fol­low­ing the rit­u­als of niche social suc­cess from those who have hope of actu­al­ly real­iz­ing some­thing worth­while to expe­ri­ence. Worse, the worth of what is being pur­sued is not some­thing that is always self-evi­dent with­out a thor­ough accul­tur­a­tion – one only gained through repeat­ed expo­sure to a mass of work that will nev­er be worth your time.

A ben­e­fit of a life spent in land­scape design is min­i­miz­ing the amount of time spent in Juve­na­lian poet­ry read­ings, or exper­i­men­tal music fes­ti­vals, or any oth­er parade of no-hop­ers, not-quites, and why-both­ers. But then, that is a sort of expo­sure ther­a­py, where you grow to learn what is a way out and what points straight back into the churn. It is a lone­ly feel­ing to be in a pres­tige plaza or parklet and think, Am I miss­ing some­thing?” You think the fault lies with you, that you are dam­aged; that you are there on the wrong day; that you don’t know enough to judge. We would all like to glide over that rankling feeling.

We tend to assume that becom­ing suc­cess­ful­ly cre­ative is the only route out of solip­sism, and that oth­er­wise we are con­demned to like or dis­like some­thing with­out know­ing why, or with­out being able to share that feel­ing with any­one else. But there is one oth­er path, which I could call crit­i­cism; in this case, being able to artic­u­late some­thing about a place you expe­ri­ence beyond the list of peren­ni­als used. This is the one way out of the trap of an arts com­mu­ni­ty mis­con­ceived as a tal­ent show, or a pub­lic mar­ket. Unhap­pi­ly, under­stand­ably, Page is not able to use words to con­jure the expe­ri­ence of his gar­dens to a remote read­er. Hap­pi­ly, there is always the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­one else being able to do so.

(January 2024)