To imagine the Chaumont Garden Festival in France you must first erase from your mind the Chelsea Flower Show or Hampton Court or, indeed, any other past garden festivals in Britain. The gardens presented at Chaumont are in contrast boldly conceptual and experimental (aj 19.9.96 p51).
For instance, Montreal University's contribution, entitled 'The Flood', consists of a metal staircase which extends into emptiness, with red plastic chairs in various angled positions, either elevated by poles, or half- buried in the ground. The only part that may be considered in traditional terms 'a garden' is the ground space below, where shapes of ground-cover suggest the flow of a river. The idea for this garden came from a photograph of the remains of a house after the 1996 Quebec flood.
The Festival International des Jardins is in its seventh year. In 1992, the initiator and current director, Jean-Paul Pigeat, invited Belgian landscape architect Jacques Wistz to masterplan the 3.5ha park with plots for 30 gardens connected by a system of pathways. This year saw 300 submissions by landscape architects, artists, architects and other designers on the theme of Ricochets. Twenty gardens were selected and ten others retained from 1997 because of their success and durability.
The ephemeral nature of art is endlessly discussed, but here at Chaumont we have ephemeral gardens, where designers are freed from the concerns of the fourth dimension, 'time'. Many will only last for summer/autumn 1998, and even now are showing signs of wear. The 'Lithophone and Feet in the Water' garden by Robert Hebrard (France) is a sound garden where the cleverly conceived wheel has ceased to play its tune. However, music is still played on the lines of bamboo pipes as they fill with water and then clunk down as the water overbalances the pipe and pours out. This is an inspired development of the Shishi-Odoshi or 'deer scarer' found in traditional Japanese gardens.
Gardens that are still functioning - and they are in the majority - are ones like the surreal garden of water traps entitled, strangely, 'My sweet, let's see if the dew . . . ' by J Sordoillet, A Sottil and V Martinez (France). The concept comes from ancient Persia where, the designers maintain, giant inverted cones of netting fabric were used to collect moisture from dew.
So these are the successes, but what of the failures? When asked, Jean- Paul Pigeat said, 'There are no problems.' The gardens were built by a team of staff gardeners who worked with the designers from an early stage, advising on the practical problems of realising what were often completely untested ideas. This weeds out any impractical concepts, such as Michael Blier's idea of growing trees upside-down for his 'Trampoline Garden'.
Most of the gardens are bounded by permanent beech hedges, which add mystery to the exhibits and enhance the sense of expectancy. One that stands without enclosure is 'Nebelgarten' by Latz and Partner (Germany). Standing stones with fossil motifs draw you into the centre where mist, created by atomisers, envelops you. The stones were meant to contrast with an abundance of ferns, but as the ferns proved not to survive in the full sun, the garden ended up looking rather stark. The effect, however, is still atmospheric and leaves you feeling slightly on edge.
Jean-Paul Pigeat's efforts have not gone unnoticed in Britain: he is advising the Earth Centre in Doncaster on how to make its project more exciting to the general public. Moreover, he is in discussion with the Millennium Experience about the creation of Chaumont-like gardens on the Dome site at Greenwich. Before long, you may not need to go to France to see experimental gardens.
Philip Cave is a landscape architect in London with Philip Cave Associates