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The symbol life

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The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

By Charles Jencks. Frances Lincoln Publishing, 2003. £35

The Chinese Garden: History Art and Architecture

By Maggie Keswick (Revised by Alison Hardie). Frances Lincoln Publishing, 2003. £35

By coincidence or design come the publication of a history of the Chinese garden by Maggie Keswick Jencks, in a second edition, and the book of the garden at Portrack that she and Charles Jencks began creating before her death.

Coincidence here is not just about timing. Thematic content is shared too. Keswick explores the traditions of Chinese landscape gardening, which largely bypassed western Classicism, in the process teasing out their underlying cosmologies. Jencks seeks to draw a new grammar of symbolic design from contemporary cosmology - from the fundamental commonalities of the sciences of life at micro and macro scale, from genome to galaxy, so moving on from Classicism/Modernism. Sometimes the cosmological threads are so similar that phrases could be in either book.

On the surface, though, they are different to read. Portrack was the 30-acre garden of Keswick's parents when they started in 1988, a western Scottish landscape of many moods of weather. Jencks tells the long, personal story of its unfolding, mainly in terms of its developing ideas: a garden experiment that has grown through exploring fundamental science for its wider expressive potential - fractals, spirals, DNA, black holes, strange attractors - and successively creating incidents in the landscape from these. Themes underlie the garden but there is no masterplan; an alien concept for an approach where meanings are multiple and mutable with time. The bands play on - the music is not frozen. Especially in a garden.

The best known image of Portrack is probably the spiral earth-shaping of the Snake Mound. There are now many more incidents in the landscape, such as Black Hole Terrace, Common Sense, and Universal Cascade. Soliton Waves - waves that can pass through each other without dissipation - have been used in plan and in a range of new wrought-iron gates. Fragments of text abound (not unlike calligraphy in a Chinese landscape). Jencks has found a rich seam of inspiration. It is variety that would not have been imagined otherwise.

Occasionally the literalness of the interpretation is a bit trite, like the helix sculptures that have an ear or a hand at the bottom, intended to symbolise sound or touch. And Jencks is aware of this risk of mere decoration. In a new final chapter to Keswick's book, he could be writing about their Portrack project too when he says that Chinese gardens are 'more than an aesthetic game of complexity and contradiction', rather 'a compelling alternative with its own special meanings'. Jencks sees a new cosmology, one often debased by the reductionism of science: meanings of life that can be explored and expressed through art. It is work in progress.

Keswick's book uses the Chinese gardens of the wealthy and aristocratic that she had visited since her childhood as exemplars of the thinking and culture underlying traditional Chinese gardens. This is a serious history of garden thought rather than a design crib.What struck me most was the difference from Japanese gardens, that have been so influential for Modernists. Though Chinese gardens are places of contemplation too, they are also for study and social events. They typically contain many buildings, often quite different, some of which may be permanent homes. And while, as in Japan, gardens are microcosms of infinite space, they can include high mountains and grotesque sacred rocks against water. Labyrinthine planning rather than open areas imparts spaciousness.

Their complexity and contradiction contrast with Japanese Minimalism.

Strangely, though, these gardens of China were much more different from Japanese ones than their two cultures generally. To grossly generalise, Chinese gardens were Taoist retreats into the self and harmony with nature, contrasting with the formal, highly rule-based everyday world beyond the garden wall of strict Confucian social mores, and indeed strict rectilinear town planning.

While none of the Chinese gardens exist in their original form, there is a substantial list of restorations and survivals to visit, given in the book.You can also visit Portrack to find your own resonance.

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