‘Garden Futures’ exhibition: focus on design with nature at Vitra Design Museum

Until the 3rd of October 2023, the exhibition ‘Garden Futures‘ at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany is the first to explore the history and future of modern gardens. Gardens reflect identities, dreams, and visions. Deeply rooted in their culture, they can unfold immense symbolic potential. The recent revival of horticulture has focused less on the garden as a romantic refuge than as a place where concepts of social justice, biodiversity, and sustainability can be tried and tested. Gardens have become places of the avant-garde. Where do today’s garden ideals come from? Will gardens help us achieve a liveable future for everyone? The exhibition addresses these questions using a broad range of examples from design, everyday culture, and landscape architecture – from deckchairs to vertical urban farms, from contemporary community gardens to living buildings to gardens by designers and artists including Roberto Burle Marx, Mien Ruys, and Derek Jarman.

Wherever people stake out a piece of nature to create a garden, its layout and design reveal much about how they relate to nature, be it as individuals or as a society. This is illustrated by the works of such diverse artists and architects as Hans Thoma, Georg Gerster, Athanasius Kircher, Gabriel Guevrekian, Barbara Stauffacher-Solomon, Alvar Aalto, Thomas Church, Vita Sackville-West, and Luis Barragán, all of which feature in a media installation at the start of the exhibition. They show the garden as an idealized space that pervades our daily lives as well as our imaginations – a place in which immediate practical function and profound symbolic, philosophical, or even religious significance are readily compatible.

Even the most private garden is more than a personal retreat. Every garden bears the marks of social and historical developments, political and commercial interests, and cultural value systems. This is addressed in the second part of the exhibition, where we learn that many plants forming a basic component of Western gardens have deep roots in colonial history. The Wardian case invented in the nineteenth century made it possible to send live plants all around the world. Its impact on the plant trade and on private gardens was significant, but it also contributed to the spread of invasive species and played a central role in breaking monopolies on important crops like tea or rubber, reaping huge benefits for the colonial powers.

The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of numerous urban planning concepts that sought to reconcile city and garden. In 1898, for example, the British social reformer Ebenezer Howard published his description of a garden city whose inhabitants would be able to grow their own food. The Green Guerrilla group co-founded in New York by Liz Christy, in turn, has been striving to redefine the garden as a place where social justice and public participation are actively negotiated. The group formed in the 1970s, but the questions raised by it and its predecessors still remain the subject of much debate: who is entitled to a garden, what is a garden for, and how can gardens be integrated into an urban environment?

There are many different ways of answering these questions. The third part of the exhibition introduces nine ground-breaking garden makers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994) won international acclaim for his emphasis on native plants, Piet Oudolf’s plant compositions are attractive all year round, and author and gardener Jamaica Kincaid takes her garden in Vermont (USA) as her starting point in addressing colonial history, repression, and cultural appropriation. Artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942–1994) faced his impending death by creating a variegated work of garden art in a place where it hardly seemed possible, amidst the hostile shingle on the coast of Kent, England, near a nuclear power station. A community garden in Kuala Lumpur co-founded by Malaysian landscape architect Ng Sek San exemplifies the many grassroots initiatives in megacities and metropoles all around the world. The extensive Liao Garden designed by Chinese artist Zheng Guogu draws on the aesthetic of the »Age of Empires« video game and thus builds a bridge between virtual and real environments. These and other fascinating projects demonstrate how gardens articulate their makers’ creative approach and show that garden-making – a creative form of expression at the interface of the visual arts, architecture, and design – merits far more attention than it has hitherto received.

The exhibition’s final section examines contemporary projects addressing the future of gardens. In an age of climate crisis, social injustice, biodiversity under threat, and social isolation, the garden offers a place in which to reimagine the future and develop solutions – a place of healing, spirituality, and learning. The walkable textile »meadow« made especially for the exhibition by Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou highlights the dramatic threat that climate change poses to seemingly timeless landscapes. How to translate a growing awareness of this threat into innovative action in cities, buildings, schools, and other areas is illustrated in a six-meter scroll by architect Thomas Rustemeyer which, alongside contemporary projects, also features traditional and indigenous practices. In the age of the Anthropocene – that is the message of these and similar projects – the entire planet emerges as a garden that we need to cultivate, tend, and use responsibly.

Organized by the museum itself Vitra Design Museum, together with the German Wüstenrot Foundation and the Dutch cultural center Nieuwe Instituut, the exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication including in-depth essays, conversations with leading garden makers, and case studies of pioneering projects.


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