Friday, November 21, 2008

A fine, free expression of democracy

A fenceless front garden from early 20th century in Yarrow Point, near Seattle.

I have always considered the fenceless and open front gardens very "American", if such expression can be used in this huge and diverse country. But first now, after reading an interesting new book From Yard to Garden, The Domestication of America's Home Grounds, by Christopher Grampp (2008), did I understand what an important part the open front garden has played in the garden history here.
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In his book, Grampp gives a detailed history of how the American gardens developed from agricultural spaces devoted to family sustenance, via urban utility yards supporting basic domestic operations, into outdoor family rooms used mainly for leisure activities. The fence forms a part of this development; as the gardens no longer housed animals that needed to be kept within it, the fences lost their function. And as the time went by, the fences became neglected. They were then seen as a reminder of the past, a symbol for something outdated and thus less desirable.
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Fenceless front garden in Clyde Hill, Bellevue, near Seattle.

It is interesting to read in Grampp's book about how the fenceless front garden slowly became a symbol for the whole American lifestyle and democracy. In 1913, J.H. Prost, who was the Chicago Superintendent for Parks, wrote that "Unsightly and vine-covered fences or clipped hedges planted on the property line to divide the neighbor's yard are an expression of poor and selfish taste." Landscape architect Frank Waugh, went further in the 1930's as he wrote:

" I am glad that it is neither necessary nor fashionable for all my neighbours to shut themselves and their gardens up in high brick walls. This is nothing more or less than a fine, free, physical expression of democracy."

In his new book, Grampp does not connect this thinking to Modernism in general, but it really is an excellent example of the modernist philosophies of that time; form follows function (no function=no form) and that the past was imperfect, while the future holds a promise of a better life (which naturally was totally understandable, as the reality of life during the recession of the 1930's was everything but easy). Even in Sweden during this time, garden designers and architects promoted openness in the gardens, but they had a more nationalistic attitude; the Swedish landscape and nature was seen as the ideal to which the private garden should submit to. A fenceless garden never grew very popular, and it became reality only in some of the "purest" Modern areas, as Stora Ängby near Stockholm, where the front and back gardens flow seamlessly into each other (Modernism is called Functionalism in Sweden, often shortened to "funkis"). But generally, fences during this time in Sweden were very low and the gardens opened to the streets and surrounding nature.
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A typical, low garden fence in stone and iron from the 1930's, in Nacka near Stockholm.

Grampp describes in the third part of his book how the fences in USA now are becoming higher and more popular; a similar development can even be seen in Sweden for the moment. People yearn for more privacy, which partly is an expression of the new needs and thoughts of how we should and want to live our lives. And as we have become more individualistic, the ways we express our thoughts in our gardens, as well as in all other areas of our lives, have become more diversified. (Or do we just follow ever changing trends, faster and faster? hopefully not). I just hope, that without letting go of our individuality, we would spare some thoughts for the origins of these open front gardens, before we totally fence us in to our small, private worlds.

4 comments:

Northern Shade said...

This sounds like an intriguing read. It is interesting how much of our garden style depends on the culture of where we live and the social values. Even the history of our own family gardens influence our garden.

Titania said...

In general I do agree front gardens without a fence look better. For many families it is not practical to have not a fence, because of small children and dogs. We always had to have fences because of children and pets. The fences were always low and also camouflaged with creepers or shrubs. Today it is also a question of security.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Northern Shade and Titania, I really find the "social history" of gardening very interesting. Things that effect how our gardens look like are so much more complicated than just esthetic considerations; practical issues (as containing children or animals within an area or strangers from entering it), traditions, moral considerations, economical facts... and then these all are boiled together into the actual "styles" of how our gardens look. Some of our work as gardeners is truly our own; but how much of it is guided by things we do not even think of?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely gorgeous blog which I will review as we are building a new house.

I was looking for some pictures of your garden in Melbourne as I live in Australia. thank you Bob