Monday, 4 May 2015


Image result for the garden of cosmic speculation dumfries scotland

We went to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation today, in Thornhill, nr Dumfries. Famously Brigadoon-like in that it is only open for one day a year. Today was the day.

Insanity. Because they choose to only open for one day they get 20000 visitors so you can’t move; can’t see the bloody garden for throngs of people in wellies. Parking is a mini-nightmare and getting out of the car park in a heavy rain like it was today, churned-up mud and Minis up to their axles, makes you question whether it was worth the effort. It is well done though and by getting there early, very early, we were able to get a sense of the beautiful rhythms of the landscaping without the crowds of kids running wild all over it. It was designed by Charles Jencks, an American landscape gardener, it says here. I am dubious; felt like a Stirling-Wilford situation to me with one person the genius and the other the workhorse who gets the genius’ ideas actually built and implemented.

In the brochure, it says, The lakes were designed by Maggie Keswick and the landscaping by her husband Charles Jencks. Is that true? Maggie was a descendant of the fabulously wealthy Jardine Mathieson family, then and now one of the richest families in Scotland. They made their money by selling opium to the unsuspecting Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century. Presumably that is where the money for this project originated. Maggie lived in China and spoke Chinese; she wrote a well-received academic book in 1978, when she must have been about thirty-six, thirty-seven called, The Chinese Garden  which the New York Times reviewed as ‘a first-rate job of intellect, intelligently illustrated’. It is so highly regarded apparently that it is still in print.

I think she must have visited and studied the Emperor’s Old Summer Palace and the Ruins of the Magnanimous World in Northern China, a place I went to in 1980. Although there was not a lot to see there now [it was completely destroyed by British troops protecting their opium trade in 1860] you could still locate the lakes and artificial landforms, originally constructed by the Chinese. I haven’t read The Chinese Garden, to be honest I haven’t got the time or the interest but I would guess that the Garden of Cosmic Speculation was much-influenced by Maggie’s thoughts and experiences. I see also that she studied at the AA, the Architectural Association after leaving Oxford where only the crème de la crème are allowed through the doors.

But of course she is dead now, she died of cancer in 1995 so isn’t around to take the credit she is due. So now we get, ‘The lakes were designed by Maggie Keswick and the landscaping by her husband Charles Jencks’.

That isn’t to minimise his contribution. It is a herculean undertaking; try getting a bulldozer driver to create a curvy sensuous hill exactly this height, exactly this long in Scotland in the nineteen nineties. And a tongue of land into a lake just this long and no longer.

I knew Wilford, vaguely. He wouldn’t remember me but we spoke on the phone a lot and corresponded by letter particularly on their disastrous Runcorn New Town project. We did a fair bit of work for Stirling [no credit to me, by the way]: Runcorn, as I say, their other beautiful disaster, the Florey Building in Oxford; Olivetti, I remember very well. Anyway, my point being that Wilford was the guy who got them built and that is no small achievement and I am sure he must have found it incredibly frustrating that Stirling got all the credit and was hailed as the genius. But such is the fall of the dice and claiming credit after Maggie is no longer around doesn’t seem quite right.

Now he tinkers. The mark of the non-genius; tinkering. He should leave it be.


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