atelier le balto

Garden art in action

atelier le balto (Veronique Faucheur, Marc Pouzol and Marc Vatinel) in conversation with Angelika Stepken

In Florence you came across a garden, which, despite its romantic dedication, had essentially only been laid out as it was in the last 15 - 30 years. What importance did this historical endurance have with regard to your approach?

During our workshops, the romantic and historical aspects of the garden were blurred or placed in the background. Not that we ignore the history of the garden (we have to work with history either way), but the basis of our work was formed by the mutual discovery of the garden, the exchange with the guests and the discussions. These meetings or this approach, which were suggested by you, Angelika, provided the best pre-condition for our work; it placed us in a dynamic that left no space for any possible inhibitions.

The historical, in the strict sense, does not come into consideration for us. Rather, from the outset we look at the history of a garden's plants: the plants that were wanted as well as also those that were not wanted, those that have been tended and those that have not been tended. We also observe the way that they have been tended as well as for how long or when they were tended. All of this is decisive with regard to the further development of a garden.

In the first workshops your interventions gave shape, enormously and effectively, to spatial and tangible volume in the garden, provided space for light and shade, outlined lines and objects on the ground and created, or rather laid bare, the relationships with the garden’s environment. All of this formatting always relates to the beholder's gaze and his movements in the garden. You talk about cultivating the view, which is very close to artistic reception. What led to you developing this mindset?

The expression cultivating the view comes from the first edition of the Temporary Gardens in Berlin, which took place in 1997 in the square in front of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic). We selected this location at the time, because we wanted to show the inhabitants of the city, and in particular the inhabitants of that neighbourhood, its qualities and its potential. If you are somewhat too close to a place or spend too long there, you often no longer see its character and qualities. Our interest in the beholder's view and movement in the garden also comes from our own experience, from our perception of a place or an area; these are experiences or perceptions, which we are happy to share.

As a dancer and former choreographer these aspects go without saying for me (Véronique). I belonged to that dance movement which was interested in public spaces, in the public and dancing in the street or in a square. As dancers we drew a lot upon the architectural and natural elements of a place. As with a garden, it was also about allowing the audience to rediscover its usual environment or see it in a different light.

In fact, these aspects have always been an important element of garden design. The famous gardens of each era offer this feeling of space and these visual relationships. All three of us probably became gardeners and paysagists because we had this experience in one garden or another.

This mindset developed through gardening. Becoming aware of what people see and how they move in a garden is a natural development when you garden. When you garden, you occasionally ask yourself why you do it. Gardening means working with spaces and plants, it means taking action to bring the animal world (to which humans belong) in harmony with the plant world. It is an attempt to make sure humans do not dominate the plants (even if, however, in reality this is always the case in a garden) and the plants do not dominate humans. As gardeners we want to achieve a symbiosis between plants and humans; symbiosis in the etymological sense of the word means to live together.

A garden always also has a representative role whether it is a private or an institutional garden. To what extent do you also reflect or interpret the wishes and ambitions of the client in your work?

That is correct; a garden, whether it is private or public, is always an interpretation or a representation that is created for a third party. It is the same phenomenon as with the choice of clothes or perfume. Proprietors or institutions sometimes ask landscape gardeners to change their garden, to transform it in order to give it a new character. The new image is supposed to better represent the person or the institution. The paysagist is thus an intermediary. As a starting point he has a person or an institution with wishes and a budget, he has the current condition of the garden, and he has to do as best he can with these.

There is no representation without a person who supports it, who conveys it. There would be no Park of Versailles, if there had been no King Louis XIV. As gardeners or garden designers we communicate what we do to this person, who may then use this information further. Our goal is for the proprietor or his representative, regardless of whether this is a individual or an institution, to feel comfortable in his garden. If this person feels comfortable, he can accept the representative aspect.

In the Villa Romana garden you play with various zones and places, views and fields of activity. Some are kept very strict and formal (hedge cut), others are rather playful and anarchic (the tree house) or classical (olive grove). What led to the decision to use such heterogeneous designs?

The three approaches, which you call strict, playful and anarchic, can be considered as our usual three tools. We select one of these tools from the given potential and with regard to the time available to us. Depending on the project we do the designing on site and within the timeframe at our disposal, whether it is one day, two days or 30 days, and also with regard to the number of people, who are involved in the working process and their previous knowledge and experience.
In Berlin we accomplished the project woistdergarten? (whereisthegarden?) with the help of 15 participants from the European Landscape Architecture Student Association (ELASA). Three weeks before beginning the installation work, we did yet not know that these students would be present and their number rose from day to day. Under these conditions we created six gardens in twelve days. The starting points for transforming each of the gardens were sketches but without implementation plans. Without this possibility for improvisation; without this process of adapting the design to the available means we could have never realized this project. However, in that case we would have missed a great opportunity.

In the case of Villa Romana it is exactly the same. We also respond to the reactions of the residents and users of the garden. If we perceive that we can go into a direction, we continue; and, in the event that you, as users of the garden, do not support us in something, we proceed more slowly or not at all.

The heterogeneity of the actions is a mirror image of the elements or the complexity of the garden. Space and the plant world are very complex. If you draw a straight line through a garden, you give a feeling of security to the visitor and that is a means of approaching the more complex aspects of the garden.

The thing about your work so far that gives me the greatest pleasure is that my preconception of a garden as a static composition, to which one devotes oneself, where however only plants grow and which need to be kept in shape, was completely shattered. On the contrary, here it is increasingly changing into a constellation that is as dense as it is bountiful and dynamic. The temporary and the complex become representative. There is no fetishism towards individual leaves and flowers. Against a background of academic garden design: Where do you position yourselves?

Academic garden design creates this image of the immobile garden, although this does not exist at all. It probably comes from the many pictures and texts published in beautiful books.
However, some texts or works of art show how dynamic, alive, mobile a garden actually is, such as the text by Eric Orsenna, Portrait d'un homme heureux (Érik Orsenna, André le Nôtre: Gardener to the Sun King, translated from French by Moishe Black, ed. George Braziller, New York, 2001, ISBN 978-0807614877, original title: Portrait d'un homme heureux, published Paris, 2000), or the film that you showed us (Kenneth Anger, Eaux d'Artifice, 1953), or Peter Greenaway's The Draughtman's Contract (1982).

The Villa Romana garden was so dismal that nobody looked at it any longer. Through Garden design in Action it has suddenly come alive again. The life in a garden is connected with the gardeners' presence and actions.

We have a word distinction in French: a garden is tended (entretenu) or gardened (jardiné). The second phrase contains the meaning of constant movement and creativity; in the first phrase the emphasis is more on grooming. When we are no longer around, Victor (the caretaker of Villa Romana) will undertake the responsibility of keeping the garden alive.

Questions will emerge again and again such as: Should I now spray this part of the Giardino vecchio's avenue with weed killer or not? If I do not, then the grass will come through the gravel and the avenue will gradually disappear. Do I want this disappearance or not? Do I want to let the path disappear a little bit or completely? We cannot or do not want to write detailed nursing instructions, because it could lead to the death of the garden. As you so nicely put it, the temporary and the complex should remain representative.

Academic garden design does not exist. Through the historicising process, canonical beauties or values of beauty have been created from the ascertainment of authoritative knowledge (through the gardener's action). The reason for the gardener’s action was completely forgotten.

You work in gardens and public urban areas. Does private ownership or private use of land affect your work or indeed the decision to accept a commission?

If a garden is truly private, in the sense that its owner uses it, like for example Victor's vegetable garden here, then it does not need us.
Does the garden or the place need us? That is the question which affects our decision to accept a commission.

A deciding factor for us in whether we accept a commission is the certainty that we can give added value to the asset. We always go a part of the way together with the potential client first and after a while we know whether we want and are able to travel further along this path or not. Sometimes it takes a while to achieve this certainty. Sometimes the common path goes a long way, such as in the case of our garden in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin or in the case of the Jardin Sauvage in Paris, even though the people representing the institution change in the meantime.