Garden grows in fertile soil of science and the senses

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A provocative experiment is under way marrying scientific theories with radical garden design. Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, went to south-west Scotland to see how creation is being represented through landscape and lettuces.

What will archaeologists in centuries to come make of a conical grass-covered mound that stands 50ft high in well-tended parkland? Two paths spiral upwards to its summit without crossing. For stretches the visitor has the curious sensation of walking down when the path is supposed to be going up. On descent, the confusion is reversed.

A religious significance would be the archaeologist's first surmise. There is just room for two people to stand on the flattened summit with a panorama of distant hills and more intriguing earthworks in the foreground. A place designed, it seems, for worship or sacrifice.

The cone, however, and the 400ft-long earth barrow which twists away in an S by a lake are not the work of priests but features in a "garden of cosmic speculation", created by the architect Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick. Covering 30 acres on the Keswick family estate, it is intended as a metaphor for scientific theories on the creation of the universe, though it can be enjoyed on the simpler level of startlingly innovative garden design.

A leading post modernist - he defined the term - Mr Jencks, an American, sums up the 15 billion years of creation as a "noble and delirious drama" in four parts - the "misnamed" Big Bang created energy; this dynamic pulse partly froze into matter; matter jumped into life; and life begat sentient creatures - "creative, reflective, clever and stupid".

Each jump was the coming forth of the unexpected, Mr Jencks argued in his book The Architecture of the Jumping Universe. "The Universe is as unpredictably creative as a mad, nineteenth century inventor: it changes its mind and jumps."

To find the unexpected in such a garden should be no surprise. In a damp, wooded corner known as the Paradise-Hell Garden is a low ring of upside-down trees, roots in the air; step back before ascending a stairway and you see it has been constructed to give an extended perspective.

The two motifs which recur throughout, whether in the ha-ha by the Victorian house, hedges, brick walls and paving are the wave and the twist - are pulses of energy folding in on themselves to create a single force and unravelling in new directions.

"I have never understood why architects, painters and philosophers - following Plato - have thought that the ultimate reality behind things lies in straight lines, right angles and perfect geometric solids," Mr Jencks said. "Nature is basically curved, warped, undulating, jagged, zig-zagged and sometimes beautifully crinkly. It never looks like a Platonic temple of a railroad."

This approach has caused some headaches for Alistair Clark, the head gardener, whose task it is to give physical expression to the architect's scientific notions. "This used to be the best vegetable garden in the country," he observed, standing by a DNA double helix built of blocks, enclosing a waving hand - the whole piece representing the sense of touch. Around it grow nettles, thistles and soft grasses.

The senses - the standard five plus anticipation or intuition - are represented in the physics garden, which at first glance resembles a traditional walled kitchen garden. However, the secondary paths curl and the cobbles in the main paths describe more waves. Flowing curves have been accentuated by planting blocks of different coloured lettuces - a range from pale green to rosso.

Looking up from the same spot, you can brush up on Schrodinger's Equation for the Probability Amplitude of a Quantum Particle. The main mathematical equations are cut in relief on the ridge of the greenhouse.

Mr Jencks and his wife began the project in 1990. Maggie Keswick, who died from cancer in 1995, was author of texts on Chinese gardens. She wished to incorporate Taoist notions of "geomancy", shaping the land to heighten the sense of its invisible energies. Taoist philosophers saw hills and mountains as "the bones of the earth" energised with the breath of subterranean dragons. In the surreal mound, the earth "snake" and pools, geomancy and Mr Jencks' wave science have synthesised.

The cosmological garden (not open to the public) is about three-quarters finished. Last week, Mr Clark was working in a hole 10ft square in the physics garden which will become the sense of smell. The curious visitor will step down over beds of aromatic thyme to be confronted by a sculpture of flared nostrils issuing forth the putrid smell of rotted vegetables. Some of the gardener's tasks are more prosaic. A breeze block stands near the top of a set of steps blocks low level entry to garden. Obeying a law as immutable as those of any of the great mathematicians, rabbits have their sights on the lush turf of the cosmic earthworks.