Something Borrowed

The notion of borrowed landscape is a concept with which you become fairly familiar in this line of work. The phrase itself should be self-explanatory; what is visible beyond the confines of a garden or space has a huge bearing on the character of a place. In some instances, it may be positive and needs to be maximised, in some cases it is a negative and needs to be mitigated.

In this part of the world it is a loosely defined idea, borne in mind by some but not by others. In the Far East however they take a less flippant view. In traditional Japanese and Chinese design, the concept of borrowed scenery, as they call it, has been a formalised design approach for a long time.

According to the famous Chinese garden manual ‘Yuanye’ which dates back to the year 1635, there are four categories of borrowed scenery: ‘distant borrowing’ – mountains and lakes, ‘adjacent borrowing’- neighbouring buildings and features, ‘upward borrowing’ – clouds and stars, ‘downward borrowing’- rocks and ponds.

The Yuanye makes clear that borrowing scenery is not a single design idea but the essence of landscape design philosophy in its entirety. The ever-changing moods and appearances of landscape in full action are an independent function that becomes an agent for garden making. To be able to make a garden, the garden maker needs to meld with the landscape on the site. 

It’s a nice idea, that the design of any part of the landscape retain a constant reference to the whole. I have spoken repeatedly of what I believe to be consistent mistakes which we make in shaping our landscape and streetscape, public spaces in general. A lot of these decisions are informed by that most ancient and primal of urges, territorialism. Borrowed landscape is all about accepting that we can enjoy just as fulsomely what is not ours as well as ours from the comfort of ours.

There is an incoherence to the idea that each house, housing development or housing estate be treated as an independent island with no reference to its wider context. The upshot is that we get a mess of themes and schemes, all slammed up against each other, all autonomous and without any harmonising features. Variety is great, of course it is, but the smorgasbord of shapes and sizes in some of our built settings just gives us a giant dog’s dinner.

I know of a very nice house which was built not far from me, a rural setting, about a decade ago. The rear boundary faces due west and out over a lovely, lush ten-acre field belonging to the local dairy farmer. The far end of the field segues into an evergreen wood. When the house was under construction I stood along what was then just a post and wire rear boundary and marvelled at the view out across this lovely farmland, with the dairy herd grazing away in the setting sunlight of a beautiful July evening.

That was the last time I was there. Until recently when I happened to return, only to be horrified at the sight of a solid eight- foot tall evergreen laurel hedge across the rear boundary, completely obliterating the beautiful view and borrowed landscape beyond.

Why was this hedge planted? Because it’s the done thing, that’s why. We are obsessed with the done thing, with what is expected in any given setting. There were better, more inventive ways of providing a bit of a shelter belt than the blunt instrument of a solid, opaque, unchanging laurel hedge.

A neighbour of mine up to recently had a small leylandii in a pot at his gate post. It didn’t like it much in that pot and started to deteriorate, on the verge of expiration. It was pulled from the pot and cast into the ditch across the road, landing semi-vertically. It’s happy there, thriving in fact. It’s eight metres from its original position, from the pot where it was dying.

I wonder if it will be left in that hedge? The fate of that leylandii over the coming months will reveal a lot.

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