Historic Gardens Today

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Michael Rohde and Rainer Schomann (eds), Historic Gardens Today, trans. Mic Hale and Melany Jacobs-Reynolds (Leipzig: Seemann Henschel, 2004), 296 pp., illus. in colour, €41.10 (hbk), ISBN 3361005787

In December 2000, the cultural attaché at the German embassy in London assured the author that all historic gardens in the former West Germany were in perfect condition and adequately funded: they needed neither restoration nor funding, nor publicity to attract visitors. As for the former East, except for Sans Souci, there were no parks or gardens there of any historic value, so the matter did not arise. Why the rosy official account differed so greatly from the reality is hard to know – but this book certainly refutes it! It contains the papers from a conference held in 2003 to celebrate the eightieth birthday of the distinguished German garden historian Dieter Hennebo. A modern version of the academic festschrift, its colour pictures and presentation are designed to appeal to a wider public than such publications usually attract; so it is a pity the editors emphasize the German aspects of the contents rather than the international. As well as many Germans, its contributors include an Englishman and a Dutchman both working in the USA, a Dutchman working in England, a Belgian working worldwide, three Frenchmen, and several Italians and Poles. The subjects, also, are not exclusively German: Michel Racine, for instance, on the rapidity of the changes in garden protection in France; and Peter Wirtz on historic gardens as the inspiration for modern gardens in the USA.

The book is divided into six sections – History of Garden Art; Garden and Landscape Architecture; History of Art and Art Scholarship; Environmental and Natural Sciences; Politics and Society; and Heritage Care and Conservation. There is, inevitably, some overlap and the most important theme is really that of ‘gardens in society’, which comes up in each section. The political undercurrent is strong, if mostly implied. When the conference took place, German reunification had moved from being a dream to an often uncomfortable reality. Typical of these articles, encapsulating both the idealism and the problems, is Andrzej Michalowski and Cord Panning’s report on the restoration of Prince Pu?ckler’s park at Muskau. The River Oder-Neisse, separating Germany from Poland and a symbol of Cold War divisions, runs through the property. Yet, in spite of political discord, Germans and Poles had for many years kept up an unsanctioned dialogue about how they would one day open the cross-river sightlines and, eventually, make it a single park again.

This report is followed, neatly, by a piece by one of the Prince’s descendants, Hermann Graf von Pu?ckler, on the ownership of land in the former East Germany. Estates confiscated by the Soviet Union, such as his own Branitz, with its Prince Pu?ckler-designed park, were, after unification, appropriated by the new federal government; a policy the count sees as not only unjust, but also as a factor in his country’s recent economic failure. Former owners did not return to create modern profitable estates and the public authorities that now owned the houses and parks could not afford their restoration or upkeep, and so the chance to create employment and entice tourists was lost. Not all the sites are so clearly historic; one of the most interesting chapters is that by Peter Latz on reinterpreting and reusing post-industrial landscapes, such as the park at Duisburg incorporating the ‘ruins’ of a defunct steel works.

Infuriatingly, there is no index and several pages of text were missing completely in the review copy. German publishing may seem as disorganized as her historic gardens, but the book is worth buying for the breadth and seriousness of its consideration of the dilemmas of modern garden conservation.

Gillian Mawrey
Historic Gardens Foundation

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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