Sophie Walker interior Jungle Box Project


This is an adaptation of a talk given by Sophie Walker at the Garden Museum for the event Garden Design: The Future Generation, on Thursday 17th September 2015.  The event concluded with a panel discussion held by Tom Stuart-Smith


What are the questions and challenges we come across in setting up as a garden-maker?  I’m a woman.  I’m under 30.  I work mostly with male contractors and I am in the process of establishing my own practice.  But I think more importantly, the challenge is to ask ourselves: how do we think about the garden, what is made possible by a garden?  Even what is a garden?  How do we think about the aspiration of the garden to great art?  And then I think we need to ask ourselves: is design of any interest at all?  Because I’m not sure it is.  You are probably wondering how a designer can say such a thing!  Well, I don’t see it in those terms.   

I think a garden is about making.  It’s about context and place. The garden is entirely connected with time, with bodily experience and physical abandon.  And it’s demands thinking, I mean broadly thinking, culturally thinking, socially thinking.  What does it mean that a garden is a site of contemplation?

To further my practice and to think about these things, I have set myself no small challenge.  That is, to write a book on the Japanese garden.  My editor will probably read this so I won’t tell you how painful a process it is to strap myself to desk and write.

You’d be absolutely right to ask – what on earth does a young English garden designer know about the Japanese garden?  And that’s precisely the point: I am no Japanese scholar.  But I can see that while the Japanese garden is so distinctly recognizable by it's motifs and design techniques – of course I am thinking of those familiar details, the so-called 'framed view' and the 'borrowed landscape', there is something beyond technique, beyond design, that is of interest to me; it is the experience of the Japanese garden that is so definite there can be no mistaking it.  I don’t believe that this identity lies in the symbolic.  So what is it?  

I want to share a short extract from the introduction of my book because I see it as a sort of manifesto for my own work:

“More than ever, in the 21st Century, I believe it must be our ambition make the Great Garden.  The garden is an especially significant achievement in our human lives. It demands of us the intimacy of co-habitation; it bears testament to our continued patient care, to daily practice, to the rational – even the mundane; and yet it attests to our ability to evoke and imagine, our ability to recognise and play with beauty.  

As it outlives us, the garden bears witness to growth (its own and the growth within us).  With poetic success the garden may become the garden space of the heart.  In the garden, potentiality is lodged deep within us, for, through our seemingly ordinary contact, the obscure and the marvellous may emerge.   

By its very nature, the garden has the capacity to jolt our understanding, to challenge us to be able to believe that a rock is not simply a rock but a mountain.  Thus, the garden empowers us and the ‘beyond rational’ is achievable, the ‘beyond words’, ‘beyond understanding’.  What tremendous opportunity what awesome possibility! “  - I am claiming to have the best job ever, at least, the job with the most potential! 

It was in the jungle that I first came to horticulture. I was travelling in Bolivia about six years ago.  It was my first trip into the Amazon jungle.  The things I saw and the powerful processes that revealed themselves were a great revelation to me: the rivers that carry huge volumes of silt, which they pick up as they erode the land and deposit to form islands, vast dead trees being dragged and returned to the rushing river water, trees that would eat one another.  And I was captivated by the experience of being in the jungle, with trees and plants so unavoidably close, such that you can’t see further than a certain distance for long periods of time.  We stayed on the edge of a lake – not a big lake, but it was quite a space to come upon after trekking in the jungle.  Not only did it reveal a distant view, but it revealed the sky, which had been hidden by jungle.  But not only this, the water in the lake was black from the tannin of the local tree roots, and because it was black, it was absolutely mirror reflective to the sky.  Discovering this body of water that was so active in its reflection was real revelation to me, because it produced a kind of dreamy reality between what was imagined and what was discovered.  

In my first public garden in 2013 at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I wanted to make a garden that could articulate something of what I felt that day, something of my experience of wonder when I innocently entered the jungle for the first time.  It was called A Valley Garden because of its shape: two mounds falling down towards an interior body of water, through which I cut an incision, which also acts as a very directive dead-end path. 

You can imagine how struck I was on press day when a group of school children crammed themselves into this path, and began flinging their arms about shouting “we’re in a boat on the river in the jungle!”,  And I must say, I was with them in a canoe, somewhere completely distant.  It was so hot that day that the water (which was a complete fiction, at only two inches deep) was steaming off the surface!

Another way in which the Amazon captivated me was the state of the jungle itself: the un-madeself-made state.  I am not simply describing the ‘natural’.  I mean a wild place that is chaotic and yet fully governed and ordered – a raw state that embodies Truth, in other words, a state beyond design.  

In Cave Pavilion, 2014, which was my first Chelsea Flower Show garden, I was interested in making a garden that I set up, and left alone.  In other words, I wanted to make a garden that was ‘beyond’ my authorship, a garden that would self-organise in time.  

I was interested too in the proposition of landscape as a volume.  A thing to be walked in and through, like the jungle effecting the whole body – the opposite to a diagram or a master plan, a three dimensional space of real volume, a place that has scale and context.  When we have a shower or a bath, we become completely wet, our whole presence our whole condition is of being wet – it’s an experience of something all over you, something unavoidable that you enter both physically and mentally alike.  

A related project I am making in Sri Lanka, Jungle Box, (2014-ongoing), deals with this idea of immersion – you enter an architecture which if full and brimming with plants.  Through the process of walking upward, using a ramp that winds around the interior of the building, you eventually reach the top.  It is again, my experience of tree climbing in the Bolivian Amazon: from the foot of the tree up to the tree canopy, a three dimensional understanding is opened. 

Of course, this is a very determined way to dictate a route.  It is, if you like, a set-challenge to discover.  I am very interested in what the garden path can determine.  It determines a journey, it unravels what we see and how we see it; it decides what is revealed and viewed and when.  It’s bossy.  It is the path that draws us into an ever-deeper physical engagement with the garden.  In an extract from my book:

“To walk carefully along the garden path demands focus and attention, it demands active participation, as the Zen saying expects “Look where you’re going!  Watch where you step!”!  The path determines not simply that I walk, but how I walk; I must notice my own body and its relation to its surroundings.  To walk in the right way is to bring history and humility, “be humble and you remain entire”.  In fact, the garden demands a ‘way-seeking’ mind, like the mind of meditation, the searching mind.  It encourages us to enter us into a practice, a way.  By behaving in the right way, it is possible to become “uplifted above ordinary thoughts”, to know the garden way, the way in which we come and do and are matters – our method, our principle, our doctrine, matters; and through this, something else takes over…”

Of course, I am talking of discovery.  I titled Cave Pavilion with the idea of discovery: when you enter a cave, there is a strange and disconnected experience of the space: you can’t see how deep the cave is, nor can you tell the shape of it.  But slowly, with time, as your eyes become accustomed to the dark, the space opens up, it slowly expands for our appreciation.  Cave Pavilion demands that you give it time to reveal itself.  Again, it offers us a dreamy reality between what is discovered and what is imagined.  

One of the things that helped me to deal with and create a sense of discovery, was the use of rare plants.  This was a decision I made very early on – I didn’t want familiar plants to hijack an agenda on the design.  So I invited modern-day plant-hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones to work with me and we decided on two criteria: first, that we would use only plants that I hadn’t worked with before (at Chelsea that’s some risk!), and second, that we would only use plants they had themselves had collected from seed – in other words, use plants that were fully traceable and maintained the gene pool of possibility.  

So we worked with goodness knows how many new species, and a new genus, which I was thrilled with – Uocodendron whartonii, named after their guide Uock in Vietnam, and their late botanist friend Peter Warton.  

You’ll have noticed the lack of flowers in this garden (again a conscious decision), well I’m proud to say that the Uocodendron was the only plant in flower!  (You can see it belongs to the Hammamelidaceae witch-hazel family).  

I felt this use of plants was an important agenda for two reasons – first, as a gardener, to work with a plant you don’t know (that you can’t know in this case), sets a very particular challenge: to watch it carefully, to learn it individually.  It demands a kind of intuition – and I’m interested in developing an intuitive time-based practice.  

But my priority is in the effect of these plants; I wanted the plants to produce new possibility – think of what Gertrude Jekyll was able to do with her newly available palette of plants from all over the world that she mopped up in the early 20th Century.  I mean to say that new design can be made with new materials; plants are our tools for making.  

And there is another reason for my use of strange unrecognisable plants – that they are able to fracture any memory or knowledge we hold in relation to more familiar plants, so in a situation like RHS Chelsea where knowledge reigns superior, Cave Pavilion makes knowledge obsolete, because no one could possibly know most of these plants.  At the risk of sounding like Jeremy Corbyn, I would like to think of this as an equalising tool, a democratic act against hierarchy, because I believe that intuition not knowledge is our key to understanding.  So I will continue to challenge myself to work intuitively, using plants that I don’t know, and plants that you don’t know.  

It was a conscious decision to make a garden that couldn’t be physically entered.  One of my draws to the Japanese garden genre are those gardens that can’t be entered - at least not physically with your feet.  There are many Japanese gardens that we are expected to view from a platform above, or from within an architecture.  The ‘Window of Enlightenment’ at Genko-an temple in Kyoto reveals the whole garden through this single view.  You could say, at one level, that this is extremely limited and reductive; but it functions in the same way that a painting hanging on the wall entices: it challenges us to enter another world, which takes quite some leap of imagination.  Someone actually asked me what birds I was hosting in Cave Pavilion because they were sure they could hear birdsong within!

Un-enterable is one way of ensuring you can keep something hidden, which is contradictory – to hide something for the purpose of revelation.  Ryoan-ji, the most famous of the Japanese zen gardens, is viewed from a raised platform.  We might assume that the whole garden can be seen at once.  There are fifteen stones in the garden, but one of them is always hidden.  By hiding one stone, something always shifts, and there is something profoundly mysterious in the uncertain – whether it shifts in scale, or shifts what is available to be seen, it produces something deeply abstract, and captivating because it is shifting.  (It’s a secret but there is one particular knot on the floor boards of the viewing platform from which you can see all fifteen stones at once).  

A professor I interviewed at Tokyo University told me a rather beautiful story of a visit she made to Ryoan-ji.  It was a clear still day and she had been looking at Ryoan-ji and the blossom of the cherry tree, behind the garden wall.  Out of nowhere, the wind blew and the petals of the cherry blossom fell to the ground.  Then, from a clear blue sky, a single cloud appeared and passed in front of the sun so as to cover the garden in moving shadow.  This was all that happened.  But it introduced to her what she described as a sense of deep melancholy, a mourning for the thing that had passed, and an anticipation and expectation of the thing that will become.  The thing that is immanent (the sprint about to burst forth, the autumn that will paint everything red, the understanding that is about to happen).  

Understanding demands a leap of the imagination!  At the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji, in Kyoto, there is a hillside of rocks.  Until you ‘understand’, it is simply a hillside of rocks.  But when you understand, you discover a waterfall.  – But there’s no water!  It’s profoundly mysterious and has been so for 500 years!  Or the garden of Heijokyo made in 564AD, which is centred on geomancy – the placement of stones according to an ancient system.  If you can believe in geomantic force, then the garden has the power to effect daily life and the garden a place of great potency!  And we can know that gardens are not simply designed adornment for architecture, but part of a belief that ties us to the places we inhabit.  

There was a very particular opportunity to try and understand the Japanese garden better with a project I designed for a residential complex in Kyoto, a set of ten artists houses and studios designed by Kazuyo Sejima of the practice SAANA.  One of the six gardens that I designed had the difficult criteria that the garden footprint should remain exactly as is so that the space could be used for entertainment.  So I designed a garden of almost nothing at all – a cloud garden. You can see that there are slits in the wooden floorboards from which clouds arise…  But what we see, depends upon ourselves.  If we look and think about the hidden system that is producing this artificial cloudscape then that is what we see.  But if in an act of what the Japanese call ‘mitate’, we are able to dream, then this might just be an apparition. 

Sophie Walker at the Garden Museum Garden Design: Future Generation, September 2014 

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copyright Sophie Walker