Exhibition Garden Futures: the history and future of gardens

The Garden Futures exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum is dedicated to finding answers to questions about where today’s gardening ideals come from and whether gardens will lead to a better future for all. To do this, they used a wide range of examples from design, everyday culture, and landscape architecture – from sun loungers to vertical urban farms, from modern community gardens to residential buildings and gardens of designers and artists, including Roberto Burle Marx, Mien Ruys, and Derek Jarman. The architectural concept of the exhibition was developed by the Italian design duo Formafantasma, dividing the space into several parts.

Wherever people create a garden, its layout and design say a lot about how they relate to nature. The works of such artists and architects as Hans Thoma, Georg Gerster, Athanasius Kircher, Gabriel Gevrekian, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Alvar Aalto, Thomas Church, Vita Sackville-West, and Louis Barragan are cited in support of this. These projects are presented as a media installation at the beginning of the exhibition and depict the garden as an idealized space, “a place where the immediate practical function is easily combined with deep symbolic, philosophical or even religious significance.”

The second part of the exhibition shows that the garden is a reflection of social and historical development, political and commercial interests, and cultural value systems. Many of the plants that form the basis of Western gardens are closely related to the colonial period. Invented in the 19th century, Ward’s box made it possible to ship live plants around the world. This had a significant impact on private gardens, as well as promoting the spread of plants such as tea or rubber, and was central to breaking down monopolies, bringing huge benefits to the colonial powers.

The 19th century saw the emergence of many urban planning concepts that sought to reconcile the city and the garden. In 1898, British social reformer Ebenezer Howard published his description of a garden city whose inhabitants could grow their own food.

The Green Guerrillas group, co-founded by Liz Christie, in turn, saw the garden as a place to discuss social justice and community participation. The group formed in the 1970s, but the questions raised by her and her predecessors are still the subject of much debate: who owns the garden, what is the garden for, and how can gardens be integrated into the urban environment?

The third part of the exhibition introduces visitors to innovative gardeners of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994) received international recognition for his contributions to the study of Amazonian plants. Pete Oudolf’s botanical compositions are attractive all year round, while writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid looks at colonial history, repression, and cultural appropriation through her garden in Vermont, USA. Artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942–1994) created his piece of garden art in a place where it hardly seemed possible, among hostile pebbles on the coast of Kent in England, next to a nuclear power plant.

The Kuala Lumpur Community Garden, co-founded by Malaysian landscape architect Ng Sek San, exemplifies numerous community initiatives. The Liao Garden, designed by Chinese artist Zheng Guogu, draws on the aesthetics of the computer game Age of Empires and thus creates a bridge between virtual and real environments.

The final section looks at contemporary designs for the future of gardens. One of the central works is a textile “meadow” created especially for this exhibition by the Argentine artist Alexandra Kehayoglu. This work is a reminder of the problems associated with climate change. The authors of the exhibition believe that in the era of the Anthropocene, the message of this and similar projects is “the entire planet becomes a garden that we must cultivate, care for and use responsibly.”

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