Olivia Marra –– The Garden as Political Form: From Archetype to Project

First Supervisor: Pier Vittorio Aureli
Second Supervisor: Mark Campbell

Olivia Marra is an architect graduated at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and postgraduate at The Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, with a project recently published in the book Tehran – Life Within Walls: A City, Its Territory, and Forms of Dwelling, edited by Hamed Khosravi (Hatje Cantz, 2017). She has collaborated with several offices, such as L’AUC in Paris, before starting her research at the Architectural Association.

“When the history of the common garden is written I suspect we will discover that the village orchard was the early forerunner of the park.”

In the compelling essay Nearer than Eden, from 1980, J.B. Jackson argues that the common garden used to be a shared, family-ruled enclosure, which then gradually lost its meaning once it got “invaded” by horticulture and pastoral landscape. Four decades later, such history remains unwritten, and gardens are still mostly seen as idyllic imitations of nature without limits. State-of-the-art botanist Gilles Clément, for instance, sees the entire planet as a “petit jardin.” As seductive as it is scary, this metaphor may soon become a reality since the use of the term is increasingly ubiquitous in architecture. And one must now ask not only what a garden is, but also what it is not. With the advent of so-called “green space,” today anything vaguely planted goes by as either “garden,” “park” or “urban-farm.” These terms, however, refer to enclosures that are far from interchangeable.

The thesis argues that the garden sets itself apart insofar as it is conceptually a “domestic space.” Because even when detached from the house, its enclosure implies the limit and the form of a household. While this does not apply to all types, it describes its most recognisable example: the hortus – or the “common garden” to which Jackson refers. Amongst the sacred spaces of the ancient Roman house, the hortus was the only one with an arable character and where shared cultivation was a ritual for both housework and pleasure. Precisely for making such autonomous reality spatially tangible, the hortus is an archetype of ideological enclosures, within which a given group of people may recognise and practice an idea of living together – in other words, a “political form.” One may thus ask the question: having the garden ceased to be legible as such, what’s left of it as a project of collective space?

This hypothesis is debated through the analyses of specific events in western history where the archetype has been transformed to serve different projects of household and property. Based on their evidence, these paradigms are grouped and structured into an alternative theory for defining three categories upon which gardens have “operated as political forms.” Firstly, by “archetypal” gardens the thesis means the most exemplary take on that family-ruled enclosure in the emergence of the hortus conclusus, specifically within the Cistercian Cloister, where it is configured to adhere to a liturgical practice of communal settlement. Secondly, the category “monumental” refers to the magnification of the hortus into an outward public monument within the suburban villas of sixteenth-century Rome. These were designed as highly theatrical gardened estates to formalise, ritualise and, thus, institutionalise patriarchal expropriations of rural land. Thirdly and only a century ago, the garden becomes “pastoral” in the dissolution of the archetype into an unfenced plot in the English allotment. Such iteration was normalised with the intent to make not only urban re-parcelisation more productive but also discipline proletarian families by instilling in their subconsciousness an innocent image of the very landscape that produced their subaltern condition.

Despite having quite controversial agendas, these examples share a crucial pedagogical dimension: they have turned gardening into a sort of self-care and, therefore, of inherent resilience. Hence this research poses a dialectic relationship between historical analysis and design methodology, in which it re-appropriates this knowledge to propose collective gardens that challenge mainstream ideas of ownership, especially in cities under real-estate pressure.

Posts by Olivia Marra