The Landscape Observatory of Catalonia has organised a seminar to reflect on historical gardens. That sentence might seem purely descriptive but for me, it has the value of a manifesto; more than a desirable novelty, it seems to me to be the sign of a trend shift.
Those of us who devote ourselves professionally to this unusual subject, historical gardens, had been contemplating the gradual decline in interest for these cultural products years, after a brief surge back in the 1980s and '90s. Paradoxically, this was happening at the same time as interest in the landscape was experiencing unequivocal growth. We use the term "interest" to group a varied series of phenomena which included citizen concern, studies and legislation, the creation of research centres or teaching positions in university faculties.
I suppose that, in a way, the historical garden was viewed as an art form, a luxury for the privileged few, and landscape as a universal need, as something that was everywhere. The former as an elitist legacy handed down from the former affluent classes, the latter as democratic and current; the former as the work of artists, the latter as a collective creation. The former as superfluous, the latter as unavoidable. And while both shared a perception of "greenness", in such a reductionist, hollow vision as that portrayed by the previous phrases, it created in many people's minds the idea that they competed for the same space and one had to choose either one or the other.
Garden enthusiasts strove in vain to counteract these visions. Let me just mention one example of this battle for "survival". The ICOMOS has always had an international expert committee on historical gardens and, some decades ago, its members decided to expand the name to "historical gardens and cultural landscapes". Later on, they opted for the current shortened name of "cultural landscapes". The original name was removed with the excuse that historical gardens are landscape. This may be true or not, or perhaps only in part, but deep down, the debate is basically a word game among philologists. It depends on how we define each thing and what interests we are defending with our definitions. In any case, it's something I don't really want to go into, and even less on this page.
What I do want to talk about is the revival of interest in gardens. And I find it very useful that landscape scholars, without raising any problems or feeling the need to give excuses, invite us to rethink historical gardens. "Rethink", a wonderful and very illustrative verb; as I have said, a manifesto in itself.
Beyond the shades of meaning given to differentiate one from the other, gardens and landscapes both share the quality of being human products associated with culture, life, well-being and enjoyment. And they also share a large part of their problems and risks. They must also share study and advocacy strategies. So it is very fitting that the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia has included "garden" as a pet in its vocabulary game. Because that's what it is.