From ARCADE Issue 32.1. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Photography by Sam Hammer

Polesden Lacey

Polesden Lacey and its borrowed landscape.

I was with my colleague Patricia Loheed at the fabulous Polesden Lacey National Trust Garden in Surrey, south of London. Pat gazed over the expanse of formal pathways, rich plantings, rose gardens, forest and field. She focused on the chalk hills across from the manicured property and exulted, “They designed this to be a borrowed landscape!” By incorporating, or “borrowing,” the scenery outside of the garden’s boundaries, the visual footprint of Polesden Lacey was enlarged, dramatized and made a good deal grander, a first break from the tight, strict formalism of earlier English garden designs. Pat’s enthusiasm was about getting a firsthand look at modern landscape architecture in the making. However, her comment got me thinking about a different kind of borrowed landscape, one that’s related to the evolution of form.

As a biologist, I’m aware that few characteristics in nature evolve more than once—for example, the appearance of the vertebrate body plan, photosynthesis and the fern-like unfolding of growing plants each arose at one time in history, globally, and never again. We can also uncover the relationships of “unrelated” species by looking at their DNA, and we humans share so much in common with the rest of the living world that our common ancestry with plants, insects, and even fungi and bacteria, is a moot point.




Shared growth pattern in a fern, a black cohosh and a beech tree.

So what about landscape evolution? What do built landscapes have in common with one another? Are landscape forms inherited, borrowed, shared, stolen or have they arisen independently in many different places and times?

As an undergraduate anthropology student at Grinnell College, I read the enchanting book The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins during a year abroad. That slim book shaped in me a profound curiosity that follows me wherever I travel. Recently, my interest in how landscapes develop brought me to Magul Maha Vinhara, a nearly deserted forest monastery in a remote jungle corner of southeast Sri Lanka. There I witnessed the contradictory human yearning for control and connection with the landscape, which brought about a unique design interaction with nature characterized by classical Buddhist design in that area. 

Magul Maha

Pillars at Magul Maha Vinhara.

At the monastery I took pictures, rapid-fire, of the large reflecting pokuna—meditation pond. I was aware of the strange atmosphere of the pond, which bore a similarity to someplace else I had seen, someplace far away. A month later, as I uploaded my pictures to Flickr, it struck me. The meditation pond at Magul Maha Vinhara reminded me of a place I had seen in England.

Was there a design connection? Do our garden designs come from a single ancestor, like our DNA? If not, who’s been copying whom?

My question goes back to a visit to the Stowe Landscape Garden in Buckinghamshire, England. Stowe, like many of the premier landscapes in the UK, was redesigned several times through its history. Chief among its designers was the eighteenth-century figure Lancelot (Capability) Brown, who is counted among the founders of landscape architecture.

We know that Brown had visual knowledge of Eastern gardens because he stated that he was familiar with “Chinese” garden design, though it’s doubtful that he ever saw a depiction of a garden from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and certainly he never visited one. Yet the qualities we find at Octagon Lake, the great reflecting pond at Stowe, are abundantly present in the disused tank at Magul Maha Vinhara and a hundred other places throughout Sri Lanka.

magul maha

Magul Maha Vinhara.

Octagon Lake

Octagon Lake at Stowe, enlarged by Capability Brown.

Contemplative spaces, reflective surfaces and “borrowed” views across the water are all characteristics of these reflecting ponds. Did Magul Maha and places like it represent a sort of prototypical “Eastern” garden—similar to one that Capability Brown might have envisioned—or do we humans just like reflecting ponds?

My guess is that Brown was influenced by reflecting ponds from the East, but the technology to make them, at least large ones, was a recent “discovery” in Europe; Brown enlarged Octagon Lake from a smaller one started by a predecessor. I am not a garden historian, but I have seen a few, and from my observations extensive reflecting ponds are absent from earlier formal gardens of Europe. Moats, yes. Fountains, certainly. Large, naturalistic reflecting pools? Not until technology made it feasible, and not until intensive contact with East Asia, which affected Western culture and aesthetics, do reflecting ponds appear.

So, landscape form and evolution, tradition, innovation, aesthetics and science—how do they all come together?

A few observations:

Before reflecting pools, physic gardens were an innovation of seventeenth-century Europe, places where beneficial plants known to the Greeks and Romans could be cultivated for use by healers. In the Sri Lankan world, a slew of  beneficial plants had been known since time immemorial, and they grew everywhere. They were (and still are) part and parcel of the traditional Ayurvedic scheme of medicine.

We know that some Latin plant names were borrowed from ancient Sinhalese—for example, Nelumbo (lotus) from the Sinhalese Nelum.

We know that styles of sculpture and even architecture were shared between these two disparate parts of the world. We don’t know who started it all, though we have evidence of trade between the two worlds that reaches back at least 2,000 years.

We know that the reflecting tanks of Sri Lanka came out of an ages-old tradition of wewas, kulams and pokunas, water tanks that were used for irrigation and for meditation. Europeans couldn’t build huge reflecting pools like the wewas because they didn’t have the technology to do so until the eighteenth-century. While Renaissance Europeans were putting gardens into four-cornered patches, laying straight paths through lanes of pruned shrubbery and developing a symmetrical “physic” of useful plants, Buddhist monks and the simple farmers of Sri Lanka had long since learned the art and science of impounding water. Europe finally mastered engineering techniques that were old in Sri Lanka around the time of the Enlightenment.

Meanwhile, designers like Capability Brown sought to bring the grace of meditative landscape to the richest patrons of northwestern Europe. But beauty, harmony and peace were part of the everyday working agricultural landscape that was vernacular to East Asia.