Cultivating Place: Thoughts on Robin Boyd and the Australian Garden

Edited excerpt from an essay by Georgina Reid, titled Cultivating Place, published in After the Australian Ugliness (Thames and Hudson Australia, 2021. Ed. Naomi Stead, Tom Lee, Ewan McEoin, Megan Patty).

A cluster of virgins, their robes exposing a perfectly formed breast here and an elegantly slanted shoulder there, watch as workmen rest on their shovels and young boys carry baskets of flowers on their shoulders. An orderly hedge of golden diosma lines the mosaic-encrusted pathway leading from the mosaic-encrusted mailbox to the mosaic-encrusted front porch.

‘What would Robin Boyd think?’ I ask myself as I prowl slowly by. I imagine Boyd, the great anti-featurist, responding to this suburban orgasm of concrete and kitsch and I can’t help but giggle. ‘The first essential in design is the clarity of a ruling idea in the form’, wrote Boyd in The Australian Ugliness, but I’m not sure it’s this kind concrete clarity he had in mind.

On one level, I’m drawn to this garden because it upends the numb conformity of the houses surrounding it. It makes me want to know more. It’s not beautiful but it’s intriguing and the owner obviously loves it. Surely love is enough? Boyd would probably disagree, proposing that ‘the language of love is at fault’. He’d likely suggest that the owner’s attitude to concrete statues and garden gnomes ‘goes deeper than unsophistication in matters of design’. The trouble is, he’d say, is ‘a deep unawareness, and a wish to remain unaware, of the experience of living here, now’.

As he is wont to do, Boyd hits the nail on the head. What does this concrete paradise say of the land it exists on? What stories of place does it tell? Is it okay that it says everything about who and nothing about where? Most of me sides with Boyd, but another part says, hang on, what is a garden but an abstraction, an expression, and how can you suggest something as deeply personal as love can be broken, wrong?

It is in this place – the hazy and often contradictory realm of growth and expression, human and other – that the garden lies. The garden is an idea as much as a place, hovering somewhere between the profound and profane. The late American poet and gardener Stanley Kunitz said it best:

The garden is, in a sense, the cosmos in miniature, a condensation of the world that is open to your senses. It doesn’t end at the limits of your own parcel of land, or your own state, or your own nation. Every cultivated plot of ground is symbolic of the surprises and ramifications of life itself in all its varied forms, including the human.

The Australian garden appears fleetingly in The Australian Ugliness, yet Boyd manages to say more about it and its evolution than most garden books published since. Boyd took landscape seriously, and he took his reader seriously. All too often, garden publications are dumbed down to pretty pictures and how-to guides, presenting the garden as a place only of pleasure and weekend jobs, rarely touching on its connection to culture, politics, and, dare I suggest, spirituality. ‘Why must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility that comes with being a human being?’ asked writer and New Yorker columnist Jamaica Kincaid in 2001. It is this, the weight and the flightiness of being human, that Robin Boyd gave voice to in a way like few others.  He saw through the postcolonial delusions of white Australia – the penchant for prettiness and surface decoration over contemplation – and was willing to dive into the why, rather than the how, in a manner insightful, engaging and often hilarious.

To write, then, of the Australian garden in 2020 within the context of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness is to start digging, with ideas of truth front of mind. It is to sniff around in backyards and public parks, sifting through soil and mulch and compost and attempting to hear what it is our gardens say about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. There’ll be none of Boyd’s despised ‘gratuitous adornments’ and I’ll do my best to not ‘shuffle about vigorously in the middle’. I am interested, like Boyd, in what the facade of an idea, a building, a garden, tells us about its conceptual foundations. As above, so below…