A walk through a five-century-old-garden

We can push people, or we can pull them. Fallout 3 is a useful example. The early game is mostly push. It’s the quest, the drive for exploration, the need for ammo or stars or whuffie. You follow instructions, build your strength and smarts, and endure the constant, driving worry of trying not to die in the wasteland. But then there comes a time when you’ve mastered the game systems, you trust your skills, and you start looking at the grey landscape with new eyes.

You’re attempting to gauge its potential for fun, because you could go anywhere. Odd things you glimpse will lure you towards them. That jagged notch you half-see on the horizon turns into a ruined church defended by supermutants. A lazy column of birds wheels above something. But then a flat stretch of wasteland reveals a road hidden deep in a trench, and perhaps there’s someone down there you haven’t seen since you left the place you were born and thought you’d never see again. It’s terrain set up for play, using ideas that people have been exploring for a long time.

Designing landscapes for play is an art. One of the best never wrote anything down, and the players he made it for have been gone for 400 years. You can only walk through his work and pay close attention.

Designing landscapes for play is an art. 

Andre Le Nôtre worked in Paris for the Sun King. Perspective was being understood for the first time, and the study of mathematics covered optics, music, engineering and geometry as well as the fortification of strongholds and sieges. His offices were next to those of painters and architects and engineers working on effective warfare. The techniques of calculating cannonball trajectories can also be applied to gardens.

His best-known work is at Versailles. It was an obscure hunting lodge when he was commissioned by Louis the Fourteenth to plan the gardens for a new palace. He made an extraordinary, overscaled landscape where the king could assert his power and the court could play. He’s the first designer who thinks of gardens specifically as a space you see while moving, rather than from the static viewpoint of a lord in his mansion. He tugs you along by always giving a strong path to a half-glimpsed object, but as you move towards it endless surprises are built in. What you find when you arrive might be quite different from what you expected.

At Versailles, he started by setting up a path on a pure, straight, three-kilometerlong axis leading the eye out from the house, through the park, out into the countryside and towards the rest of France. It’s an invitation to walk forward with a manageable goal. You want to see more of the small pond you see further down the path. But set out in that direction, and you find that the simplicity is an illusion.

You immediately go down some steps. This shift of viewpoint hides all but a sliver of the water ahead of you, and you need to move to regain your view. As you do, you start to realise that what you saw was only one end of a much larger canal, big enough to stage a mock naval battle (it covers 57 acres). There are more steps, and you find there’s a large oval of water bounded by stone between you and the canal. Bursting out of it is Apollo, frozen in the act of urging his horses out of the water and into the sky. Each step reveals more. Le Nôtre was taking ideas around perspective and bending them in ways no one had seen before.

He’s controlling those transitions with techniques familiar to gunners. A sightline is a linear trajectory that you can diagramize as easily as a cannon shot. So, for two viewers, each looking in the same direction from different portions of the path, you can establish the limits of their vision on a cross-sectional diagram with a ruler. If the level of the landscape moves up or down they’ll be able to see or not see the pool with the fountains (or the entrance to the mine, or the rebel base) that’s hidden in the stepped terrace. Until the viewer takes another step forward and catches sight of something where there should be no something, and her pace quickens, and the adrenaline starts to flow.

Le Nôtre corrects for the effects of perspective over such long distances using anamorphosis, distorting shapes so that they look “right” from a particular angle. He is using repeated geometric shapes as structural objects, and lines up corners and edges along perspectival lines. So shapes that are human-scaled next to the house gradually grow to be enormous monoliths further out in the park. It’s harmonious on the eye and makes the distance seem shorter, while also building an uncanny feeling of being dwarfed by magnificence the further you go.

You never know what you might find on a seemingly featureless path. 

That increase in the volumes of the rectangles and the height of hedges also makes room for hidden, more intimate spaces in between those enormous sightlines. A labyrinth guarded by statues. Rooms bound by hedges where musicians would play. Endless fountains. You never know what you might find on a seemingly featureless path. At Fontainebleau, another of Le Nôtre’s gardens, there’s a moment where you lock eyes with a statue peeping over a seven foot hedge. Find your way to the other side of the barrier and the ground falls away to a deep, reflecting pool. That single face you saw is actually part of a group of figures playing out a classical myth. Made you look, but the reward is that it was better than you could have imagined. And when you reach your original goal, it might be that the statues you were aiming for are in fact stalagmites, and their human faces were only ever in your mind.

The gardens were designed for the king to dazzle visitors, assert his royal divinity, and engross his courtiers in an exhausting round of spectacle and pleasure. He gave weeklong parties where the whole court role-played allegorical stories about majesty and might. It was a heightened, dreamlike world where anything might happen.  

The bones of that garden are still here today, and have been examined for clues by landscape architects since the 1660’s. The Mall in DC that you fight your way up and down in Fallout 3? The designer was directly inspired by Versailles and Le Nôtre’s work.

Header: stanzebla via flickr

For an eerie take on Versailles, check out these photos by Michael Kenna: 1, 2, 3