The elegant lawn of F. Scott Fizgerald’s fictional hero serves as a symbol for the forgotten history of Art Deco gardens, long overshadowed by the spectre of Modernism
Paige Johnson, Sunday, 20th June 2010
'Every period of architecture has had its gardens with a character proper to the period. We must have ours.’1 The gardens Jean- Jacques Haff ner designed in 1931 to animate his declaration are in a style he simply termed ‘modern’, but which nearly 40 years later would be called ‘Art Deco’. Unfortunately, none of these gardens can be visited, or traced upon the ground by archaeological investigation, either in Haff ner’s native France or his adopted America. By his own acknowledgement, they were published simply as canvases to inspire students, designers, landscape architects and garden owners to build ‘a new era garden for a new era architecture’.2 They were entirely imaginary. The same has been said about the very idea of an Art Deco garden: that the movement was too short and stylistically diff use to be translated into the more difficult medium of landscape – the old maxim that ‘men come to build stately sooner than to garden fi nely’3 comes to mind – and no more real than the fi ctional setting of the legendary Jazz Age hero Jay Gatsby, in whose ‘blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars’.4
Modern retrospectives on the art and architecture of the era would seem to concur; most do not even mention the landscape.5 A quick survey of famed Art Deco houses shows that few were provided with grounds as innovative as their architecture. Many signifi cant Deco buildings were in urban settings without surrounding green space – another missed opportunity for Haff ner’s new era gardens. And yet it seems improbable that an aesthetic powerful enough to aff ect even the shape of toasters left the garden entirely untouched.
In fact, Gatsby’s blue gardens were no mere fictional construct. Monochromatic gardens based on the rarest of fl oral colours can be found in old glass slides and faded plans from the estates of America’s East Coast elite (Fig. 1), sites at which Fitzgerald had been a guest – dancing, perhaps, to the strains of Gershwin’s rhapsody in the same colour which appeared in 1924. The fashion for blue was evident a year later at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which would provide historians with the name ‘Art Deco’ and whose gardens featured blues in plantings, accessories and even polychrome hardscape materials.
From photographs and plans, descriptions and extant sites, the Art Deco garden emerges in slow focus: here there is a streamlined curve of a courtyard, there an acutely angled parterre appears. No quintessential example arises, and the image remains ghostly and scarred by World War ii, especially in the near total loss of innovative German gardens. But in landscapes public and private, across Europe, in Great Britain and in America, sometimes accompanying ambitious architecture and sometimes in a suburban backyard, the iconic elements of the Art Deco aesthetic appear. Naming these gardens for what they are – examples, often rare, of the unique aesthetic of the Art Deco period realised in the fragile forms of landscape – is important to the preservation of surviving sites, the re-envisioning of gardens appropriate to 1920s and 1930s locations, and the history of 20th-century design.
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