A false dichotomy

April 13, 2020

The emphatic separation of ‘beautiful’ and functional landscape elements is a hallmark of many grand estates around Europe. In general, functional plants (notably edible plants and timber trees) were not placed front and centre within such pleasure gardens; as the presentation of ornate, rigid and entirely useless plantings undoubtedly conferred a greater impression of one’s status (rather than such vulgar concerns as sustenance).

However, anyone who has seen a well-pruned apricot or plum tree in full bloom, or a venerable pear tree displaying its characteristic weeping form, should question the need for such a dichotomy (between beauty and utility). This was evidently a sentiment held by Friedrich der Große (ruler of Prussia in the mid 18th Century), who ordered the conspicuous planting of huge numbers of fruit trees throughout the estate attached to his summer palace at Potsdam.

There is no better demonstration of the deliberate integration of fruit trees here than the terraced hillside of fig trees below the main palace. Housed behind glass doors for overwintering in the harsh Brandenburg climate, the figs are the antithesis of the rigid geometry of the nearby buildings and landscape structures – bursting out from their chambers in summer in their languid, unruly fashion. The arrangement of the glass panels on these doors is noteworthy, for the overlap (shown below) that allows for exchange of moisture when in a closed position.

Prior to my trip last year, I had been to Sanssouci on multiple occasions. However, it was only on this visit, during a very interesting walk with the Director of Parks, that I registered the significance of restoration work that had being undertaken for years (and is still underway) – with respect to providing a truer (and more nuanced) picture of the original intent towards the gardens and parkland.

It is appropriate here to write of the decision-making processes that are applied to historical places, and the heavy role that assumptions can play in decisions. Previous landscape works and maintenance had been adopted with the assumption that Sanssouci would conform more closely to perceived norms (or the ‘template’) for such sites.

However, research showed that such assumptions did not necessarily represent the best guess for an authentic picture of how such a landscape might be restored. Of course, within landscapes whose lifespan runs across several centuries, alighting upon a single, ‘correct’ approach is fraught with difficulty (such places have many phases). That said, it is so much more interesting (with respect to the life of a place) to view it through the lens of its original steward (Friedrich der Große), who was clearly as interested in the cultivation of apples (such as those in the image above) as many other matters.

Elsewhere, cherries and pears take pride of place within a hedged compartment below the Orangerie. These plantings show that formalism has not been abandoned in their layout, with the trees arranged in a linear fashion. However, it is the necessary accommodation of seasonal growth for the development of fruit that sets this apart from so many royal estates around Europe – for it inherently values the function of such plantings (and the ebullience and pleasure associated with fruit cultivation) over the arbitrary, unchanging, stiff form of control exerted within contemporaneous gardens.

And speaking of arbitrary things, I will conclude this journal entry with an impression that has little to do with the innovative work that is guiding the restoration of this estate, and which pertains more to the uncomplicated matter of form. At one point in our progress through the park, I was struck by the mesmerising effect of the stepped ramps to the sides of the terraced hillside below the summer palace – the charms of which, I feel certain, would also not be lost on a 10-year old in possession of a bike.