Located in the grounds of Portrack House, near Dumfries in South West Scotland, it is a private garden created by renowned landscape architect Charles Jencks – he who designed the distinctive Landform at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
The Scots-American has taken his concepts still further in his own private garden, which is open to the public for only one day of the year.
Inspired by the universe, science and mathematic formulae with themes such as black holes, comets and DNA, the Garden’s vast sculpted earth works, lakes and engineered structures are an impressive tribute to the mysterious universe which inspired them.
Jencks recalls: “When we began the garden, I was not concerned with the larger issues of the cosmos. But over the years, they came more and more to the fore and I have used them as a spur to think about nature and to contemplate and speculate on the origins of the universe. And in that respect, this garden is part of a long historical tradition. Japanese Zen gardens, Persian paradise gardens, the English and French Renaissance gardens played out the story of the cosmos as it was understood then. So the idea of the garden as a microcosm of the universe is quite a familiar one. In fact, I feel it is the most compelling motive to create a garden. What is a garden if not a celebration of our place in the universe?”
Forty major areas, gardens, bridges, landforms, sculptures, terraces, fences and architectural works. Covering thirty acres in the Borders area of Scotland, the garden uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor.
A water cascade of steps recounts the story of the universe, a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole, a “Quark Walk” takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter, and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is not a conceptual or even a symbolic garden — it is a demonstration garden, in which features are created in order to replicate physical expressions of cosmological theory in a highly literal manner, in the way of those little red molecule balls connected by sticks, so beloved of chemistry teachers.
In this sense the garden has more in common with a taxonomically arranged Renaissance botanical garden (Pisa or Padua) than an artistically nuanced place such as Little Sparta.
It has to be said that as time has gone on, the slightly hectoring tone of the garden has only increased. It verges on absurdity in the new cascade, for example, which purports to tell the story of the entire universe in its terraces, much as an evangelical 18th-century garden owner once tried to tell the story of Pilgrim’s Progress in his domain.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is no longer a dialogue with the universe, it is a monologue about the universe. It is becoming The Garden of Comic Extrapolation, and someone needs to say it.