Picture your editor, wearing an unaccustomed suit and travelling in a party with his client, the Duchess of Rutland, trying to look the part as they slalom like balls in a pinball machine, from cocktail party to cocktail party across the United States.
They reach Houston at nightfall. Emma, the Duchess, sleeps in seconds, Gilly, organising the tour for Inspiration Events, sleeps as soon as the TV comes on. John stays up with his notes, and finds that every twenty words or so he has to put a full stop. Like banging a peg in to stop the tent blowing away. Because the musak, which covers the motors of the air conditioning, prevents a thread of thought from extending much past a semi-colon.
Their business in the States is to introduce the Royal gardener, Capability Brown, the tercentenary of whose birth we celebrate this year (2016).
The first thing that registers, because it’s Houston, is the audience at the Rienzi Museum, mostly women, all different, all equally and keenly alive with their questions, curious, flashing, gorgeous, fishing, sophisticated, professional women, these women all feel that they are missing something and that what they are missing resides precisely in the fact that they live in a city with precisely 170 years of history, rather than, let’s say 2070 years. As if to replace this absent past, they challenge the English party with the fact that Houston has 43 native varieties of Oak ‘and how many are there in England?’ – only two – as if somehow their pride drives them still to fight for their country and they are seeking out the ground that will give them the best advantage.
Something has been severed. Yet on the plus side, Houstonians are not limited by the achievement of their predecessors, they are still pioneers, still travelling west towards the limitless horizon of the unknown. Whereas in Europe, in the world of Capability Brown, it seems requisite that when we consider making changes, we should start from a position of respect for the past. We are checked by it – because it would be shameful to lose something good until certain that we can replace it with something better, but all too often we find ourselves shackled to things because they are old even if they are of indifferent value.
America is a series of cultures as distinct as those of Europe – Houston, Charleston, Palm Beach, Miami –the same generous open-hearted people pop up everywhere, conditioned into difference by their geography and the stereotypes associated with their backgrounds.
So we leave the good women of oiler Houston, still seeing themselves as outsiders, still thirsting with the thirst of a plant transplanted for rootedness, and Charleston brings a different take: an old town, with its own quiet grace and the honour of a relatively egalitarian architecture. The houses there have half their square footage out on the verandah to cope with the levelling heat, and the verandahs are close enough for conversation with the neighbours.
Charleston has three classes of these houses: old unpainted wooden ones by freeways and on roundabouts, neglected, abandoned and slipping further into the past with every passing day; trim ones on Broad Street – the real Charleston of postcards and tourist guides – so spick, so span, they might have been taken down, rebuilt in concrete and then clad in wood to give them the look of a pre-war city. Then at the Confederate Home, a third type: down a narrow passage off 62 Broad Street with peeling red paint on the walls and plaster coming away in patches, rain – it was raining – and dark as a shadow in the centre of the yard, a single live oak, haunting everything beneath its shade, limbs flickering out to the double and triple verandahs that surround it on three sides and slope down towards the yard so as to shed the rain, but leave you with the feeling that the building has slipped and is close to collapse. It’s something that the British have long known, that imperfection connects. We relate to it as a guarantee of authenticity.
If all our assumptions about landscape are up for grabs, then here in Charleston we face the claim for authenticity, the claim always made in England that buildings with their original fittings are more authentic, and that nature unmediated by conscious design is somehow more real, more authentic, and more natural than anything touched by a ‘landscraper’ like Brown – even if it has been farmed for thousands of years.
If Broad Street, Charleston, challenges our regard for authenticity, then Palm Beach takes the question a giant step further. The Beach is an obverse of the Boston stereotype. Its gardens could make a book: 1,001 ways to look at a swimming pool. If Boston is the intellectual capital of the USA, then Palm Beach takes the Bostonian ideas that language, reason and the pursuit of truth are somehow as real and important as life itself, and tosses them out the window. Life is about stuff, language is its facilitating wheel, and not its engine. Palm Beach has tall glasses with unimaginable liquids in them, it has houses furnished with Roman rooms, Rococco rooms, rooms of Louis XV furniture. The past is something you can stitch onto your coat-tails. The past is new. The question of authenticity does not arise.
Walk then down South County Road to Worth Avenue and on down to Ocean Boulevard and that huge and wonderful sea, with the white lace of spray hanging and falling above the Rothko blues of the water – walk down and you’ll find the sea strangely inaccessible, it turns smooth water to rough and back again in seconds, but there’s a solid yellow wall, knee-high, between you and that alchemical magic. You cannot see it from the streets. So are we connected? are we receiving? are we in touch with nature here? Could you live in Palm Beach and just not know about any other place, about cloud and rain, nothing but the endless blue sky and the unheeded passage of uneventful time? – and then it strikes you, what you have been missing – Palm Beach is a town built for a siege. January to March, Americans take refuge from the weather here. It is a well-managed retreat from the impossible cold and snow of the north-east coast. The US is not a European country, and one cannot comfortably live with a countryside so hostile. Nature is a thing to turn one’s back on.
Then Miami is the right city for a final confrontation. Artificial islands stand out from the shallow sea. The Flagler obelisk on Monument Island celebrates the conquest of Miami by air conditioning and the railway. The prismatic steel of downtown sky-scrapers swells out of the swamp and the long reaches of island and water to Fisher Island, as organ pipes of harmonious form might rise out of primaeval noise.
Miami is not escaping nature but reshaping it to suit human convenience – and why not? and why then did Brown strive so hard to make landscapes that would slip so readily into the English countryside that his work would be anonymous? Why not make a statement? – in Miami the question is simply rejected as irrelevant. We make landscape any shape we want to. You can make it look natural, but why bother when there are so many other fun shapes to choose from, and anyway Brown didn’t do pools – he’s the past.
Four cities with searching questions: Mrs H of Houston asks what it is that old things contribute to human happiness and understanding; Mr I of Charleston asks why we should prize the untouched as more authentic than the rebuilt; Mr C of Palm Beach asks us why we should prize nature for its beauty, and Mr W of Miami cannot understand why the works of the human hand should not be proudly and conspicuously human.
The Brown Advisor will address each of these in the four following posts.