Friday, July 30, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Belgium and the Presence of Absence

Virginia Woolf mused in Orlando that clothes “have more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”  I should like to adapt that statement to fit current sentiments: gardens have more important offices than to fill one’s time or make a pretty montage; they change our view of the world and the world's view of us.

Surely that is a quirky way to begin an entry on Belgium, and surely it imposes a heavy burden on gardens, but the adaptation has its merits.

Before our trip, upon hearing that we were staying in Brussels, most people immediately reported how ugly and disagreeable Brussels is (save for the Grand Place) and that we must vacate the city and head to Bruges and Antwerp and other "more beautiful" cities. But, opinions are subjective and one should never form preconceived notions based on other people's experiences and opinions, even if one may take them under advisement.

Much to our delight, we enjoyed Brussels. True, most buildings were very gray or black (the effect of years of air pollution; but the same can be said for many buildings in many cities around the world). True, more than a significant portion of elegant buildings were hidden under scaffolding as workers erased the accumulation of soot of years past. True, one found an odd assortment of buildings: 17th century palais next to 20th century concrete and glass unit, and everything in between. But one sees this across Europe: evidence of the ruins of wars, reminders of not-too-distant pasts when the Europeans themselves were driven by the madness of ideology and racism. (But, in my humble architectural opinion, such diversity, even if the product of brutality, add to the city's charm.) True, I think we may have experienced a total of 10 hours of sun in the 5 days we were in Brussels; the skies were continually gray, the buildings gray, my photographs all cast in a gray hue; but no matter. The vibrancy, joys, and verve of Brussels stem from its status as "capital" of the European Union and all the diversity that that brings, from its citizens, from its many cafes and culinary delights.

Yet one thing, in my opinion, does detract from Brussels’ allure, and that is the omnipresent presence of absence: the absence of gardens and flowers, of planters and flower boxes adorning homes; the happy marriage between sidewalk and house, so happy in fact that nary a weed grows; all of this—the multiple absences, the marriages between stone and stone, stone and concrete, stone and steel, all of it casts the city in a peculiar dull pallor.

Sure, this may be said of many a city, and thus I suppose I am unfair in my criticism for singling out Brussels. But even in New York outside the nearly exclusive commercial zones—the upper East and West Sides, Chelsea, Greenwich, Lower Manhattan, Tribeca, the Lower East Side—one sees front gardens, evidence of rooftop gardens, window boxes, flower boxes, and the like. This is not to suggest Brussels lacks parks or public gardens; and indeed the wealthy neighborhoods of Brussels do possess front and back yard gardens. But the central city itself, whether by accident or design, exists in the presence of absence.

One day, an acquaintance, R, took us in his car to Liège Province to offer us a glimpse of life in the French influenced countryside—a necessary excursion given our exposure to Flemish life in Belgium in the guise of Ghent/Gent/Gand and Bruges/Brugge. The drive was spectacular—not primarily because of the scenery (dense evergreen forests, rolling hills and mountains of the Ardennes), picturesque chateaus and old farmhouses with thick stone walls and fortifications, but primarily because it altered my perspective and enabled me to develop a healthier appreciation of Belgium. There were gardens here and there, and some flower boxes; nothing grand or extensive (we were, after all, driving through rural and forested areas; and Huy, Dinant, and Namur were medieval towns with narrow buildings and streets closely aligned, often situated next to massive hills on which stood equally massive citadels, and thus no room for the bourgeois activity of gardening existed). And many gardens were walled, and hence obstructed from view, save for one (clearly bourgeois) house in Dinant (pictured above) whose gates were open, thus permitting a visual thief like me to capture the beauty inside.

But those few flower boxes or garden plots, shaped boxwoods and patches of flowers did instill a sense of appreciation for what was. But they also made more palpable Brussels as a zone in which the presence of absence dominates. Brussels, me thinks, is in need of a change of clothes.

No comments:

Post a Comment