Why Is No One Talking About The Hedge Mazes?
On the negotiation of nature and artifice on campus.
By Sona Wink
Spend enough time sitting on the steps of Earl Hall and you will begin to notice that we go to school in a hedge maze. Cubed bushes line the red brick paths and grass fields that sprawl behind and beside Low Library, their tops flat, their edges crisp. If you look from a low angle, you might spot the dark recess where the base of each plant meets the soil. Each stem stands in a neat row at a perfect distance from its neighbor, like Rockettes or guards at Buckingham Palace. They are the stock image of a hedge. The same goes for campus’s grass, trees, and bursts of flowers: nature, all so perfect it borders on uncanny. I suspect that this most unnoticed element of our daily lives as students might be crucial in understanding Columbia’s institutional identity. Further investigation shows that planted landscapes and gardens embody a push-and-pull relationship between nature and artifice that has played out over the course of centuries, a conflict that continues on campus today.
Human interference marks the difference between nature and artifice. Despite our trademark narcissism, human beings tend to assign a negative moral valence to the latter and a positive one to the former. Artificiality is a flaw in a person’s moral character; the word implies deception or falsehood. Nature, on the other hand, calls to mind ease, equilibrium, or beauty. A person is “a natural” if they possess innate talent. There’s a somewhat religious association: The word “natural” implies proximity and alignment with God’s intentions. Philosophers obsess over defining “human nature,” that slithery substance that always seems to slip from their grasps.
Gardens present a paradox: Designed to embody nature, they are inherently unnatural. Human beings often design them to appear untouched, to hide the artifice, the irony being that the more effort you put into achieving a “natural” look, the more artificial your landscape becomes.
Historian Lionello Puppi describes one instance in the centuries-long contest in Nature and Artifice in the Sixteenth-Century Italian Garden. The 15th-century garden, he reports, sought to imitate nature. He describes a series of thinkers who saw a contrast between “rus and urbs, between the serenity and order of the rural world and the disorder of urban life.” Cities, urbs, were filled with distracted professional class busybodies; gardens, rus, were occupied by contemplative thinkers. Here, we see the moral valence of the natural outweighing the artificial; cities as a place of moral corruption and gardens as a site of purity. These gardens were geometric and formal, but simplistic.
In the 16th century, however, Italians began to favor artifice. Gardens became the home of elaborate decoration and mechanism with the aim of provoking surprise and awe in the viewer. Designers moved away from attempts to emulate an aesthetic of Edenic purity and toward an embrace of total domination of nature. Artifice represented uncharted territory, possibility, and a new theatrical capacity to inspire the viewer. These landscapes became more ornate and elaborate as a means of symbolizing the power of their aristocratic owners; the more spectacle they produced, the more glorious their estate. The designs drew intentional focus to the human interference involved in their creation. An element of urbs was integrated into the rus in such a way to construct what Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio called a terza natura, or “third nature”: an elevated fantasy within nature created by artifice.
Elevated in another sense, Andrew Dolkart’s office in Buell Hall overlooks the sweeping stone plaza in front of Low Library. A lauded architectural historian, Dolkart literally wrote the book on the architectural history of Morningside Heights, including comprehensive background on the design of Columbia’s campus. I peer out of his window as he explains the original intent of the campus’s lead architect, Charles McKim. His original design focused largely on hardscape, hence his devotion of such a large swath of campus’s space to the brick court (prioritizing urbs over rus). When the campus opened for student use in 1897, it had little in the name of planting aside from a handful of trees and grass plots. For the next century, little attention was paid to the landscape.
“They kept it as simple as possible,” Dolkart explained. The planted landscape “was just not a priority.”
Little documentation of the caliber of campus landscape is easily available; however, few fragments shine through history. A photograph of Earl Hall in Dolkart’s book, taken between 1910 and 1915, shows sparse planting: A meek patch of grass sits in front of the stairs, where there are now two trees, ornate hedges, and a decorative sculpture; in the two squares that hug the stairs, now filled with varying and magical bushes, are sad and small shrubs.
A Spectator article from 1926 aments the “general ugliness of the landscape” of the South Field (what is now Butler and the two southern lawns) and emphasizes the “need of a landscape architect” on campus.
A survey conducted by Zion & Breen Associates in 1983 charts the physical flaws in the plantscape and hardscape of the campus. Nothing came of this assessment, according to Dolkart. Yet the survey still captures a moment of time via hundreds of detailed photos of the campus’s uglier elements: shabby, balding hedges; patchy grass bleeding into puddles of mud; tiles bleached or askew.
Originating in England as a backlash to Italian and French formalism, the wild garden presented a return to naturalism and sought to “achieve the semblance of unspoiled nature,” writes scholar Anne Helmreich. This aesthetic was a total rejection of the Italian infatuation with artifice and symmetry. It sought asymmetrical, sporadic, billowing forms of flora that appeared as if no human interference had taken place.
The wild garden gained traction among the American middle class in the late 19th century. Here the rus and urbs dichotomy pokes its head out again, scorning the grit and degradation of the industrial city and glorifying the cleanliness and health of the country. The wild garden was an expression of a burgeoning middle class identity, argues historian Virginia Tuttle Clayton—one that framed itself in direct contrast to the aristocratic Italian moment of the 16th century. The rich were “portrayed as foolishly wasting their fortunes on pretentious Italian-style gardens,” formalist landscapes now associated with aristocracy, excess, and artificiality. The wild garden seeks the aesthetic purity of untouched nature and ascribes to it a moral purity.
Things began to change on campus with the turn of the 21st century, when Columbia commissioned a master plan study with landscape consultant Thomas Balsley. It was Balsley who brought distinguished landscape architect Lynden Miller to our dessicated campus. For the past two decades, Miller has guided the design of Columbia’s planted scene, working alongside Assistant Vice President for Campus Operations Don Schlosser. The pair worked to plant essentially all of the flowers, most of the ornamental bushes, and many of the trees present today on campus. According to Miller’s 2009 book Parks, Plants, and People, Columbia went from spending “next to nothing” on their campus in the early ’90s to maintaining a “substantial annual budget” for landscaping. According to Schlosser, Miller remains to this day a vital resource for the department.
Miller’s work elevated the formal elements of the campus by thickening and sharpening the hedges and cleaning up the grass, thus raising the University’s standard to that of the garden home of a 17th-century Tuscan aristocrat (not in a bad way). Simultaneously, she introduced moments of informal design that evoke the wild garden. Their loose, free-flowing addition grounds the viewer in a sense of realism that naturalizes and softens the rigidity and artificiality of the formal hedge mazes. If the Renaissance and wild gardens represent two ends of an aesthetic spectrum, one end embracing artifice and the other disguising it, Columbia seems to lie somewhere in the middle, perhaps slightly on the side of formalism. The two ends of the spectrum operate not in tension, but harmony: a unity of rus and urbs forming a unique terza natura.
The effect of such a well-tailored combination is one of psychological transportation to a fantasy world where the business of attending Columbia University feels like an important, storied, even romantic act. Speed-walking to Havemeyer feels like a jaunt through a magical garden; eating a sandwich in front of Uris transforms into a moment of elevated tranquility. Miller is aware of the psychological power that a landscape can have. “Beautiful parks and gardens in the city are not a frill,” she writes in her book. “They are essential to the well-being of its citizens.”
Schlosser echoed Miller’s philosophy when I spoke to him on Zoom. “That was our intent—to invite people into these spaces,” he told me. “They can take time out of their busy schedules and just feel at peace, and have this little moment where they can really relax and reflect on nature.” Renaissance philosophers, too, saw the garden as a “a place of repose and sanctuary,” according to Puppi.
In a promotional video on Columbia’s website, a disembodied voice describes the campus as a “peaceful oasis of the life of the mind, defiantly independent of the surrounding marketplace racket of Manhattan.” The video calls to mind an image of the campus as a lush garden amid an otherwise barren desert. The University presents itself as a burst of rus in the otherwise chaotic urbs of New York. The video goes on to describe the “doubled magic” that occurs within the synergy between the external city and internal University: “The best things of the moment were outside the rectangle of Columbia; the best things of all human history and thought were inside.” The urbs surges continuously through the “best thing of the moment” while the rus, more patient and peaceful, preserves the intellectual legacy of the past.
On a practical level, no one place can ever encompass all of “the best things of all human history and thought.” But it doesn’t matter whether the statement is accurate or not. Columbia is an Ivy League institution, and the image it duly presents to both the external public and its own students is that it is one of “the best” universities in the world. Whether this is actually true is a separate debate; there are likely some statistics out there to answer that question. What is of more concern is whether we, the inhabitants and functionaries of the oasis, think ourselves to be “the best.” And there is no objective form that self-image can take.
Despite its popular connotation, artifice is not always an instrument of deceit or moral wrongdoing. The viewers of Italian Renaissance gardens were aware of the artificiality that they beheld, and they delighted in it. Artifice can be awe-inspiring when you notice the prowess and effort of its creator. The campus landscape, like all landscapes, is a work of artificial human creation, and a beautiful and successful one at that.
In the Renaissance and wild garden alike, the aim was to transport the viewer to a fantasy version of nature: the former, a world in which humans wield total control, where nature is an object of spectral delight and pleasure; the latter, a world awesome in its resemblance to divine intention. Neither fantasy is “true” in any objective sense. When the human mechanism disappears, the artifice becomes natural. The University’s self-image, its artifice, is only as real as we believe it to be.