OUTOPOS – Herder in Wörlitz

You may say, that thanks to his remarks the park grew and became richer. In advance already did he recognize what the new and growing plantings promised to become like. No spot was neglected where some thing of beauty could still be made to stand out or added to the garden.

Goethe, Die Wahlverwandtschaften



One thing is certain – Utopia is nowhere.

Some have designed their utopias to exist – one of these days. Others are invented never to come alive. Then again, there are also utopias expressly intended by their creators to realize a dream. In all cases, however, Utopia is simply nowhere, a non-place and thus pure future. No jam today, always jam tomorrow.

There is no way of testing the truth of a Utopia, no manner of predicting its effectiveness. Only what meets today’s requirements and needs can possibly be verified. Anyone claiming that art is an experiment with history is using a metaphor. The elusiveness and largesse of art’s objects exclude all testing. After all, an experiment presumes the possibility and ability to vary a number of variables. Art as such, however, is completely variable and always individual. Art is always utopian.



One chilly April day, sitting in my hotel room in French Fontaine-Chaalis, I wrote the following words on the back of a postcard showing an autumnal garden:

How strange, a world so bitter and cruel, yet covered with so many genuine paradises. Oh Garden Artists throughout the ages, Thou painters with brushes large as weeping willows and pigments fragrant as hyacinths – You are the greatest utopians ever!

That very day my colleague and I had already visited the gardens of Beloeil in the south-west of Belgium, now we were a stone’s throw away from the park of Ermenonville. The noble creators of these two parks, Messrs De Ligne and De Girardin, enjoyed their gardens thoroughly, they were considered a resting place for lost souls who wandered in from faraway cities.

Their owners, moreover, regarded these parks as true topoi, each a locus amoenus or beguiling spot which should encourage and spur its visitors to organize their own lives and their own society in accordance with the polished version of ‘nature’ as they found it here.

Intended not as ou-topos they were- a spot that never had existed and never would exist anywhere – but rather as a sort of zone liberated by guerrilleros from which goodness would spread throughout the whole wide world. Prince Franz wanted the realm of his Anhalt-Dessau to be ein Gartenreich, one great garden empire covered with paradises that would one day spread out to become Paradise period.

A noble guerrilla, for sure.




Curiously enough, it was precisely in the fact of their practical expectation of realizing such dreams that the unrealistic and utopian aspect of their ideas may be explored. When in the second half of the 18th century such noble Gentlemen began to lay out their first wild English Gardens, their social class – the aristocracy – was already doomed, certainly in France but if seen in a slightly longer time perspective also elsewhere else in Europe. Even in their own eyes all evidence pointed that way.

While in 1790, under the glorious Provence skies and in the very year after the beginning of the French Revolution, the Seigneur of Gémenos Jean Baptiste Albertas was giving a party in honour of his villagers, they murdered him in of all places his own garden. Yet, a slaughter of this kind still had the charm of being personal, bearing in mind that hundreds of kilometres further north not long after this gruesome event the nobility was to be killed en masse and almost anonymously.

This was done on the assembly line of the scientifically developed guillotine, a device that as a contemporary aptly remarked cut off heads with the speed of a wink. Perhaps, those who killed Jean Baptiste thought that with their Lord still alive the ‘better society’ as represented by his garden could simply not be realized.

Even before that time though, the gardens of Prince Franz and Jean-Baptiste were already ou-topoi or non-places. After all, their views on an ideal society and the notions entertained by ‘their people’ were rather different. The ‘modern age’ that was about to dawn or had perhaps already started was urban and industrial rather than feudal, rural and idyllic.

Meanwhile, the paradises – or rather the miniature paradises in the shape of gardens like Wörlitz, Ermenonville, Beloeil and Le Désert de Retz – had lost their exemplary function. They no longer stood for a ‘better society’ but had degenerated into places of pilgrimage for nostalgic visitors who no longer possessed the allegorical power of their 18th-century predecessors.

Despite his misgivings the gardens of De Ligne survived the Revolution unscathed, however somewhat later they yet disappeared. Utopian as they always had been, they now became an ou-topos in a double sense: not only were they no longer kept, along with the Revolution ‘people of sentiment’ whom their designers had in mind had also disappeared. Nobody could understand the deep meaning of all those follies any longer…



All is flux – one cannot step into the same river twice, however one can do so twice in the River Rhine. Even when walking the gardens of Beloeil today, you are not walking in the gardens of De Ligne. In full bloom, yet nature morte. This even applies in a stronger sense to all the gardens that became incomplete, where follies or fabriques were not maintained or even have been demolished.




Just as the rise of the genre of the English Garden was not an instantaneous affair, its specimen in Wörlitz was not created in one stroke. The garden revolution began with a rather Dutch-sounding text, written in 1685 by William Temple:

In laying out the gardens, great sums may be thrown away without effect or honour if they want sense in proportion to money; or if nature be not followed; which I take to be the great rule in this, and perhaps in everything else …

 Whether the greatest of mortal men should attempt the forcing of nature, may best be judged by observing how seldom God Almighty does it himself, by so few true , and undisputed miracles as we see or hear of in this world.

This process of slow transformation of the French style of gardening – in England often known as Dutch Garden – into the natural English version involved the disappearance of a garden confined within walls with its formal flower beds, fruit trees, neat rows of plants and bushes, in favour of an idealized ‘total landscape’ sometimes called a ‘country park’.

Early 18th-century German literature was trying to express this growing feeling for ‘nature’. Such intensification, however, was not yet reflected in the period’s aristocratic gardens which, longer than those in England, remained formal and organized according to ‘the French taste’. One of the reasons for this was the fact that at the critical moment – around 1750 – the German antiquarian Winckelmann’s plea for ‘the Greek taste’ gave rise to a new German classicism, preventing the change towards the ‘English’ style.

The Wörlitz estate – the first German garden to become ‘English’ – consists of several gardens, a few of which are still geometrical, while the rest is in the English style. Work on them started in 1764, the geometrically laid out gardens being established first. The work on the much larger English park followed in stages, this after in 1770 great floods around the Elbe had occurred which actually triggered this garden revolution. A flower garden, several lakes and large areas of arable and pasture land were incorporated, bordered by a variety of trees.

Around 1770 you would still find French styled gardens at all small German royal courts, either stretched to its high-spirited rococo limits, or with a Baroque Garden fragmented into a number of smaller gardens, however still  geometrically designed. By that time, in England the type of ‘natural’ garden had already become quite popular. Prior to and during the construction of his gardens Prince Franz von Anhalt-Dessau and his advisors had even made four study trips to that British Isle. The Prince also considered to settle there with his maîtresse. However, regal form triumphed over bourgeois frivolity and folly so in the end he married a real Princess.

A remarkable contrast exists between model and imitation it was – between on the one hand his English ‘colleagues’ and on the other hand the German minor monarch Franz. The English landed gentry was largely made up of nouveaux riches, upstarts who had seized both the opportunity to become capitalist industrial entrepreneurs and take hold of a title, this at a moment of history, when the system of feudalism was definitively breaking down and parliamentary democracy began to take root, however not yet giving all too much power to the common people.

In Germany, by contrast, the top layer of society felt most uncomfortable about the bad example which rebellious people in France and elsewhere had given their own nationals, even though there was no revolutionary zeal in Germany yet. Smaller states, such as Weimar and Dessau, were ruled by ‘enlightened’, albeit still ‘absolute’ princes who had succeeded in buying out their nobles’ competition while brushing them aside. However, quite a few of these small princes did contemplate the handing over some influence to their people. They could afford the promotion of the arts and attempted to raise their people’s health, knowledge and skills.

Purveyors of culture, often members of the nobility, pursued Winckelmann’s classicism; the progressive bourgeoisie was looking mainly to English comfort. Prince Franz somehow managed to represent these two different levels of his population in his one royal person.




Apart from a Country Seat in Park Wörlitz built in the classical Palladian style, the Prince had also planned a Gothic Mansion. Here he withdrew himself among his old treasures and the family memento’s. Like the entire park, this country house was also open to the common man. His contemporary Boettiger wrote in a commentary: Man genoss doppelt, denn man genoss mit Hunderten. [You were enjoying yourself doubly so, as you enjoyed it with hundreds.]




In his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften Goethe described (1809) this transformation of countryside into country park as mainly the pastime of a bored aristocracy. This, however, does not apply to Wörlitz. Prince Franz’ Gartenreich is rather unique, because he radicalized the inclination already present in the works of the Brit Pope, to unite the Useful with the Beautiful and the Pleasing.

Anhalt-Dessau under Franz’s reign presents us with the picture of an educational project integrating culture, medicine and farming. The primacy of the Beautiful, which had applied since Horace, was now reversed. There is nothing in this park purely for its aesthetic effect – everything is either immediately useful, with cultivation, grazing and growing going on right in the park; or indirectly so, with every scene designed to educate the people.

In a letter from 1770, addressed to the philosopher D’Alembert, the Prusian King Friedrich wrote rather egotistically,

that it is a waste of energy to enlighten humanity. One should be content with being wise oneself, provide of course that one is capable of it. Folly must be left to the rabble, and one must keep them form crime because that disturbs the social order.

While, in the same vein, ‘enlightened’ David Hume believed that the common people could be irrational and religious; while Voltaire wondered how far one could go in trying to fool the people; while Schiller believed that, despite his proposal fort a Aesthätische Erziehung des Menschen [Aesthetic education of Man], it would take centuries to enlighten the common people, Franz and his advisers begged to disagree.

In contrast with these insights they adopted a strategy in which, also contrasting with the British solution, the park was there not only for the pleasure of its owner. They allowed the garden to descend the social ladder and invited ‘their people’ to enjoy it. The garden was expressly aimed at public education.




In Wörlitz repression was ‘trained to fit the Zeitgeist’, to use Sloterdijk’s words. It was most certainly not the intention of Prince Franz’ Gartenreich to instigate a revolution.

With an inscription on an imitation urn atop an imitation island in the Wörlitzer park, Franz praised the Frenchman Rousseau:

He instilled common sense into foolish fellows, he instructed the sensualist in genuine pleasure, he referred erring art back to the simplicity of nature, the doubter to comfort and revelation – all with manly eloquence.







The German philosopher J.G. von Herder was also given a memorial island. He had rewritten the ideas Rousseau on individual education, turning them into a pedagogy of the people which he interpreted as ‘an education of the heart’ as well as an ‘education of the whole of humanity’.

Bildung in short, a process that naturally unfolds in stages, each one taking up a whole ‘era’. This should have heartened good Father Franz, as he was sometimes called – after all, Herder was interpreting 18th-century despotism in a positive way. He called it the ‘fatherly hand’ so needed by ‘the childhood of humanity’.

Kent’s pioneering English Gardens contained multiple perspectives involving scene after scene. 18th-century garden theorist and neo-Gothicist Horace Walpole commented on them in his essay On Modern Gardening:

Prospect, animated prospect is the theatre that will always be the most frequented. An open country is but a canvas on which a landscape might be designed.

Kent’s individual scenes each have their own viewpoint or a line of sight without becoming overly forceful. However, the natural transition from one scene to the next also manages to give them a common harmony. We know that before they started on Wörlitz, Franz and his advisers had seen Kent’s gardens. Herder, who had his own unique views on the relative value of different cultures, appears to have been a solid source of inspiration for the pedagogical theory that fed the Wörlitzer set-up. Here then Herder’s cultural relativism was married off to Kent’s garden  philosophy, both connected with Franz’ Gartenreich.

To anyone who asks which has been the happiest nation in recorded history, Herder replies that every nation has its own high point of happiness – one sort of happiness is not ‘happier’ than another. The measure of happiness is certainly not technological progress, but rather the happiness of each person and the contentment of the whole of humanity. This point of view considers Winckelmann’s idea of a privileged Classical Greek period as being superior to others just as stupid as placing one’s own epoch on a pedestal, as did the Enlightened philosophers of the Age of Reason.

Italy is the theatre most instructive as to the various epochs of the world … Here you come upon the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans an Etruscans … Travel provides us with a catalogue of what survived.

Herder’s own trip to Italy, made in 1788, ended however in major disappointment. Face to face with the remains of Antiquity, he suddenly found these to be stagnant pools in a dead sea. His own philosophy, by contrast, focused on the living ideas of each period. He rejected as ‘foolishness’ all forms of nostalgia and Sehnsucht for the past.

Herder’s aversion to France and ‘French taste’ is remarkable. He called it Gallicomania and regarded it as the glorification of an ideal of life that is certainly not part of the German national tradition. In Germany it can only be borrowed and thus unnatural. Cynically he noted with regard to the French fashion: Every little Court must be a Versailles. Included in his scorn Herder had also the French Garden style in mind. For him the Gothic manner of construction is the true metaphor for natural growth of both language and folk culture – little by little, unplanned, everywhere each in its own individual way.

What nature cannot stop, the gardener cannot curb.

A wise prince must therefore take the responsibility of managing nature; he must not go against her. Herder’s God is to be found both in nature and history, two entities connected by a spiritual bond. Against this background his rejection of any revolution may be understood. When it comes to the regeneration of humanity, the buzzword ‘revolution’, en vogue at that time, is completely unacceptable for him: it is unnatural because it upsets the vibrant circulation of sap in the Tree of State.

Given that radical intervention in naturally evolved cultures is totally unacceptable, Herder recommended education through character formation, this by way of the measured guidance by what he calls a wise Father-Gardener. His concept of individualization is rather broad. Each nation is considered as the individualisation of the whole of humanity; within a single nation every person needs to be individualized and have a character. Individualisation of nations takes place under the pressure of their particular climate:

An atmosphere that surrounds us, an electric lake in which we live. Both are in perpetual motion … There, in the place were their sons have migrated and settled over thousands of years, they take root – like trees that have special leaves and fruits suited to the climate.

The true man of God is – still according to Herder – more likely to feel his weaknesses rather than to wallow in his positive powers. In other words: such a man is educable. Education is not about disciplinary regimentation, it is all about formation of individual character.

Social class merely produces puppets; personality, however, provides value and merit, to be understood as a person’s full value, his civic usefulness … full of healthy ideas and warm and joyful tendencies instead of external morality.

In this context, the influence of the arts on people is crucial, in particular the influence of the art of gardening. In his critical debate with Immanuel Kant, Herder emphasized that art is not just an artistic game played with our imagination; it is instrumental in forming character. Natural beauty is absolute, our feeling for it is innate. However, its shape in the forms of people’s tastes is determined by the environment. Art, then, is an vital part of these surroundings considered as our cultural climate.

Herder’s analysis of the significance of the various senses in relation to the arts is important. The philosophers tend to give primacy to the visual. This, however, is our most detached, our coolest sense. Hearing and touch bring us far more directly in contact with the substance and form of things. Kant, in his Aesthetics, had already claimed that the essence of architecture and of the art of gardening lies in the drawing. Undoubtedly, he had the formal French garden in mind.

Ideally, one may conjecture, a Formal Garden must indeed be viewed from a static point, situated on the platform in front of the House, that is: as if the garden were a drawing. For Herder, however, perfection is the essence of any art, including the art of gardening – perfection as the essence of form. For Kant, on the other hand, aesthetic satisfaction is merely a play of forms.

Among the five liberal arts Herder registers the gardener’s art, while according to Kant could never be a real art at all, being too useful, too utilitarian.

In this context Herder’s unique consideration of the sublime is of interest, i.e. the experience of the many in one. The more unity in the experience there is, the more for him it is sublime. For Kant the visual sense is especially susceptible of the sublime, so painting, architecture and sculpture can best achieve this effect. Missing in his list is gardening.

For Herder the garden is abundance of the many par excellence, the involvement of all the senses, particularly those of smell and touch, but even those of taste for anyone who quenches his thirst with a few dewdrops or honey leaves.

Unity effects the sublime, as seen in the unity of the French Garden; multitude and abundance however provide us with the beautiful, which for Herder happens in the English Garden, presented as something organically grown and therefore not primarily sublime. However, one can still get this uplifting sublime experience while observing the great House and also the pensive follies and sculptures that are scattered in the park.




For Herder, then:

 …every prince is a gardener taking care of  the education of the first,

tender human shoots – this in a favourite garden of God.

Could Prince Franz, the gardener and educationalist, have thought of a finer motto for himself and his Wörlitzer undertaking! Herder’s God resides in the unity of history and nature. Only in the English Garden, and this through the senses, do these two come directly together. An enlightened educationalist could find fulfilment in this. It was at the time the pretext for control by the gardener of the cultural climate.




Prince Franz succeeded in combining the aesthetic guideline contained in the Englishman William Kent’s series of relatively autonomous scenes, each with their own perspective, with Herder’s philosophy of history. In his  Wörlizter park Prince Franz collected models from various periods in human history, giving each of them their own ‘scene’ which symbolizes their intrinsic cultural value – not a hierarchy, not the one above or below the other, but all cultures beside one another.

Thus in his park you will find a Jewish synagogue in a classic guise, a Gothic mansion, a British version of the Palladian Villa, an Egyptian base for a Pantheon, a Classical urn – and so on.


Golden Urn, Woerlitzer Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site Dessau-Woerlitzer Gartenreich, Woerlitz, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, Europe


That these several cultural periods should not be interpreted as fragmented pools in a dead sea is proven by the fact that long sight-lines between certain key elements in the park have been created, giving them an overriding, but at the same non-hierarchical coherence. From the terrace of the Schloss you can simultaneously observe from afar all the various historical highlights; the same applies to the positioning of the Urn, the Monument, the Gothic House and the Temple of Venus.

Sometimes, this solution is found in one and the same building, as for instance das Fremdenhaus in the Georgium, one of the other parts of the Dessauer Gartenreich.




It is a design from the architect Erdmannsdorff, who was responsible for a significant portion of the classicist buildings in Anhalt-Dessau. This building, once a ruin, now restored, has four different façades: baroque, gothic, renaissance and late classical. It stood secluded in the garden and none of these façades took precedence over the others. For the connoisseur a stroll around it was like walking through the history of humanity, however without making any progress. One might, as it were, walk on an on in the same circle.

This deliberate choice for various types of garden and its follies, all next to one another, seems to express Herder’s cultural relativism, which is typical also of Wörlitz. After elsewhere in Europe the Garden Revolution’ had taken place, whole French Gardens were suddenly dug up completely to make way for the English variety. In Wörlitz it was there from the start, itself naturally evolving over the years.

The enlightened, yet absolute little Princes of Germany anticipated the possibility of their people getting revolutionary ideas and therefore began to educate them properly, that is gently pushing their imagination in another direction. They had always that beautiful example in their mind of the a non-violent revolution in England.

What better to do in this context but hold up to them a static tableau which, albeit showing a variety of real historical cultures, completely dispenses with that notion of progress which elsewhere in that same period was so richly praised. All this in a park which assembles these cultures under the aegis of a Prince whose aim it was to improve the living conditions and the character of his people, of course according to his own design.

What we have in Wörlitz is Herder’s ‘the many and the one’ and why not: the many in one, many ages in a single age, even though it is impossible to survey these in there entirety. However, the variety of perspectives do give it the nature of a baroque collection of cultures, like the baroque library aimed at the creation of a collection of all possible sorts of knowledge, with no less the figure of God himself high in the lofty roof of the library, in his ultimate wisdom overseeing and encompassing it all – something, of course, not given to a mortal intellectual down there at one of the reading tables.

The main function of the classical English Garden in Wörlitz was the stabilising of an existing order and of immobilising time. Refinement is the maxim, not progress. Whereas in England a landed gentry made the countryside productive and profitable in a capitalist manner so as to provide the growing cities with enough food – by order of parliament, believe it or not – Anhalt-Dessau was a Bedarfsdeckungsgesellschaft, a society based on the principle of the fulfilment of need, with a Prince who needed to make its preservation his function.

The Wörlitzer Gartenreich – a conservative utopia, a garden in which the future of the past was designed. Here Herder’s ideas took precedence over the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau. A collective and conservative pedagogy was more than a match for a progress-oriented individualism.




Prince De Ligne and prince Franz were convinced that a well-designed garden could attract only people of the right kind – people who would leave it as better men than as they had come in.

What conclusions should we draw from this experiment with history, an experiment based on the art of gardening? Should we say that Wörlitz failed because it was unable to save an enlightened absolutism? Or claim that – if only more people had been ‘exposed’ to the park – its loss could have been avoided? I believe that Herder has taught us a wise lesson. Each work of art is utopian and unique – the great grasp of an artist can neither be verified, nor falsified.

Herder in Wörlitz – Herder not in Wörlitz. Who knows? I’ve had my say and perhaps my reader could follow my argument. But to verify my reading of these gardens – once again impossible.

When in 1787 Prince Franz was constructing the Dessauer cemetery he was still considering death as a form of sleep. By the time he had created his Herder Island – in 1797 – he seemed to have changed his opinion and moved to Herder’s more melancholic position.




The first of the inscriptions on the philosopher’s cenotaph is taken from his work:

 We are mortal and so are all our wishes

Sorrow and joy, they pass as we pass

It would appear that during the long decades in which the Wörlitzer park was laid out, Franz moved closer and closer to Herder’s view of the world. The second inscription on that cenotaph reads:

We must learn to play,

for without play life is doom and gloom.

With this, just like Franz, Herder meant the serious play with Beauty which is considered at once the Good and the Truth. Not the frivolous play of mere sensuality. That only leads to revolutions and the like.





This essay was first published in The Architecture Annual 1996/1997, 010 Publishers Rotterdam (1998)


Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne, Coup d’oeil sur Beloeil et sur une grande partie des jardins de l’Europe, translation, University of California Press (1991)

Brown, The Art and Architecture of English Gardens, Rizzoli, NY (1989)

Lovejoy, The Chinese Origin of Romanticism, in: The Journal of English and Germa­nic Philology (1933), vol. 32

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  4. Hirsch, Experiment, Fortschritt & Praktizier­te Aufklärung, Des­sau (1990)

Him­mel­farb, The Idea of Poverty, Lon­don/Boston (1984)

  1. George, En­gland in Transition, Londen (1953 ed.)
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Eisold, Das Dessau-Wörlitzer Gartenreich – der Traum der Vernunft, Köln (1993)

Störig, Geschiedenis van de Filosofie, II (1964 vert.)

  1. Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, in: Sämtliche Werke, Säkularaus­gabe (1985) Fackel Verlag, Band 5
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Sierksma, Toezicht en taak, PhD Leyden University (1991) SUA

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Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff – Leven.Werk.Wir­kung, Wörlitzer Hefte 2 (1986)

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Of the whole attempt at seeding this spring just one of the seedlings is still in an upright position.

This year I did not buy the sunflower seeds ‘new’, but used the grains from the own previous harvest. During my absence from the house throughout a long winter they dried out to perfection. Perhaps it was too great a challenge for Evolution, in quality as well as in quantity this new crop may be called thin.

After having put the seeds in the small slots of a borrowed seeding tray, I them with a sheet of bubble plastic, delicately perforated. This kept the heat inside, while letting in both light and raindrops.

After a while, though, heavy spring rains and a nasty wind drove the plastic down against the first rising shoots. So off with that rubbish! After all, isn’t plastic the garment in which the Devil dresses up when visiting Mother Earth, as Norman Mailer claimed!

In order to protect the young plants against pecking birds and shitting cats, I posted a screen over them which, some time ago, remained after the demolition of my previous gas stove. A real handyman always saves everything.

It looked quite elegant in the bargain:

In the end, of the dozens of seeds planted about seven shoots came across. They got their own little pot, cherished as they were by gardener and weather gods. After their subsequent transplantation into larger vessels all but three of them got the worst of it. Finally flower no. 3 also perished.

Thus remains one flower planted in the garden. Thereof can be rightly said that it has a Renaissance attitude.

Those women at the time who – their shoulders backwards, abdomen and pelvis forward, ditto head – made the impression of a carnal serpentine.

In the meantime the once bare courtyard had changed into true floral delight. The roses bloomed this year like never before.

Verbena and geranium, after having enjoyed a wet spring, now enjoyed a summer exploding in tropical heat. Everything – except the second remaining sunflower in its cast iron pot in front of the house. An oddly overgrown, leptosome plant that won’t survive without a solid prop. Even so, I fear that the first thrust of a summer’s storm will bring her down.


Bad omen, symbolizing a bleak year of physical and amorous debacle. For the first time in all my seventeen years in La Roche there were also flowerpots that remained empty.

Last year’s soil is still in there. Dry as powder or hard as stone. From where I sit this is hard to decide. I just don’t feel like getting up from my lounge-chair and the camera eye can bring them to me. But dead earth it is, that much is certain.

Along with this spindly, last survivor these empty pots are emblematic of a life that does not really want to live. The decay of a soul, a dissipation that also shows itself in uncut grass and poorly maintained shutters.

Sierksma, La Roche 18.8/2016




Following the Tiber stream,

this Fourth of May* I led my son from Rome.

We walked the Via Appia Antíca.

Now, from the aerodrome of Fiúmicino,

he leaves me by a jet plane for our Low Lands.

Travelling home by tram

  • – my monk’s cell in Borghese’s park –

I brood over my father’s death,

his life, resistance in the war.

Once freed, resistance failed,

and I failed him.

Wars do create utopias and I was part of his.

High hopes cannot endure dead certainties.

Some days before, my son and I,

we entered Villa d’Este.

‘t Was Pegasus himself now – touching down,

saluting son and father with his wings immense.

That very instant verse were boiling,

however, ‘t was a week they took to cook.

The fountain waters of the place were cooling,

and all around the Villa mount was gushing.

There, at the far end of its garden valley,

from Mother Nature’s countless tits fair fluids flowed.

I sucked her then and there.

My grownup son,

ashamed as always of his father,

just failed to recognize the common nurse.

Then, unexpected, yet unseemly dull:

A fountainhead appears, named after Ariadne.

With just a yarn,

she saved her lover Theseus from the Minotaur,

– and did so womanly.

That thread of threads,

her child’s umbilical cord,

she could not cling to.

She suffered bitter death while giving birth.

So there, high on the hills of Tivoli,

I was to tell my son that story of another death,

from other heights this time, Kap Súnion sublime.

Young Theseus left for Crete,

pledging his father Aegeus

– in case he won –

a white sail on return.

Alas, love drained his wits.

Out on the cliffs the old man waited.

He saw the ship approach,

his son the captain, yet brown sailed.

And then the father jumped.

The Thread of Ariadne has been tattered,

our cosmos thus become a mammoth labyrinth –

a dome without a key stone,

a home without a clue.

Endlessly we wander and without aim.

Young Icarus, that other son,

the bee’s wax gluing feathers to his arms,

was beaten by an awesome sun,

resembling Pegasus, who lost the wings he grew,

when severed from the gorge of the Medusa.


A bottle of the best red wine,

true fuel for us walking gods,

a good prosciutto at my side,

a day ago I suddenly decided:

So many hours of vain walking,

I had been pregnant long enough.

And in a small, untidy park I laid myself,

and wrote.

Having felt so high and hot,

now covered by the shades of an acacia wood,

at last I found tongue’s destiny.

The tree’s tears dropping on my eyelids closed,

brought back the rapids of the Villa d’Este.

I heard and felt them fall.

My son – his Mother’s son – detests my lovers.

“The Child is Father of the Man.”

He never really laughs.


May 2003

*The Fourth of May, the day the Dutch commemorate those fallen in the war of 1940/45. My father too part in the resistance, he lost his best friend to a German pistol, shot while plundering German mail bags. That friend’s first name became my second name: Johan.

Through centuries, our family called sons and fathers ‘Rypke Fokke’s’, ‘Fokke Rypke’s’, ‘Rypke Fokke’s’ – and so on. My father and I, we did not get on very well, we did not see one another the last six years of his too short life. Not even at his deathbed. I killed history and broke a heritage: Sanne I called my son – not Fokke.


The business of judicial forensic inquiry is never something that can be rushed, Sir. It requires painstaking attention to detail.

Kerr, A Man without Breath

While Esther cleans the small leftovers of my pruning – Her will, not mine – I actually see the area becoming clearer.

As if I was in the grand gardens of Versailles. Endless beds without a trace of leaf or withered foliage, through the gate a vista toward the end of the garden – as if all of a sudden something essential is hiding out there.

She keeps the garden clean. As my friend Roland, a farmer’s son, puts it so delicately a moment later: ‘With tweezers…’ Each and every displeasing leaf that is blown away from the elderberry is carefully removed, this on the hour. As a great-grandson of a farmer I did it always more farmerly – mostly with a rude rake and only when the mess really begins to annoy me. Not like Esther in advance thereof.

Intellectually a Romantic, I always found leaves and petals rustic indeed. From now on, however, I’m going to remove fallen leaves more often, it makes our small property look a lot bigger.



Meanwhile painful muscles from my garden labour slowly start to relax. With a nice pastis in hand I may now overlook the serious damage wreaked in the knee while falling from my racing bike in far away Dutch Spaarnwoude. Open flesh – gruesome as a crucifix.

‘Yes’, says Esther when she is done with it, ‘it all resides in trifles’. When she has already gone inside, where she changes her gardener’s outfit for cook’s dress and thus becomes a sorceress in the kitchen, I call after her: ‘God is in the details – in the kitchen as well as in the garden. What did I say? The Goddess is in the details’.

Wie denn, wenn Gott ist, sollte seine Ordnung nicht auch in Kleinsten sein…? How could God’s order – that is: if He exists – not also be in the smallest of things? These are the words in Ungar’s ominous novel Die Verstümmelten, said by a male nurse who at the end of that story turns out to be a murderer.

The faith of this little atheist has its limits. Already now I know that my good intentions are weak. In due course I shall kill trees and bushes again. Restlessly and untidily their old leaves will spread over the grounds.

La Roche, 7.8 / 2013


… The wisemen tell me that the garden gods
Twined good and evil on an eastern tree; …

Dylan Thomas, Incarnate devil


What a profound difference. The one between, on the one hand, an intact folly that would like to look like a ruin – a vain construction leading one into a volatile meditation on the transience of everything and thus of one’s own live. And a folly, though a living part of an English garden, yet fallen into ruin thanks to the negligence of its owner. Anyway, the French have called their folly a fabrique, perhaps best translated as a handyman’s project.

In the Park of Ermenonville, in which our Nature Lunatic Rousseau passed his last days in quiet, you will find a beautiful example of an intended ruin: The Temple of Philosophy. Unfinished intentionally, so as to indicate the per se incompleteness of all knowledge. This uncompleted Greek temple represents modern philosophy.

On each of its six standing columns, one finds the name of a famous philosopher plus a term that characterizes him: Newton (lucem) , Descartes (nil in rebus inane) , Voltaire (ridiculum) , Rousseau (naturam) , William Penn (humanitatem) , Montesquieu (justitiam). Perhaps one may wonder at the maker’s Latin.



It has not been ‘finished’ so to say. The idea, then, is that we who follow these Greats may once finish it with the pillars on the ground, yet without a name. However one might also imagine that the columns lying around have fallen from what once was a finished little building and will never be put back again – the more somber perspective. Anyway, this folly was for those who built it the symbol of an ever-evolving knowledge, never finished. Enlightenment.

There are even follies that were built in mint condition in the first place – as a splendid, yet ‘finished’ ruin. One famous example is the unfinished pillar in the French Désert de Retz, also an English Garden par excellence.



This drawing, probably dating from 1782, shows rather well what it meant. It is a giant, grotesque pseudo-ruin of the base of a pillar which, when extrapolated, must have measured hundreds of meters high. Built as a ruin, it served as a residence for its owner. This pillar base was intended ‘to confront the visitor with the bizarre’. And so it does, however even more so with the boundless megalomania – the idea of a humanity that builds its Towers of Babel into high heaven and is doomed to fail.

However, such a neatly designed and carefully executed pseudo-ruin may turn into a… ruin. This becomes clear in a photo taken at the beginning of the 20th century.



Thus the ruined ruin-house looked at a certain moment – broken windows, stones fallen out, blistering stucco. So, in fact, it was possible to restore a dilapidated ruin as a ruin: a paradox realized, including the restoration to perfection of the original ‘cracks’ that were designed into it. ‘A ruin in ruins’, then, is not necessarily a pleonasm.



This is the column as I saw it somewhere in the ‘80s of the last century

Also an entire landscape, once featuring fine French and English gardens, may me destroyed.


Behold a once delicious Arcadia – the area of the former Wijkermeer in the Dutch province Noord-Holland, in the 17th to late 19th century with its banks, its country houses and gardens, embedded as so many precious stones in their dune bowls and surrounded by lover.

In the new ‘landscape’ created – after the lake was filled up, now showing ugly buildings and a coarse network of roads – the few remaining country houses and gardens are orphaned. The whole area has become one ruin. You cannot, like in the case of a paralyzed body, wonder if perhaps its ‘character’ is still intact. Driving through this disaster area one knows: This is ruined and it is smashed completely and forever.

The great Architect and Nazi Speer invented for his crazy chef the infamous Law of Ruins. In Adolf’s Thousand Year Reich an architecture had to appear, which in its the future state was already designed to a certain kind of ‘ruin’. Instead of the ordinary destruction of neighborhoods and even whole cities – something in which Speer and Hitler also were good and which they practiced with their Blitzkrieg elsewhere – rather meticulously the megalomaniac fascist designed a vision of Germany’s ruinous future.

With Speers hold over Time he designed his Nazi projects in such a way, that in a thousand years the ruins of the Reich would look at their ruinous best. Aesthetical and political utilitarianism! Not like the accidental ruins of Rome and Athens – dilapidated forms of broken marble; no, artful compositions of rusting steel and broken concrete. The lovers of ruins may think of the industrial wrecks in former East Germany or in eastern Belgium, which nowadays get aesthetic attention – these, however, were merely the result of an accidental capitalism.

More recent cinematography seems to have learned from this. In the dark room of the cinema the illusion of ruins went one step further. In Ridley Scott’s 1983 film Blade Runner we see architectural parks in which highlights of ruined modern architecture form the backdrop of destruction and annihilation. As under the Nazi regime, they suggest catastrophic destruction as a phase in liberation. Could this filmmaker have been inspired, not merely by Speer’s architecture, but also by Maoism? To make one radical clean sweep, then ‘let a thousand flowers bloom…’

Does it make sense to erect in the middle of what once was the Wijkermeer – as a folly, that is – a huge, real size version of the column belonging to the base in Désert de Retz? A warning signal for this postmodern world which is exploding itself.

Could it be that God created his world according to Speers Law of Ruins? Could he – like a Tinguely – have assembled the universe as a self-destructive machine, containing as a time bomb the creature he kneaded in His image…?

Sierksma February ’16


En dan weer komt het

in mij op,

dat ik ternauwernood

het verkrop…

J.H. Leopold, Claghen*


On a beautiful summer’s day, now five whole years ago, my wife and I visited the annual flea market in Mérigny.

The quality of such a receptacle of junk is determined by the quality of its junk – after all, there is junk and junk! The charm of the best flea markets, however, resides in the place where it is held. Why not, in its genius loci. In Mérigny it people gather on a small meadow, bordered by trees that in summer give the scurrying visitor some cool, the place flawlessly fitting the hand like a glove.

My wife – an Indo, so no surprise – is good at bargaining. The few times I in my life that I tried, it felt not only ridiculous, but I also felt like a thief of other people’s money. Often it turned out to be me whom they stole from.

We once found a great little table – en Interbellum version, a beautiful cast iron base, a round marble top in good condition, resting in a beautifully decorated steel edge. For years I had been looking for this, to be put in the little side yard of my French house, on my personally landscaped terrace. Supporting precious wines and, why not, good books and not to forget a chessboard on which great matches might be played in the cool shade of the tree.

Finally found! How much should it cost? One hundred Euro, Madam. You’re kidding! Such an amount for whatever on a small, local flea is exorbitant. Also my wife’s opinion.

Once home an ever-growing and awesome remorse hit me. Stupid bastards we had been, the price the man had asked for the table was more than worth it. All those years ever since, in vain I searched on flea market after flea market, always looking for that table – as if it were waiting for me. Whenever I sat in the side yard, it was first thing that came to mind.

This summer I visited the Super Leclerc in Montmorillon. In the large entrance hall stood a number of tables on offer – a sale. Amongst them, God help me, my marble table, that: is more or less. Not of course the Interbellum one from Mérigny. Given the dust, it had apparently been taken from the back of a warehouse, together with these other leftovers of series that were sold years ago.

I asked the person with whom I was there, to sit on top of it and defend it with all her might against other competitors that might creep over the horizon. I hurried myself to the desk to inform the ladies of my purchase.



There it is, glowing in all its glory, accompanied by a bronze chair which I also snatched away from a flea market. Not cheap, but then you learn something. That red seat on the chair I already designed while handing over the money to its seller.

But something strange is going on. ‘Showing off’ is the word. My new marble top is too spivvy and that is what marble should be not. The stone needs to get older, cracky and lived on. The same goes for the cast iron leg. This brand new table is now a misfit, given that my house is two hundred years of age. I also get the eerie feeling as though only with the arrival of this shiny marble 14 La Roche became fully ‘French’. As if my cottage has not been fully French all the time, sitting right in its middle.

Only a foreigner, an outsider, someone who after seventeen years in France still remains a displaced person, forever chained to his foreignness – only such a one can fabricate such a strange paradox and also live it.

Sitting in the newly organized side garden at the new table and awaiting a cool breeze, thus almost a Frenchman, all of sudden through the open gate I see two swallows sitting on the street.

For someone who naturally assumes swallows to belong in the air, this is a depressing sight. Let them sit on telephone wires! Such is part of the order of things in my universe.



Now those two birdies out there on the street are displaced persons like me. This should not be so – soon they will fall asleep and be run over by some scary farmer’s vehicle.

* And then, it suddenly strikes me that I cannot stand this…

Sierksma, La Roche 06.28/2015



I who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind…

Milton, Paradise Regain’d



Having made some caustic remarks on the great Goethe’s art of gardening and his silly Folly, a little hut of bask beams, I decided to visit again one of my favourite landscape parks, if only because it is so close to my home. Elswout, on the edge of Haarlem as well as on the rim of the Dutch dunes. Specifically these little sandy heights figure large in its design.

Plan of Elswout Park

The plan gives you a good impression of what has happened to the grounds over quite some years. On the left you see a few straight paths, now enclosing a little deer park, once the realm of a small geometrical French garden inside its own walls.

This was designed as well as used at a time when the house was still of 17th-century architecture.


Elswout in the 17th century, dunes in the background

Later it has been demolished and changed for something less attractive. But when still of 17th-century allure, the terrains were transformed in the 18th century into an English Style garden. This was done, using dig offs made into the dunes, the sand being used for house building in Haarlem. In the upper part of the drawing we see anther bit of straight line, the former canal for shipping off that sand.

As utilitarian leftovers those few straight lanes are the reminder of the original French garden. Yet, a master piece was expressly arranged. In the middle of the map below one observes one bit of straight line cutting as it were right into the serpentine setup of it all. Entering it, this is what it looks like.

One is unsure, but at the end of it there may be something standing up. Walking on, we now indeed see is something.


And indeed!


From up close we meet a hunter and his dogs – an ugly piece of sculpture, but beauty is not always what is at stake in a folly.


And a folly of allure it is, a self-referential folly – the only one I ever saw on all my garden journeys throughout Europe. It took also some time to figure it out, many a visit before I gathered its plot.


First one thinks of sounds that the hunter listens to, more or less from the direction his two dogs seem to be looking at. Then it becomes clear that the dogs don’t give a damn. At ease they are, not interested in what the master is interested in. And so right they are, it’s all about something utterly human.

Also both ear and visual attention of the hunter are directed in quite another direction. Looking at him, one wants to turn around and look back along the straight path to see what he is observing.

Yesterday I went to Elswout, to make these photos. It was a miserable, humid day – the air was misty, so not all was that clear.



That was the reason why today, clear skies and frost, I went back and took all pictures again. Now we can see what it is all about:


We now see and I also could hear what this hunter is always seeing and has always been listening to: The spire of the mediaeval church in faraway Haarlem, ringing its bells for service.

The Hunter listens whether the Lord is calling, whether he should perhaps hasten to get to the church in time.


So, what a folly it is – this small path digging straight into its curvy surroundings! Contrasting with the serpentine paths it highlights their relevance and by way of its French formality brings out the Park’s English style – per contra.

It is also a folly in itself, for a semiotics man almost a trail referring to the hunter who then refers back to the small road, which then in turn suddenly becomes the moral Path that leads to heaven. The only garden folly, then, which also comprises the very essence of a neighbouring town, bringing a grand church out there within its own scope. And why not – could this mysterious interplay of references even include the whole cosmos, make it look a little foolish?

This, then, seems to me the lay of the land. A self-referential garden.

A Folly is always a Folly in the eye of its beholder.

Sierksma 15.1.16