American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2007 Professional Awards
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Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth Helphand, FASLA
Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas

"This research is unprecedented and--unfortunately--timely, as war is so prevalent now. It really gets to the core of what gardens are about and recognizes the primal need to grow food and beauty. It's incredibly moving to see signs of hope and life from past wars, much more touching than a memorial. Its ability to take this topic to a broader general marked is phenomenal. This proves that research doesn't need to be boring and drab."

— 2007 Professional Awards Jury Comments

Project Statement

Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime

Why is it that in the midst of a war, one can still find gardens? Wartime gardens are dramatic examples of defiant gardens—gardens created in extreme social, political, economic, environmental, or cultural conditions. This project, resulting in the book, Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime examined gardens created in the midst of war in the twentieth century—a period of the deadliest wars in human history—including gardens soldiers built behind the trenches in World War I; gardens built in the Warsaw and other ghettos under the Nazis during World War II; gardens in the POW and civilian internment camps of both world wars; and gardens created by Japanese Americans held in U.S. internment camps during World War II. The book concludes with gardens in Bosnia and those created by American soldiers in Iraq. This is a work of both historical research and an investigation of garden theory.

With the exception of the Japanese American internment gardens these are places and phenomena that have never been studied by landscape architects or historians. For the investigation I relied entirely upon first person accounts from garden makers’ diaries, memoirs, and testimonies, or those who witnessed their creation and use. I searched for both narrative accounts as well as images. Most of the almost one hundred photographs and many of the stories have never been published. The research took the author to the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial, the Shoah Foundation and Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, archives in France and Belgium, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Ghetto Fighters Museum at Kibbutz Lohamet Hagetaot in Israel. I also gathered material over the World Wide Web when I was unable to travel to places such as Australia. Wherever possible I interviewed the garden makers including Holocaust survivors, Japanese American internees, former POWs, soldiers in Iraq, and gardeners in Bosnia. While none of these gardens survive I felt it was imperative to visit the sites of their construction, thus I toured battlefields and cemeteries on the Western Front in Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto, and attended an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar. As a landscape architect I wanted to be confidant about the historical context for the research, thus each of the chapters was read and critiqued by historians who are experts in each of these areas.

Defiant gardens accentuate the essential garden questions of the garden meaning and the relationships between humans and the natural world. Psychologists and philosophers learn about human behavior by examining people in extreme circumstances of deprivation and hardship. Similarly gardens in extreme situations may reveal essential aspects of garden character and ideology. Gardens are always defined by their context, perhaps the more difficult the context, the more accentuated the meaning. Thus, I examined gardens and war. Gardens promise beauty where there is none, hope over despair, optimism over pessimism, and finally, life in the face of death.

These wartime gardens accentuate the multiple meanings of gardens - life, home, work, hope, and beauty - five attributes that lie dormant in all gardens, awaiting the catalyst that propels them to germinate and allowing us to recognize them as defiant gardens. It is important to note that gardens were important to people irrespective of their scale, they could be a window box or a valley; or their life span, from even a fleeting image to places designed for posterity.

Gardens are about life, the fundamental biophilic relationship that humans have with the natural world. The products of the garden sustain us as both food for our bodies and food for our psyches. They are about home, as reminders of homes we have inhabited as well as a way of transforming a place into a new home, however temporary. Gardens are about work, accentuating the fact that garden is a verb as well as a noun. As both physical and mental labor, garden work can provide the particular sense of identity and satisfaction that comes from manual labor. Gardening is inherently hopeful and optimistic as a series of affirmative and assertive acts. The mere act of making a garden implies a future in which plants will reach fruition and results will be enjoyed. Gardens are about beauty. In war, the antithesis of the beautiful – the common garden- may become the highest art.

In trenches, ghettoes, and camps, defiant gardens attempted to create normalcy in the midst of madness and order out of chaos. In wartime, gardens are the opposite of the pastoral retreat, they can be an assertive attack, an act of resistance representing a desire for survival and sanity. As soldiers can engage in heroic acts, so too there are heroic gardens. In this history there is material that can lead one to despair, but there is also inspiration. These gardens and the work of gardeners satisfy human needs at all levels, from physical survival to the highest levels of art and cultural achievement. During a time of war, the garden as a symbol of peace carries added resonance.

War is the most extreme of human conditions, but the observations regarding defiant gardens apply to numerous circumstances: community gardens, school gardens, prison gardens, therapeutic gardens, landscape restoration, memorial design, as well as the gardens of refugees, the homeless, and the grieving.

The reception to this research and its dissemination has been heartening. One goal was to present this research in a manner that would be useful and credible to diverse constituencies. Reviews in academic, professional, and popular publications have been unanimous in their praise. The New Statesman named it one of their best books of the year. The Oregonian one of the ten best books by Northwest authors. It has also been the subject of over twenty radio interviews equally divided between public radio station interviews and garden shows. Most notably, it was the subject of an NPR piece on Memorial Day 2006 heard by ten million listeners. In addition, the author has been asked to speak at over twenty sites since publication at a combination of universities, libraries, botanic gardens, and arboreta. At almost every occasion there are audience members who add new information, or who are profoundly affected by the stories and conclusions of the work. The research has already inspired other researchers to undertake their own investigations. The author is planning a web site to continue to gather material and expand its dissemination as well as investigating the design and creation of a traveling exhibit of this material.

Project Resources

Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas



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