Email exchange with Allen S. Weiss
I hope this message finds you well.
I am writing to you with a few questions concerning your wonderful book Unnatural Horizons in connection with my dOCUMENTA (13) project.
I built a “trail,” i.e. an informal path, on a slope in the city of Kassel between the elevated street level of Schöne Aussicht (Bellevue) and the baroque gardens of the Karlsaue in the valley below. The trail functions as a shortcut between the upper and lower levels, but also as an alternative to the monumental Ehrenmal, a war memorial in honour of the German soldiers of WWI+II located on the same slope. This memorial used to be a baroque terrace garden associated with Palais Prinz Georg and became a war memorial only after WW I. The memorial also connects Schöne Aussicht with the park through a symmetrical staircase. When building the trail, we found that the slope is mainly built of rubble and debris from WW II. The works on the trail uncovered the rubble and made visible and tangible what is buried underneath the thin layer of soil.
The role of the military in Kassel struck me as continuously influential, manifesting itself on many levels.
The rubble itself indicates a militaristic loop: Kassel was heavily bombarded during WW II and almost completely wiped off the map because it was home to one of Germany’s biggest weapons manufacturers, named Henschel & Son. After WW II tons and tons of debris were shoved down the slope around the already existing Ehrenmal in order to clean up the city. Nevertheless Kassel is once again today one of the main locations for arms production in Germany.
But also the Ehrenmal in its original form was shaped by military knowledge. It was constructed as a terrace garden in connection with Palais Prinz Georg by the Huguenot captain of the engineers Paul du Ry (a master builder for fortress, cascade and water constructions). Above the terrace garden on Schöne Aussicht, Paul du Ry also built the observatory Palais Bellevue, which is now the Grimm Museum. The baroque garden of Karlsaue simultaneously plays a central role in the city’s layout, but also as a venue for Documenta and other cultural events to this day. The references are manifold. To mention a few more: Schöne Aussicht with Palais Prinz Georg (1703–1711) and Palais Bellevue (1714) and the Huguenot quarter behind it (1687) were built on the former city fortification of Kassel after the Thirty Years’ War; Schöne Aussicht—as the name already suggest—provides a panoramic view, Palais Bellevue was even equipped with a state-of-the-art observatory.
As you can imagine I immediately felt the need to reread the chapter Dematerialization and Iconoclasm in Unnatural Horizons. In this chapter you explain how the formalized and geometric application of techniques of visibility in baroque gardens connects to military engineering and planning, prefigured by issues of ballistics and military perspective ("perspective cavalière”). (UH, 50)
How does this military perspective come into play here in the gardens of Kassel? I would love to know your reading of the layout of the Karlsaue and Paul du Ry’s terrace garden in reference to the arguments you set forth in Unnatural Horizons.
I would also be curious to know how you perceive specific modes of visuality that are established in this scenario and their possible purpose or reason.
The Cartesian symmetries of the terrace garden connect to the baroque layout of Karlsaue with its alleys establishing visual axis, vanishing points and viewpoints that synthesize the mobility of a projectile, embodied by the visitor transversing the park.
Was it simply the latest fashion that Paul du Ry had brought from Paris when he sought refuge in Kassel’s Princedom? Or did Landgrave Karl knowingly introduce a culture of geometrization and surveying techniques to the fortified Kassel of war times? Was Karl and, for that matter Paul, conscious that gardens were/are instruments of knowledge and power?
I came across an image from the Thirty Years’ War. Apparently it shows General Tilly on the so called Tilly Schanze (Tilly entrenchment) looking into the distance, down onto a city under siege (Hann Münden, 1626) near Kassel. His gaze parallels the direction of fire of the cannon. Do you see the gardens in Kassel—built between the two great wars of that time, the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War—as responding to this gaze of conquest and power symbolically or otherwise?
How do you read the garden’s central role in Kassel's cultural, recreational, but also representative life? Does it hold an importance that seems to be ongoing, from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, during the first BUGA and Documenta in 1955, until today, just like the continuous thread of war-related issues?
I figured that if these visual concepts exist, our trail actually evades them, as it is impossible to attain an overview of it. It does not allow for the great view or the overview, other than glimpses of the adjacent Ehrenmal and much detail of rubble and plants.
I would be most delighted if you could respond or give feedback, even if only briefly.
I fear that you will be disappointed by this letter, but I am sure that you will understand. I read your proposal with great interest, as it is exactly the sort of project that I would be interested in writing about. The problem is that what I have seen does not even constitute “paper gardens,” but rather immaterial computer images. As you know, all of my work on landscape—notably Mirrors of Infinity and Unnatural Horizons, and to some extent The Wind and the Source—is based on the lived experience of gardens and landscape, perhaps representing the most useful remnant of my studies in phenomenological aesthetics. If I were able to come to Germany and walk the sites with you, engage in discourse on the motivations for and structures of the project, contemplate and meditate on site, etc., etc., it would have been a pleasure. But, alas, this isn’t possible. In some cases, when I know a site intimately, either through frequent visits or by having already written about it—such as Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles, Mont Ventoux, and certain Zen gardens of Kyoto such as Ryōan-ji and Daisen-in—I can write without a visit. But this is not the case in the present instance. To write from image would be to betray my epistemology, and to fall into the trap that I have so often criticized in other landscape historians, i.e., reducing the garden to an image, the stroll to a perspective, the synaesthetic to the visual. I am truly sorry to miss this chance to collaborate, and hope that the future holds a more concrete crossing of paths. I wish you the best of luck with this project.
Most Sincerely, Allen
Thank you for your considerate response. I fully understand your concerns. It only confirms the genuine thoughts that speak through your book.
Actually it’s very much in accordance with how I discovered all these questions that were sitting in the folds of the Auehang in Kassel, by spending time there, by looking and contemplating, with friends and alone.
So I guess your response could be read as an invitation to visitors to do the same, to walk the sites and try and engage with them.
The reason why I wrote to you, above all, is that I wanted to make a space for this project’s attachment to your book, which helped me decipher some of the code inscribed in the landscape. In fact, maybe I also wanted some sort of confirmation from you that I’m not completely on the wrong track, misreading all the signs.
This view, the way of looking at this landscape that I tried to lay out in my questions to you, would have not been possible without your research. I wanted to share this with visitors. The Auepark will be the focus of attention this summer as it is one of the main venues of dOCUMENTA (13). I think Unnatural Horizons is a valuable companion for this site and its visitors.
With best wishes,