My friend Giacomo Guzzon has become a regular guest writer on View from Federal Twist. Several months ago, Giacomo told me he was planning a trip to Hamburg, Germany, to revisit Planten un Blomen, a park he remembered from a visit there many years ago. Unlike New York City’s Central Park, which emerged from a unified vision of Olmsted and Vaux, Planten un Blomen was created in several bursts of activity over many years. The result is an extraordinary park, clearly very popular with the public, but one relatively little known outside Germany. I hope the photographs and words in this post will make you want to visit, possibly even make a pilgrimage to see Planten un Blomen.
Giacomo is fortunately fluent in German, so he has been able to make use of sources of information on the park, such as Plomin’s book, Der vollendete Garten: die Kunst, mit Pflanzen umzugehen, that are not available in English translation. An Italian landscape architect working in London, Giacomo is Head of Planting Design for Gillespies, a large landscape design firm. He has a deep interest in plants and their use in landscape architecture to create meaningful places with emotional power, and he teaches and lectures on the importance of planting design in landscape architecture.
Planten un Blomen, a little-known park located in Hamburg, Germany, is a remarkable place that deserves to be far better known. It is a model for the use of landscape and planting design to create places with strong identity and character. The park extends across several neighbourhoods in the city centre, offering a green and diverse urban space to the public. The name means ‘Plants and Flowers’ in low German.
Because the park is L-shaped with two roughly narrow, linear parts, it is easily accessible through many entrances scattered around its perimeter and it ties in with the urban fabric well. The shape and multiple entry points make the park easy to reach and use.
This park has been a favourite of mine since my first visit several years ago, and I’ve been surprised that it is still not as well-known as it should be. There is little information online or in books about this urban space. Perhaps that’s the reason it hasn’t become more well-known. In any case, I believe that it deserves to be given more attention by the profession of landscape architecture. It is a particularly outstanding example of how to create a characterful urban space with a strong identity.
The park is especially interesting because of its peculiar character; it is an unusual mixture of garden-like and park-like elements. Probably the best term to describe it is ‘landscape garden,’ or ‘public garden’; it is difficult to assign it to a definite category because it feels intimate yet public, it is gardenesque yet many aspects of it are park-like. It has a special combination of elements that you would encounter in a large public park—such as generous lawn areas, playgrounds, and large waterbodies—and others that are typical of smaller, private gardens—such as rich and well-maintained plantings, botanical collections, and sophisticated and movable furniture.
After my last visit in August, I wanted to learn more about the park’s history and design influences, so I made private inquires to the Friends of Planten un Blomen (see endnotes below). The history of Planten un Blomen is rather complicated since its development is connected with many events and the park, as it is now, is the result of several German National Garden Shows.
Different areas of the park were at times a zoo, a botanic garden, and a cemetery; principally from 1935 the land was gradually redesigned in phases into what we can see today.
In 1935 the ‘Lower German Garden Show’ took place in the park, and in 1953, 1963 and 1973 three International Garden Shows (IGA) were held.
These garden shows expanded the overall parkland size, repeatedly reshaped the land, and enriched the look and character of the garden with new follies, water features, buildings, and landscapes. In more recent years a few design competitions were held to re-design specific areas.
In 1985 a competition for the creation of the Japanese Garden was won by landscape architect Yoshikuni Araki, and in 2008 a competition for the re-design of the western park entrance was won by the Berlin studio a24_landschaft.
Among the many people who were involved in the design of the park during the several garden shows, the recurrence of the name Karl Plomin really stands out. He was a landscape architect and garden designer from Hamburg who designed several areas of the park and had an important and leading influence in all garden shows.
It is interesting to note that Plomin’s drawing below shows a similar use of columnar evergreens to create a spatial identity similar to the one in the photograph above.
In the 1935 show Plomin had a significant role in using exotic plants from all over the world and mixing them with native species, an approach that was definitely not in line with the Nazi propaganda of those years in favour of German native themes.
He wrote a book in 1975 titled Der vollendete Garten: die Kunst, mit Pflanzen umzugehen, which can be translated as The consummate garden: the art of dealing with plants. Vollendete is not an easy term to translate from German to English since it has a special almost ‘magical‘ connotation in German. Reading this book has revealed intangible aspects of the park that I couldn’t quite put into words but that I somehow felt while visiting. Plomin writes from the very beginning about how a certain combination of plants can create a very distinctive atmosphere that is a result of the site and all the influences that define and characterize a certain space. The spirit of a place, he writes, will then be ‘visible’.
He explains in the preface that the sense of his book is to detect the genius loci of a place and to find the right ‘melody‘ for it. The ambitious term ‘vollendete’ (‘consummate’) has been chosen only to describe the search for the right approach for a garden, since there are no perfect or completed gardens. (They are dynamic entities and not static objects.) The charm in a garden is revealed by the constant change and evolution of the vegetation.
The art of planting for Plomin is the ability to find a synthesis between the visual qualities of different species and their relationships with specific habitats or ecologies, and to combine them with ‘phantasy’ into a meaningful composition.
There are several vegetation compositions, illustrated in sketches throughout the book, offering a possible design solution for a certain location with an envisioned character.
His approach of selecting plants that are related to each other and the site, with the ultimate goal of creating a composition that gives atmosphere to a place, is very exciting. Giving atmosphere and identity to a place should be the mission of every designer.
I believe Planten un Blomen has maintained Plomin’s legacy. It is a large park composed of many different areas, but most of them have a clearly identifiable identity which I found palpable when visiting (I hope the accompanying photographs will show this clearly.) This park is an important precedent because it celebrates in a very humble way the power of plants for creating public spaces of beauty, escape and inspiration.
Anyone who would like to make a donation to the park’s upkeep may do so at this link.
* I contacted Mr. Jörg Kuhbier, the director of the ‘Friends of Planten un Blomen’, requesting more information about the park. Mr. Kuhbier kindly sent me a booklet, published in 2013 for 75th anniversary of the park, which is my major source of historical information about the park.
* Germany has a long tradition of garden shows that celebrate the horticultural-nursery and landscape design professions, as well as transform and regenerate derelict or new urban and suburban areas. Normally, at the end of the shows some areas are re-designed for permanent use but the main structures and interventions are left for public use by the hosting city. There are three kinds of garden shows in Germany: 1) The IGA – International garden show (International Garten Ausstellung), which has been held every 10 years since 1865; 2) The BUGA – Bundesgertenschau, the German garden show, which has been held every 2 years since 1951; and 3) The LAGA – Landesgartenschau, the regional garden show, which is held almost every year in each region of Germany.