Beauty and Utility
A constant theme is the combination of beauty and utility. With their origins in the ancient cultivation of grapes, such structures were soon adopted as supports for a variety of other climbing plants. Vines and roses were a common combination from ancient times, and many a modern structure has reclaimed for us the decorative possibilities of fruits and climbing vegetables as well as flowers. But beyond their merely horticultural role, pergola-like structures in particular have always fulfilled an important circulatory function in linking (or sometimes separating) the different parts of a site, whether medieval European monastery or castle with its covered walks linking different buildings, Chinese garden with its elaborate open-sided lang, or twentieth-century western compartmentalised garden with its pergola or arch pointing the way from one garden ‘room’ to another.
In contemporary western usage designers have continued to play with ideas of time by making pergolas and arbours on the one hand from dynamic, sustainable structures of living wood such as willow, and on the other hand from materials such as stainless steel, left unplanted. Open plant-covered structures in contrast respond to the time and the season like the garden itself, the plants burgeoning into leaf, flower and fruit before fading or lapsing back into winter sleep, the structures themselves gently decaying. They are in themselves little essays in mutability.
Essays in mutability. Powerful feelings of transitoriness
Some of those structures are closer to solid garden buildings, where we find an interior unvaryingly the same within a structure built to last: damp-proofed, roofed over, sometimes walled in. But the pergolas, arbours and arches of which we talk here all convey powerful feelings of transitoriness, movement, a sense of the fleeting moment. In certain cultures the plants may be chosen to heighten that sense of transience, as in the traditional Japanese use of wisteria with its fragile fleeting blossoms so transparently at the mercy of frost and rain, tossed by every gust of wind. Elsewhere plants have been chosen in an attempt to deny that essential fact, as in the seventeenth-century European fashion for tunnels and arbours made from clipped hornbeam – the plant becoming the architecture while the architecture, in the form of ever more fanciful trelliswork, stood alone as an ornament in itself.