by Bernhard Korte
Art collector Karl-Heinrich Müller asked me into his garden one Saturday in April 1984. He explained to me that he wanted Insel Hombroich to be a garden as beautiful as Claude Monet’s in Giverny. He too was planning a public art museum with studios on his island, in the midst of landscape and nature. I found that Insel Hombroich had run wild and become over-grown. It was attractive to think of the order that could be anticipated in conflict with the chaos that was setting in. The wild quality made it easier to understand the spirituality of the Erft meadows. I tried to combine nature’s spontaneous, random, chaotic approach with revealing the old concept.
When the de Weerths, a Wuppertal family of industrialists, chose Hombroich as their country seat, they first created a planned park. It was a strictly axial design, with some of the axes reappearing well out into the country side for practical purposes. Many of the trees planted around the Rosa Haus (Pink House) at that time have now grown into handsome specimens, including several splendid copper beeches, a court oak and a 35 metre high swamp cypress with a trunk five metres in circumference.
A very radical change for Hombroich was brought about when a new encircling channel was excavated for the Erft around 1900, making the estate, then about three hectares in size, into a real island. This was acquired a little later by a Herr Lensing; he lived there until after the Second World War, and was thought by many to be eccentric and reserved. Hombroich soon acquired a reputation as a mysterious, hidden world as a result of his activities — for example, he had Hombroich violets prepared for salads, hung chandeliers in the trees on the island and also placed strange sculptures in the park. The local people still remember this very clearly.
Karl-Heinrich Müller did not acquire the island with the intention of presenting his art collection to the public until 1984. At the first the existing buildings were restored and converted — the Rosa Haus now accommodates water colours and drawings, and the sculptor Anatol Herzfeld lives and works in a former barn, where he has created a land-scape of erratic stones, lead house, wild flower cannon and dacha for himself. New pavilions were also built on the island, to designs by sculptor Erwin Heerich: they are more like walk-in sculptures than museum galleries — Karl-Heinrich Müller calls them chapels in the landscape.
At the suggestion of painter Gotthard Graubner, the island’s leitmotif became art parallel with nature, after Cézanne in a transferred sense. Gotthard Graubner has had a considerable effect on the island, both by bringing people — musicians, literary figures, journalists, actors and politicians — together, and also by his formal interpretation of Karl-Heinrich Müller’s collection, working with art historian Kitty Kemr, the custodian of the art and the festivals, a caring guardian.
I restored the park according to ideal conceptions. The principal stimulus for this was a map of the area drawn by Tranchot in 1807, showing a mixed farming structure with a high level of ecological efficiency: arable land and orchards on the rubble terrace and grazing land in the water-meadow valley. This bucolic landscape was the model for all the conceptual ideas on the park design.
It even became possible in 1986 and 1987 to create new islands by purchasing land and excavation. This project offered a unique opportunity to recreate an ideal landscape with rivers and ponds, with extensive new planting and colourful, sensuous meadows — a real, living community made up of plants, animals and human people — in a region that had been greatly changed and partly destroyed by open-cast lignite mining. The first working step towards this was the discovery of a 500 metre long encircling of the Erft that had been filled in, and that must already have existed on Hombroich in about 10,000 BC; in the aerial photograph this channel, which has now been reactivated, can clearly be seen as a shadow pattern. After being pegged out, it was examined to a depth of three metres. Here we came upon a 40 cm thick layer on a bed two metres below ground level, in which we found remains of plants and humus — mixed with brown earth, sand and gravel. The pollen analyses for the two different humus specimens (see pp. 58/59) show a plant world consisting of a surprisingly large number of varieties, making it clear how many species have been lost in comparison with the traditional Erft bank pattern.
Excavation in January and February 1986 then actually revealed the former river-bed with humus deposits, some over a metre thick. The 14 hectares in the conservation area acquired in 1984 were pure farm land without trees or shrubs, and without any water. After thorough research we produced a restored water meadow, intended as a basis for seeking building permission for further exhibition facilities, in agreement with the nature conservation authorities. I was not satisfied with the idea of a restored landscape, rediscovery of an old landscape as a concept. I wanted a landscape that was very clear, very rational, with a justifiable juxtaposition of meadows, watercourses and areas of water, with a justifiable distribution of the pollarded willow sculptures introduced from Belgium. There was no major axis, but a living community under the dome of heaven, a landscape in its entirety, derived formally from the weight of the upright volumes like architectural features, hedges, trees and horizons relating to the meadows, paths and areas of water.
The core of my work on Hombroich is based on the sensual circle of plants. Plant life follows an order that has been largely lost to us human beings today, but we still long for it. Gardening finds its best meaning in symbols and signs for free interpretation, but also in signs that affirm content. Thus for example the power of nature in year-old ash-tree shoots, the alien quality of a parthen-ocarpal pear, the purely male offspring of a herm-aphrodite or the transitional stages that often find no place in the garden, for example seed umbel, tree ruins or fallen foliage. Art and nature are the same in their presentation above all in coming to terms with things: going back to fundamental experiences, questioning approaches and finally, defining action.
The symbolic use of gardening is the best approach, as gardens that people create are threatened, or people leave them. Hombroich was under threat as a home for the plants that have been brought from all over the world; woodland mapping shows this. Indigenous plants like ash, sycamore, elderberry and stinging nettles choked exotic species like marsh cypress, plane, Turkey oak, Cryptomeria japonica, hemlock fir, tulip tree and Indian bean, robinia, sweet gum tree, Lawson‘s cypress, arbor vitae, cedar, red horse-chestnut, Gleditsia triacanthos and pagoda tree. The timber mapping was followed by careful treatment in terms of tree care — a little more dense around the paths used by visitors and modest in terms of the actual stock. Interventions were made above all to balance competition; an oak, for example, was never removed simply to meet formal and aesthetic criteria.
The most amazing thing was the attempted balancing of competition in terms of the stinging nettles, which were originally so invasive that it was impossible to grow herbaceous perennials with any sort of differentiated approach. After a vegetation cycle of weeding, in the following year — supported by planting some wild herbaceous perennials and by sowing wild flower seeds found in the neighbourhood — a company of whorl-leafed perennials established themselves, and visitors to the museum helped to seek out lost plants in an imaginative way. On the great areas of meadowland that give views over the Erft, the moths and the farmsteads, plants had started to grow very quickly as well, with the assistance of a mixture of wild flowers. Given the fact that many people are very distant from nature, designing a botanically determined, varied and luxurious environment is a breeding ground for natural longings, a longing for completeness and also for meaningful employment. I was reinforced in this view by dialogue with Hildegard Schöneck Schwegler, who has supported me actively for years.
In 1992 Insel Hombroich was further expanded by land purchases of five hectares. The water-meadow area was aban-doned. Fields of the rubble terrace were added. An immediately adjacent farmhouse, named as early as the 15th century, indicates that the terrace had been used for farming for centuries. The formal field structure is determined by usefulness. An ancient key to man’s access to nature is provided by the shapes farmers have imposed on our cultural landscape: not a sympathetic, conciliatory or mystical form of access, but a way of determining growth forms, of gender, of blossom etc. I added free signs to this cultural landscape, like a farmer arranging fields of fruit.
A cuboid piece of ash-wood, cut off horizontally, thrusts into an amorphous ash-grape-cherry bush. The ash trees with a circumference of 18—20 cm in the trunk were arranged in a strict grid, with a stake to support them against the west wind. I looked at the precision and purity of the new forest with great satisfaction. In spring 1993 the over 170 ash trunks that had grown up were cut back to an equal height of 400 cm, and that is to happen every year.
As had already happened in the landscape conception down in the water-meadow, here too I researched structures, formal possibilities, history and people involved in the new location. While considering the built volumes, I chose a second area for a free sign: a square of pollarded ash whose trunk heights I staggered inwards over 350 cm, 300 cm, 250 cm and 200 cm. Inside they made up a square forum. A third area is a vineyard, which thrusts discreetly out of the topography as a rectangle piled up to the south. Walnuts, a chestnut avenue, a wild orchard additionally oscillate around the theme of a farming landscape.
This massive intervention into earth and plant structures reveals the manipulation, the potency and the impotence through the non-purposeful approach. These are free signs that seem puzzling, but are derived mathematically, representing the ambivalent range of possibilities for observing nature.
At their extremes, helpful for someone who is working out a formal language for himself, seeking a path for himself based on reliable sources through the jungle of Nature.
In the past ten years three landscapes have been created on Insel Hombroich, each with a different conception and a different language. The island idea of the old park, this idealized sphere, has transferred itself to the whole of the extended Insel Hombroich, to the landscapes of man. They are satisfying within themselves, and differ among themselves and from others.