clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Private Scottish Park Feels Like an Alternate Universe

Artist Charles Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation is only open to the public once a year.

Along the winding roads outside Glasgow, the Scottish countryside is green and rolling, even on a foggy winter day. The expansive landscape and little towns along the way seem stuck in time, and it’s not uncommon for conversation to turn to dukes and ladies and landed gentry. But the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, artist Charles Jencks’s opus on his family’s property near Dumfries, does not feel like a land from another time. It feels like a land from another universe.

The garden, which Jencks and his late wife Maggie began working on in 1988, sprawls over 30 acres, with sections representing different aspects of math, science, and the cosmos.

“The reason for this unusual title is that we — Maggie, I, scientists — have used it as a spur to think about and celebrate some fundamental aspects of nature,” Jencks explained in his 2003 book about the garden. Jencks is a prolific author and postmodern theorist. His obsession with the natural world and the human connection to the universe is a fascination he shared with his wife.

Aerial view. Photo courtesy of Charles Jencks.

Maggie was as passionate about garden design as her husband, whom she met while studying at the Architectural Association in London in the 1970s. She wrote a book about Chinese gardens and worked alongside Frank Gehry on his Lewis House in Cleveland, Ohio, and partnered with Jencks on projects at their houses, including the garden.

I was lucky to visit as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation is only open to the public one day per year, to benefit the cancer charity created in Maggie’s name. She died of breast cancer in 1995.

Head gardener (and perfect gentleman) Alistair Clark holds my hand to make sure I don’t slip as we walk over bridges caked with leaves from the morning rain and past concrete cascades that look like waterfalls and a tricky double helix pyramid reminiscent of Mayan ruins.

The Double Helix Theme

The first thing we come across are spirals. As we walk into the garden, it is all I can do not to run up the Snake Mound” grass pyramid. But Clark will have nothing of it: I must experience the garden in order. Throughout the grounds, the twisted double helix shape comes up again and again, a symbol of the origin of life.

Jencks, an accomplished cultural theorist and landscape architect, is considered one of the leading theorists of postmodernism. His fascination with DNA is apparent throughout his landscape projects, both at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation as well as in public work like the DNA sculptures at Maggie’s Centres in Glasgow. In the DNA garden, spirals are used repeatedly to represent the different senses. In the Life and Death Garden, two spines intertwine — one painted black, one painted white — signifying both the double helix structure from which life forms and the yin and yang balance of life and death. The entire garden is balanced by two spirals on either side: the snake mound and the snail mound, which bring the surrounding sculptures into perfect balance with the landscape.

Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Messages

Jencks likes to play with fonts and words, creating hidden messages that represent his political views and scientific facts about the universe. In the Life and Death Garden, political phrases are laid out on white stones, a maze of black and white piping surrounding them. The timeline of humanity’s destructive choices seem especially apt given the current political climate and speak to Jencks’s American upbringing.

More stealth messages appear throughout the Six Senses Garden, with words carved in such a way that they read the same rightside-up and upside-down (“relativity,” “ambiguity,” and “symmetry”).

On the Fractal Terrace, the word “metamorphosis” appears on a chessboard-like plane. In his book, Jencks describes the area in this way: “This metamorphosis, written in stone, mediates between the two grand ideas of the universe: that Platonic forms can change into the more universal fractals, or that culture can turn back into nature.”

Memory and Remembrance

The garden is a tribute to Maggie, not just by Jencks to his late wife, but also by Alistair, who fondly recalls anecdotes about her vision for the space, his time working with her in California, and the afternoon when her wellies got stuck in the mud and she had to run back to the main house barefoot.

As we walk deeper into the garden towards the creek that runs into the river, we pass a statue of Maggie, sitting quietly looking out across the edge of the property. Jencks writes about why he chose that particular spot. “There is a peaceful part of the landscape at Portrack. Maggie and I used to come alone where we had planned something of a wilderness garden … After she died, I placed the statue of Maggie where it would become part of the wilderness and could be seen from a bridge.”

Aerial view. Photo courtesy of Charles Jencks.

The garden includes areas that mark special events, both personal and historical. In the Time Warp Garden, a staircase of cut-out concrete creates a waterfall commemorating the 21st birthday of Jencks’s daughter Lily. There’s a plaque at the entrance. On the garden’s upper level, Alistair points out a summer trellis that comes alive with bluebells and daffodils. This is the favorite spot of Lady Keswick, Jencks’s mother-in-law. Lily now lives in the regal house opposite the creek; the main house sits at the top of the property. Both have been passed down through the family for generations.

But it’s not only family who are remembered here. The Scottish Blood Line area pays homage to Scotland with an historical timeline of the region, including notable names like Adam Smith, science writer David Livingstone, and Mary Somerville, the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Even Macbeth is given his due.

But the garden is very much a living, breathing thing. A peek into the octagonal structure that sits at the top of the garden shows that Jencks’s office is an active workspace with a magnificent view. The meticulous nature of the garden design can be appreciated in the details of a curve in the land that matches up perfectly with a spiral 50 yards away.

Places to Sit and Think

While you could spend a lifetime dissecting the intricacies of the equations represented in the garden or the scientific details Jencks has constructed here, ultimately the garden serves as a place for reflection — whether that’s on the Big Bang Theory, international politics, or simply a moment in the day. Despite the fact that garden is only open to visitors once a year and is in a somewhat remote location, it draws big crowds from around the world. This makes experiencing solitude here an especially unique experience. But Clark, who works and lives on site, says that the solitude — and not any particular sculpture or landscape element — is his favorite aspect of the garden. “At 9 or 10 on a summer’s night it is absolutely quiet and tranquil.”

Various installations across the garden invite rumination. We clambered to the top of the snake mound to get a clear view of the Fractal Terrace and took a deep breath at the top. We walked across the Japanese-inspired red Jumping Bridge made from “fractals that tilt against each other” — a quiet place to listen to the rain fall on the two streams that lead out to the river.

Alternate Universes

Jencks recently designed Crawick Multiverse, a public park devoted to land art and the cosmos about 20 minutes from GCOS. Funded by the Duke of Buccleuch and built on a former open coal mine, the Multiverse first opened on the 2015 summer solstice and has since played host to theatrical performances, weddings, and community events, allowing the public to interact with the space and to connect to the designs in new and different ways, which would very much be Jencks’ goal.

A view at Crawick Multiverse. Photo courtesy of Charles Jencks.

Photography: Guy Veale


Scottish Cuisine Is Not What You Think


The Best Night Out In Glasgow


Glasgow’s City of the Dead Is Full of Secrets

View all stories in Scotland