The postmodern garden at Througham Court in the Cotswolds


At first sight, Througham Court seems to be in perfect harmony with its setting, in the heart of the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire. The traditional Grade II* listed country house dates, in part, from 1610, and later additions include a dry stone terrace designed in the 1930s by Arts & Crafts architect Norman Jewson.

Yet, attached to the Jewson wall, two rows of letters point to the mirror DNA sequences of the male Y chromosome. And the terrace floor is not made of soft, honey-coloured Cotswold stone, but a series of stark, asymmetrical shapes in red, black and white. The reflective surfaces of the polygons are interspersed with mirrors and a gutter in which the water has been dyed black.

This is the garden that Througham Court owner Christine Facer Hoffman has developed over the past two decades: a garden based on mathematical formulas, medical science and cosmic theory.

When Facer Hoffman purchased the property in 1995, she was a hematologist whose work in areas such as epidemiology and immunogenetics earned her international recognition. But a few years later, she decides that “life is too short to do one thing” and trains to become a landscape architect. His gardens became a new outlet for his lifelong fascination with science.

The Cosmic Evolution Garden is inspired by a book by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees © Izzy de Wattripont for the FT

She says she has always had an interest in art as well as science and, from her point of view, landscaping combines the two disciplines perfectly. She graduated from the Pickard School of Garden Design and studied Computer Aided Design (CAD) for landscape designers at Pershore College in Worcestershire. Then she started her own business. His first commission in 2002 was to design a garden for the inaugural Westonbirt International Garden Festival in Gloucestershire. It seemed a natural step for Facer Hoffman to create a genetic garden, using plants and hard landscaping to represent genes and DNA.

“I chose DNA because it interested me at the time,” she says. This first garden established Facer Hoffman’s trait of transforming every dominant scientific concern into a symbolic and metaphorical art form that runs through clients’ gardens.

Her own estate at Througham Court, where she lives with her husband Anthony, covers 55 acres, six of which include a cultivated area incorporating Jewson’s original Arts & Crafts garden, and Facer Hoffman’s exploration of theories and ideas in various exterior “rooms”.

They include The Cosmic Evolution Garden, which she designed after reading a book called Just six digits by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. The premise of Rees’ book is that the origins and existence of the universe depend on six numbers in physics. Facer Hoffman inscribed each number on sandstone spheres representing planets. A seat for visitors represents a black hole.

“When a star dies, it [can] form a black hole with such gravitational force that nothing can escape. This seat is therefore designed to be very comfortable but very difficult to remove.

Banners by Shona Watt in the Wild Grass Meadow, which also features the Fibonacci Walk © Izzy de Wattripont for the FT

An Eclipse Shadow bed contains what she describes as a “cosmic planting,” including black-leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens; Ligularia stenocephala Spindle; and cosmonaut Cosmos bipinnatus.

Facer Hoffman says her garden reflects her own personality, but she also wants visitors to think. She acknowledges that visitors come to see the hard landscaping design, but says the plantings play an important role.

“A garden can only be a garden if it contains plants. Otherwise it would be like an art installation at the Tate.

The plantings act as interludes of normality, as in the original Arts & Crafts part of the garden, and in a pleated lime walk with seasonal displays of tulips, alliums, agapanthus and nepeta. They also play supporting roles, as with roses and clematis intertwining the Six Pillars of (Scientific) Wisdom which are topped with resin models that document important moments in the history of biology. Models include giant pills, representing the discovery of penicillin; and a sheep that symbolizes Dolly, the first cloned mammal.

A stone pillar with resin models of penicillin pills balanced on it

Two of the Six Pillars of Wisdom (Scientist): “Discovery of Penicillin”. . .

A stone pillar topped with a cylindrical series of metal bands

. . . and ‘PCR DNA bands amplified for identification’ © Izzy de Wattripont for the FT

In another part of the garden, stepping into the densely planted black bamboo grove feels like stepping into an eerie fairy tale. A star-shaped swimming pool is lined with slate as if to imitate the dark sky.

Along the Fibonacci Walkway, a winding path of short cut grass through a field, birch trees are planted at distances according to the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two, a pattern found in nature : 1 meter, 2 meters, 3 meters, 5 meters, 8 meters and so on.

The asymmetrical red, black and white polygons that Facer Hoffman added next to the Arts & Crafts part of the garden form his Chiral Terrace. In medical science, chirality is a property of asymmetry, used to describe a structure that cannot be superimposed on its mirror image. A chiral quality can have far-reaching consequences, affecting how a drug affects our bodies. For example, the chirality of thalidomide played an important role in birth defects caused by the drug in the 1950s-60s. Facer Hoffman designed the terrace to explore the subject of the chirality of molecules after reading a book on the subject.

The chiral terrace, with a ground of red, white and black polygons

The Chiral Terrace, with its asymmetrical patterns referencing structures that cannot be imposed on their mirror image © Izzy de Wattripont for the FT

From time to time, and to Facer Hoffman’s greatest pleasure, visitors to the garden play on the themes of his exhibits. Among the many comments in the guestbook is a long tribute, written in clear and precise handwriting, impossible to decipher without a mirror because it is written upside down. The guest was a mirror writer. A few pages later, there is a photograph of identical twins: mirror twins, whose identical features are asymmetrical, as if one or the other is watching themselves reflected in a mirror. It is believed that mirror twins make up 25% of identical twins worldwide.

When visitors arrive at the garden, accessible on pre-booked guided tours, they enter through the Anatomy of the Black Swan gate. The door was designed by Facer Hoffman as a visual metaphor for what former trader and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the Black Swans: seemingly improbable and unpredictable events with enormous consequences, like 9/11.

A stone wall next to a black metal door called 'Black Swan Anatomy'

The anatomy of the Black Swan Gate is inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory of improbable and unpredictable events © Izzy de Wattripont for the FT

More predictable for Facer Hoffman is his next big project for the estate: a tribute to Charles Jencks, the architectural historian and international designer of buildings and gardens, including his own 30-acre garden of cosmic speculation in Scotland. Jencks was a friend and collaborator of Facer Hoffman, and when he died in 2019 the couple had been working on designing a garden for Througham Court for several years.

“Charles was amazing and his gardens are amazing. He was incredibly inspiring in that you saw what he was doing and thought, “How could he do that?” Then I would try to do it myself,” she says.

The garden they planned is based on epigenetics: the study of how human behavior and the environment can affect how genes work without altering DNA sequence. An example is the Dutch “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, in which starving pregnant women gave birth to children who were said to have suffered from various conditions throughout their lives due to their affected genes in the blood. uterus by starvation.

With Jencks gone, Facer Hoffman has completed the design and will create the epigenetic garden herself, in between her work for clients. She says she does not yet know where she will put him in Througham Court, but is confident she will find a place.

“Charles used to say we were peas in a pod and I have no one to talk to about garden design anymore. There aren’t a lot of people doing what we do.

The epigenetic design of the garden is, she admits, “complicated”. But as a former award-winning consultant haematologist and former president of the British Society for Parasitology, Facer Hoffman is not intimidated by complex ideas. The new garden will add another chapter to Througham Court’s metaphorical exploration of science – another story to tell, as Facer Hoffman puts it.

“My goal is to arouse curiosity and my garden is a book in which each space tells a story. A garden should be a journey for the mind as much as for the feet.

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