Yin and yang across the Aegean

A childhood spent in Spanish-influenced houses and gardens in the Philippines and California gave landscape designer Cristina Nevans an affinity for the Mediterranean style that she has been working with for the past few years in Greece and Turkey. Nevans talked to Kathimerini English Edition about her work, the increasingly globalized kind of gardens people are asking for today on both sides of the Aegean, and the importance of retaining traditional elements and a sustainable approach. Nevans settled in Greece when she married a painter-sculptor who collaborated on her designs for gardens on the island of Chios and in Athens. One of their designs was for a hotel garden in Istanbul owned by Nevans’s sister, which was the start of her interest in that country’s landscape and culture. Her work focuses on what she calls the skeleton of the garden and working with stone. «Creating the skeleton of the garden is the basis of everything – creating the spaces and the ‘theater’ of the garden. There are certain elements I seem always to use – stone walls that change the inner shape, and that are the same height as seats so you can sit on them and have plants behind them so you don’t need as much garden furniture. My interest is in the effects of texture, color and smell. I use a very small palette of plants unless the clients want to branch out into other things. «Water is a focal point of all Mediterranean gardens, even if it’s just a simple well, as in Greek courtyards and gardens. That also applies in Turkey. The elements are much the same as in Greece – marble, stone, water, cast iron, pottery, large clay jars, remnants of ancient Greek bits and pieces often reworked into something Islamic. «When I began traveling in Europe I loved the Italian gardens because you see the traces of what was, with fabulous sculptures emerging from a tangle of plants. In Chios I loved walking in the fields and finding the ruins of old villages, arches covered in vegetation.» said Nevans, adding that in Turkey these architectural elements can still be found. «In Istanbul there are pieces of ancient things you just come upon. There is also an area called Cukurcuma, an amazing place where you find Ottoman artifacts you can’t find anywhere in the Mediterranean. It makes you realize how many gardens there must have been when you see the number of features they sell, such as fountains. They send truckloads of them to Italy, and to Greek clients as well. This won’t last long.» Her work with stonemasons on the island of Chios and in Turkey, and designing a garden in what used to be an old Greek village on the island of Cumba, off Ayvalik, opposite Lesvos where she has also worked, showed Nevans the similarities between the two countries, both in the past and in the present, when the international, minimalist style has become ubiquitous on both sides of the Aegean. «Before the exchange of populations in 1922, when the island was settled by Muslims from Crete, Cunda was called Moschonisos. It is now becoming very popular with holidaymakers, as there are very few of these older villages left along the Aegean coast of Turkey. Cunda is very much becoming flavor of the month, with a lot of wealthy people buying there. It is right across from Lesvos, where I have also worked, using the same pink stone. The owner allowed me to do what I wanted in the garden, where the main feature was a tall palm tree (the reason she bought the house). What I did was to plant around the surrounding walls with aromatics, native plants, gray-leaved plants. There is a well in the middle which is very evocative of the spirit of the garden, linked to paths of pebble paving.» Older gardens were designed for refuge, Nevans explained, whether they were just small courtyards or the larger expanses attached to Ottoman palaces, rather than just for show, as is often the tendency these days. «Both countries have turned their back on their old ways,» she said. «Gardens have become a fad, people see photos in magazines and they show that to you and say, ‘That’s what I want,’ even if its highly inappropriate.’ Differences Despite the similarities, Nevans finds a difference that she compares to yin and yang. «I always think Istanbul is yin and Athens yang. Istanbul is cooler and wetter and has this wonderful rich moist soil and it’s also got the melancholy of the broken empire – the yin kind of thing, very soft. Here in Greece we’ve got this new, very bright and sunny place with alkaline soil, and it’s drier. People are getting more organized and move much faster. In Athens I planted out gardens too much because I was trying to make them more yin, as I felt we had too much sun and I wanted to create shade.» Nevans first became interested in the archaeology of gardens in the Australian countryside, where her American parents moved when she was quite young, and where she replanted their garden after it was destroyed by bushfire. «I found remnants of old hedges the settlers had first used. Under cypress trees that had been completely burnt out, there was a regrowth of native shrubs that had been used by the original gardeners. That was when I decided to become a landscape architect, going to Melbourne University for a master’s degree. «The old gardens were sustainable, ecological gardens, where beauty was mixed with function. Even the old gardens of Chios were mixed with orange groves, they didn’t have them just for show, but to utilize them and that’s what attracts me.» Nevans says it is not easy to find people who are aware of these issues. In Turkey, there is some interest in ecology but «everything arrives there a bit later.» She is very interested in sustainable architecture and landscaping that is in line with the philosophy of being «light on the land.» «I hate digging into a mountain to make foundations because then (the landscape) is ruined forever. You’ve created a quarry under your building and destroyed what was there. All the organisms in the rocks are gone, along with the topsoil. «What I have always tried to do in my work is, whenever possible, to have the garden look as if it was always there, not as if it was ‘designed.’» This year Nevans is working on a garden near Delphi with an owner who is also a designer. «I learn a lot from clients, it’s a two-way relationship. When you work for people who don’t know what they want, they usually end up disappointed because they actually do have a desire, they just don’t know what it is. When you work together, it is a far richer situation. I am actually there to create what the other person wants, but I have come to realize that it’s very important to have a philosophy that is basically the same. You can’t give something that is not in you to do.» Cristina Nevans: [email protected]