Faces of the City Seminar

Lawnbefok: Civilising Grass on the Highveld

Wits City Institute Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Jonathan Cane presented an overview of his doctoral thesis Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld.

21 February 2017 / School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Elizabeth Pienaar

It was a rainy – very rainy – afternoon. Johannesburg was in gridlock. Getting across town, a 20-minute exercise in ‘normal’ traffic, became an hour long odyssey … I made my soaking entrance to the seminar slightly late and rather grumpy, consoling myself that the rain was ‘good for the lawn’, and wondering, really, how much could there be to say about lawns?

A great deal, actually. I came expecting to listen. I did not expect to be so well entertained by a grand metaphor of the country.

No one who doesn’t believe in a future makes a lawn, insists Jonathan Cane, from the first planting of Kikuyu at the Union Buildings, which had a helping hand from General Smuts himself in the guise of lawn expert, to the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park – a lawn is a symbol that the wild has been tamed. Order has arrived. A swathe of civilisation stretches towards the horizon, towards tomorrow.

But the hopefulness that the lawn embodies is often not achieved. The lawn, under the sharp observation of Cane, revealed itself as a slippery character, less than trustworthy, the chosen stamp of ‘civilisation’ but engaged in a relentless guerilla war with the civilisers. The lawn is constantly unruly, requiring diligent enforcement to manage its unrelenting momentum to rebellion.

‘The lawn,’ says Cane, ‘is a failure’ (and boring too). Because as much as it is a potent visual symbol of Order Rolled Forth to Behold – it equally gleefully reveals Order Relinquished. Decay. Yellow patches. Weeds. The loss of control.

The lawn, employed as a powerful visual, colonial (bloody) agent, reaffirms the success of the colonial project; but conversely, no other icon reveals quite so clearly how much constant defence the colonial project required. Far from being a strong symbol of authority, dominance and permanence, Cane argues that the lawn is at best ambiguous, always a process, never a completed creation. The symbol tells all, in other words, when The Lawn is read as The Colonial Project.

Perhaps, Cane suggests, the lawn is, at heart, an antisocial provocation to failure. But what does that failure mean? This is a question that interests Cane.

Cane uses the South African film Triomf, based on the novel by Marlene van Niekerk, to view the subversion of ‘the good life’, suburban Utopia, by dissecting the role of the lawn as an agent of class and status. In suburbia, even poorer parts thereof, respectable (white) people have real lawn! Never Astroturf! That is for a different milieu. There is an understanding, an etiquette: the right time to mow the lawn is daytime, and weekends. So when the character Lambert decides to mow the lawn on a weekday, at night, and worse, coercing his mother to do so, it is a complex and conscious act of aggression towards the neighbour. The neighbour, in Lambert’s view, is of a lower class. The Lawn is used as a weapon.

Cane also discusses public parks, places made for healthful leisure and relaxation. But here too, the lawn does not behave, and often, parks also become agents of subversion. Cane uses three examples – Joubert Park, Johannesburg, observed through the lens of David Goldblatt, trained on the homeless and unemployed, has become a rallying point for the very opposite of social health; Zoo Lake, Johannesburg, has a long history as favourite meeting place for clandestine gay liaisons; and when St. James’s Park in London was a gathering place for the homeless, Cane says the lawns were literally disinfected.

The less obvious, but probably larger, costs involved in maintenance of the lawn – the stringent regimen of feeding and manicuring, weeding, and cutting, the frail and temperamental barrier to wild disorder imposed over the un-landscaped terrain –  has spawned a vast industry of agrochemicals, the exploitation of labour, and wastes immense amounts of water.

There are alternatives to the lawn – concrete lawns, swept gardens, sand gardens, even the Archigram Lawn, with plug points and energy systems. And there is, of course, Astroturf.  And yet Real Lawn still has its acolytes.

Without doubt, we are left with a new understanding of the lawn. The lawn is an ideological tool; yielding complex symbolic messages in our dense, entwined cultural identities: the lawn is still a marker of wealth, an aspirational marker particularly for the emerging black middle class. Yet the mayor of Orania, we learn, has declared the lawn as wasteful, not modern. A member of the audience told of doing fieldwork in the Karoo, that with time, as they approached the various farms they had to visit, the ‘English’ farms almost always had lawn, and the Afrikaans farms, gravel. And Kikuyu, even though it originates from the continent, is now classified as an invader plant.

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