LETTER FROM MY HENYARD
essay was published first in 1967 as "Brev fra min hønsegård"
in Arkitekten, the journal of the Danish Federation of Architects.
The translation by Anne Whiston Spirn is copyrighted 2004. For permission
to reprint, please contact email@example.com.
There really is nothing to speak of but eggs so far. They won't
begin to cluck for two or three years, and they probably will have
to grow for another five to six years before they are finished –
with feathers and all. But then it will be a really wonderful sight
with all those beautiful birds coming tearing down the hillside
with necks outstretched. The henyard isn't finished either, but
so long as the chickens remain in their eggs, it really doesn't
matter that the fence is only a meter high and open. In time it
will reach four meter's height and be completely impenetrable to
anything other than sparrows and robins who may make their nests
This does not involve ordinary hens, you understand. They are made
of plants – that is, they are about to be made of plants.
Of hawthorn, clipped.
First into tight balls, so that the birds, in their time, will not
be bare-legged, then later, little by little, into hens two to three
meters high. The fence will also be made of hawthorn. People have
told me that animals belong in an adventure playground and that
a man in my position is expected to have his affairs in order. I
don't visit my playground frequently enough to keep living animals,
so I have to make do with plant-animals.
The henyard is part of a playground with a differentiated plan.
Not with respect to traffic, but spatially. There are eleven rooms
in all. The hens have the largest of the seven that are enclosed
by hawthorn hedges. In others there are rabbits of boxwood, strawberries,
compost, and fire. One is set aside for a hammock and one for people.
And just as Winnie the Pooh has “an empty pot for useful things,”
in our playground we have an empty garden room that can be used
for one thing or another.
man needs a nook, some corner where he can make something that doesn't
have to add up to anything. A possibility for some kind of undertaking
that doesn't have to be judged, at least not in connection with
professional advancement, livelihood, or status. Women and children
have the same need. This shouldn't necessarily be taken literally,
this bit about the nook. Making music, for example, gives one the
opportunity to stand back and recognize oneself, which many consider
essential. For most people there seems to be a desire to mark their
identity visually, that is, to make something or other that can
be seen and that others can see. Children build their own worlds
of thoughts, which we adults cannot see, but also of bricks, boxes,
and beer cases if they can. Women have always made some kind of
handicrafts over and above those chores which have been seen as
their particular responsibility.
result is that one way or another we decorate our surroundings,
and we enjoy it. In any case, we grow grumpy when we aren't allowed
to paint our door red or make psychedelic shop windows.
All kinds of societies in all times have established ways for limiting
individual development. In our society, there are rules for what
one should eat and how one should dress. When one builds a house
on the Fiji Islands, one must abide by constraints set by material
and technology, and once people lived in igloos in Greenland. Many
rules are rooted in economic context, but there is no lack of social
One has to watch out that neither roof nor social status sticks
up too far.
In primitive societies, one doesn't just decorate one's environment,
one makes it. One either makes house and furnishings, tools and
clothes oneself or in close collaboration with a craftsman. People
and environment become a strong and simple whole under such conditions.
The conditions are completely different in our society with its
specialization and mass production. We have great freedom and economic
opportunities to buy manufactured products, but the possibilities
for making something ourselves are very few. Our potential for shaping
is completely limited to combining finished things to form new wholes.
The great quantity of things was something new and exciting for
our grandparents. So the bourgeois home at the turn of the century
became a veritable storehouse of things. At first one collected
all those things factories could produce and later all those things
they couldn't: exotic things, conch shells, peacock feathers, and
A puritanical reaction was necessary and unavoidable. The many things
were replaced by the few, the wonderful by the modest, those rich
in association by the unambiguously simple--the functional. Most
important was that material, construction, and form were authentic
and answered to a specific, legitimate need.
Say, “fake,” and that which is framed is lost. The white
living room with two sophisticated, simple chairs, placed side by
side, a third of the way along the longest wall of the room, has
not lost its grip upon the majority of architects. One finds it
particularly advisable that the common man makes do with this pure
clarity. Even though architects, with their well-developed taste
and sense for the authentic may, of course, surround themselves
with Japanese handcrafts, painted Mexican plaster figurines, and
Balinese masks. It has an inspirational effect on the work of giving
form! If one cannot trust the users to restrain themselves and/or
to have good taste, architects ought to make sure that there are
nice, neutral curtains which can be pulled shut. Now, we know that
this is crazy, but the users were the first to understand that this
is a good old double standard. Their opposition is, for the most
part, passive. During the work week they hide their unaesthetic,
thing-full, and inauthentic display behind the curtains, but all
who have the opportunity parade it on the weekend an appropriate
distance from their regular home. Summer house and weekend shack
are adventure playgrounds for adults, places where we have the nerve
to decorate with our multiple personalities, with all that we were
brought up to be asshamed of in the real, productive, weekday world.
Therefore they flourish – thatched roofs and planted wheelbarrows,
miniature forests and wooden shacks, barbecue pits, and my hawthorn
Freud and others have attacked the Victorian double standard, and
slowly we bring ourselves to accept the fact that humans, in spite
of everything, are animals. How then can we justify the aesthetic
double standard which imprisons the user behind a nice facade and
prevents him from the exuberant display and marking of place that
could be the true folklore of industrial society?
I have a definite idea of how my henyard will end, but what lies
between now and then is an open plan.
If I am so fortunate to live to a patriarchal age and feeble senility,
and if my henyard hasn't been torn down for a rocket launching pad
or some other useful thing, sometime near the turn of the century,
I will sit in a grove of hawthorns with a blanket around my legs.
Perhaps there is a little clearing which lets the sun reach the
ground in a few places, but mainly all that I have shaped has disintegrated
now I no longer have the strength to hold clippers or clamber up
ladders. My son-in-law has no interest for this sort of thing, and
folk cannot be hired for garden work. Nonetheless, I am satisfied.
The hawthorns are grateful for the freedom to develop a lovely,
healthy growth. In early summer all the branches are covered with
masses of yellow-white flowers, like whipped cream, which later
fall to the ground like a silent snowfall, leaving the crooked stems
standing black against the white ground. In fall, the branches are
weighed down by dark red fruits and by all the birds that thrive
in the sheltered world of the thorn grove and enjoy its edible fall
dress. If I am truly fortunate, my great grandchild will dig holes
under the trees.
But a lot can happen before the henyard becomes a hawthorn grove.
Except for the plants that will be shaped into hens, all the hawthorns
are planted so that they form the sides of seven rectangles. This
fixes the main framework, which can scarcely be altered. But there
are many potential variations still open.
How high should the hedges be? It's hard to clip them if they are
over a meter and a half, but I would like to enclose the henyard
a bit better, more for my own experience of the space than the need
to keep the hens shut in. A position also has to be taken on whether
the tops of the hedges should follow the slope of the terrain or
lie in a horizontal plane. Or should the tops lie in two or possibly
three different horizontal planes? This also depends upon the relationship
to the surrounding landscape. A plane at the correctly-chosen level
will yield a completely enclosed space in the lower part of the
garden, and a view out over distant dales and ridges from the upper
In the in-between spaces between the rectangles lie many other possibilities.
One immediately experiences them as the garden's negative parts,
as the separation between those parts which mean something, as passages
from the house out to the attractions and activities. But it could
also be just the opposite: all the in-between spaces could be made
into enclosed leafy passages. They could be filled with fine, shade-loving
plants or birdcages or moss-covered stones. From the rectangles
one could peek in at these wonders through openings in the hedges.And
how consistent should I be? Shall I perhaps use a bit of all the
possibilities: positive and negative space structure, different
room heights, open and closed spaces, spaces that gather themselves
around something which happens on the ground plane or that open
to the clouds; passages that follow the district's in-between spaces
and passages that wind through the garden seemingly independent
of the primary structure? Shall I perhaps make my playground into
an illustration of “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”
or shall I let form follow function in the hope that less is more?
There are many Intentions in Architecture to choose from, and to
the ecological requirements of the hawthorns, I can add my own social
The trees are planted, but my henyard is nowhere near finished.
Despite the many possibilities, I am not anxious about the result.
And even if it just becomes a big mess, it won't be all bad. My
confidence stems not so much from a sense of my own ability to manage
the affair, but from two facts: the simple pattern of the planting
and the material, hawthorn.
If I always proceed with a respect for the placement of the hawthorns
and their existence as living organisms, they will always form a
clear pattern that can adapt to whatever serendipitous circumstances
are introduced by myself and by time. The hawthorns, on the other
hand, permit enormous variation, from the meter high, closely-clipped
to the freely-growing, five-meter tree. But not beyond those limits
which lie in being a hawthorn, which means that every single cell,
whether it sits in the roots or in the skin of the fruit, has a
predetermined number of chromosomes with a particular set of genes,
which can vary a little bit and give each plant its unique individuality,
yet still ensure similarities in form and in mode of adapting to
In the discussion of the flexible and the fixed, dynamic and static,
open, functional plan and closed, formal plan, some would say that
the conditions change so quickly that it is useless to plan. It
is more important to produce, they say, and to produce so much so
cheaply that we can discard and make anew as needs and opportunities
change. In the slightly more bounded discussion about our need for
an unfinished environment, it would mean that one gives in to the
free play of forces and accepts chaos as the aesthetic of our time.
Then one forgets, I believe, that humans, just like hawthorns, are
very adaptable, but still bound to their genetic structure which
is unchangeable. (Mutations are infrequent and most people would
consider manipulating the laws of heredity inhumane.)
And I don't think I am wrong if I believe that in our genetically
fixed pattern there is also a need for stability in our physical
surroundings, as well as the need for freedom, diversity, and individual
The task, then, is to find the balance.
Often we planners are so busy specifying all the details, and, if
our clients have exchanged beargrass for red roses or bought solid
lounge chairs instead of the Kj?rholm-poem we recommended, we think
our work has been ruined, and we have to move everything around
before we can photograph it. In those places we study as precedents
there are also many fine details: the door handles of the Kunstindustri
Museum in Copenhagen, the paper screens in Katsura, the fortifications
in the Generalife, etc. But there are also environments that are
exciting because they permit a brilliant freedom against the background
of a fixed feature in the landscape context or in the pattern of
the plan. I am thinking of such cities as Portofino, which presses
up against the city walls in delightful irregularity. Of Dutch cities
subordinated to the necessity of the canal pattern. Of Lucca, where
the construction around the old ampitheater is both rigorously restrained
and unbounded, free. Of Paris, where Louis XIV and Napoleon III
managed, with Le Nostre's and Hausmann's help, to give a structure,
which, despite great opposition in implementation and much critique
by posterity, unified the richness of variety and change with well-planned
clarity. (Unity and variety, as Le Nostre said.)
I also think about the fact that the only ideal city planned in
detail that still functions well is the botanical garden at Padua.
But, then, it is plants that are concerned there.
What about a synthesis and a conclusion? I am not up to it.
I can only see the problem from within the closed world of my henyard.
Others, who keep pigeons, may be more fortunate.