I’ve been attempting to write about Sir Patrick Geddes for the last couple of weeks, and finding it quite difficult to pin him down. And then it occurred to me that, if I were to ask the man himself, he would undoubtedly prefer to be written about in visual terms, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction. The thing is that Geddes was a unique phenomenon: energetic, forceful, highly intelligent, yet impatient of the old-fashioned rules that governed the world of academia. He was a gifted teacher, but his inspiration was image-based, stemming from visions which sprang from deep within himself.
So, instead of treating his life as one continuous thread, I will dip in and out of it at random; the effect might be a bit like a collage, but I hope it will also reveal the breadth of Geddes’ wisdom, which shone clearly through everything he did.
Possibly the most profound experience in Geddes’ life came when he was 27, while living in Mexico. In 1879 he had travelled there to carry out zoological research, but found himself struck with an inexplicable illness which left him totally blind. It was temporary, although Geddes had no way of knowing it; and as he sat in a darkened room with his eyes bandaged, he found himself groping for light within the depths of his own soul. It came to him in vivid flashes of understanding, which stayed with him for the rest of his life and formed the touchstone of his work. Navigating by feel around his house, his fingers would explore a hallway window consisting of nine small panes of glass: in his mind, these squares, each leading to the next in a repetitive pattern, became the containers from which one concept would naturally flow into another. He had found what he called ‘a thinking machine’, and he used it to describe how people interact with each other, with their immediate environment, and with the planet.
“There have been two sorts of great travellers. First, of course, those who sail round the world, or climb higher and higher upon its mountain peaks, who venture farther into the icy North, deeper into the tropical forest than any who have gone before. Yet the other kind travel also, and that far further, in their chairs and in their dreams. For which has been the greater traveller – Nansen, or Shakespeare? Who has seen the most – Sir John Murray from the deck of the world-circling ‘Challenger’, or blind Milton in his Paradise?”
‘The World Without and the World Within – Sunday Talks with my Children’ by Patrick Geddes
“Environment and organism, place and people, are inseparable…”
The fourth son of an officer of the Black Watch, Geddes was born in Ballater but raised in Perth: his home was Mount Tabor on Kinnoull Hill. The attitude of Alexander and Janet Geddes towards their children’s education was delightfully organic. Patrick recalled “growing up in a garden”, full of flowers, vegetables and fruit; by planting potatoes, his father gave him his first lessons in mathematics, and on Sunday afternoons the whole family would take a leisurely walk around the garden, examining every new shoot and leaf and studying the emerging blossoms. When Patrick became a father himself, he made sure that his children’s home schooling was “an education for peace” whose essence was the perfect cycle of “heart, hand and head”.
Geddes “held constantly before both teachers and students the single goal of reuniting the separate studies of art, of literature, and of science into a related cultural whole, which served as an example to the universities still mainly engaged in breaking knowledge up into particles unconnected with each other or with life.”
Philip Boardman, ‘The Worlds of Patrick Geddes’
Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of his open-eyed but unorthodox upbringing, Patrick’s first experience of academia came as a cold, sharp shock. He enrolled at Edinburgh University to study botany but returned home after a week, frustrated by the limited and inflexible scope of the course. To Geddes, specialism was an alien concept: in his mind, everything – every living organism and every landscape – was inextricably linked, and to study just one subject in exhaustive detail was to lose sight of the whole. It was a daring stance, and Geddes took it a step further: not only did he blur the boundaries between the sciences, but he dipped his brush generously into the arts, creating a quarterly magazine called ‘The Evergreen‘ which overflowed with prose and poetry inspired by the seasons.
In 1895, Geddes purchased Short’s Observatory at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. This five-storey tower house was equipped with astronomical telescopes and a camera obscura, but was now in need of repair. Geddes saw an immediate opportunity, and four years later he opened ‘the world’s first sociological laboratory’. He named it the Outlook Tower, and with overwhelming zeal he set about changing the outlook of its visitors.
Exuding the kind of joyful abandon that would give modern-day health inspectors a heart attack, he would welcome unsuspecting guests through the door and then make them rush headlong up the tight spiral staircase to the top, where they arrived, breathless and perspiring. Having effectively swept their minds clear of trivia, Geddes then used the camera obscura to project an image of the street below onto a large table, and asked his visitors to study the passers-by in their immediate environment. A period of quiet meditation followed – possibly quite welcome – to internalise what they had observed; and the guests then descended more slowly, through a sequence of rooms representing the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain, Europe, and finally the world. The foyer was adorned with stained-glass windows in different colours, each with a scientific title such as ‘zoology’ or ‘botany’ – an elegant reference to Geddes’ belief that narrow fields of study restrict our perception of life.
Geddes “conveyed what it is like to be fully alive, alive in every pore, at every moment, in every dimension.” Lewis Mumford
One of Geddes’ acquaintances remarked that the task of clearing up after one of his demonstrations was like trying to put the lava back into a volcano immediately after an eruption. His wife, Anna, must have been dotingly tolerant, but even she might have raised an eyebrow when Geddes proposed moving from their comfortable home into Edinburgh’s Old Town, a notoriously squalid district which was addled with poverty and disease. (Sometimes I think that the journals of scientists and explorers‘ wives would make illuminating reading.) In any case, six months after they were married, Anna and Patrick were scrubbing and painting their run-down flat in James Court, just off the Lawnmarket in the Royal Mile. But there was more to this than just a social experiment: Geddes, as always, had a plan.
Before long, their neighbours were organised into community groups, galvanised into cleaning up their living quarters and improving their lifestyle. Anna set up sewing classes while Patrick’s ambitions spread outwards into all the tenement blocks and dingy courtyards. He rejuvenated the ancient Riddle’s Court, converting it into a students’ hostel, and breathed fresh life into the buildings that are now Ramsay Garden; he would often be seen in an old nightshirt, painting bright colours over dirty walls, and wherever there was enough space he would squeeze in a small park or a garden. If Edinburgh’s Old Town has a patron saint, it must be Patrick Geddes.
Geddes created the layout for Edinburgh’s Zoological Gardens, ensuring that they were beautifully designed and a pleasure to experience, even before the arrival of their inhabitants.
It was slightly ironic that, despite his intolerance of contemporary teaching methods, Geddes needed an academic position in order to earn money. After leaving Perth Academy he worked in banking for a while, but this was not the most obvious career move for someone who protested that he “can’t and won’t keep accounts”. He started a course at the Royal School of Mines in London and then found a post as a demonstrator in the laboratory of John Burdon Sanderson at the University of London, where, over the lens of a microscope, he had an unexpected but eager onlooker in the figure of Charles Darwin.
A generous benefactor endowed a part-time Chair of Botany for Geddes at Dundee; and he set up a series of summer schools in Edinburgh, making use of an old canal barge which his pupils called ‘The Ark’. Featuring topics as diverse as social evolution, psychology and practical botany, Geddes’ lessons were highly popular, attracting students from all over Britain as well as Europe and America, and his classes included a number of women, for whom further education was still a very slowly opening door. With his infectious enthusiasm, he was the spark that lit the fire in many young scientists and explorers, including William Speirs Bruce.
“…it can be hardly too strongly insisted that nature teaching begins neither with knowledge nor discipline, but through delight; the former is but premature until the latter be assured.”
‘Nature study and geographical education’, address by Patrick Geddes to RSGS in 1902, via Scottish Geographical Magazine
In 1925 Geddes established the ‘College des Ecossais‘ or Scots College in Montpellier, France. His inspiration harked back to the medieval age, when young people would tour Europe to draw their learning from different cultures. He took his students on long walks in the surrounding countryside and cultivated a ‘teaching garden’, which would undoubtedly have gladdened his father’s heart.
An early environmentalist and town planner, Patrick Geddes coined the terms ‘conurbation’ and ‘megalopolis’. He is responsible for designing the layout of Tel Aviv.
In 1915, Geddes travelled to India on the invitation of Lord Pentland, Governor of Madras. His commission was to prepare plans for the development of at least 18 towns and cities, bringing his unique blend of perception and innovation to create a living space that was beneficial to all. Needless to say, for Patrick Geddes this wasn’t just a matter of drawing some streets on a piece of paper. To the curiosity of the local people, he walked around the towns, observing, questioning, and recording. In the city of Indore his presence was regarded at first with suspicion, and his guide reluctantly admitted that he was being condemned as ‘the old Sahib that brings the plague’. This sent Geddes to the ruling prince of Indore, with an audacious request: he wanted to be made Maharajah for a day.
With his extraordinary insight, Geddes had realised that he would never succeed in re-shaping the town unless he won the hearts and minds of the townspeople themselves. His solution was breathtaking in its brilliance. He announced that there would be a grand pageant on the next feast day, and that it would pass only through the cleanest streets. This prompted a whirlwind of sweeping and washing, and when the day of the pageant arrived, Geddes made sure that the entire panoply of life was represented as a moving, living picture. Chariots carrying figures of rain and sun gods and tokens of a good harvest were followed by portrayals of war and poverty, and then, for good measure, came a giant rat, representing the plague. Geddes had wanted the figure of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, to ride on a white elephant, but, finding no white elephants conveniently available, he set about whitewashing a grey one from trunk to tail:
“What snowy brilliance in the sunshine – a paragon of a white elephant, such as neither king nor goddess had ever ridden before!”
‘Patrick Geddes in India’ by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt
The parade took in almost every part of the city before culminating in a garden suburb, where there were fireworks and a bonfire for the symbolic burning of the pestilential rat. As a result of all the cleaning, the people of Indore had a new-found pride in their city; and the plague disappeared from its streets. Geddes had fully justified his day-long role as a Maharajah.
“Care of Mother Earth is the prime task of man.”
What else can I say about Patrick Geddes? If he’d been born in the 20th century, he would certainly have embraced the New Age movement, and with his good looks and pop-star hair he might even have been a headliner at Glastonbury. His life seems less of a sequence of events than a collection of overlapping worlds, making you feel as if you’re reading several different biographies while wrestling with an octopus. Time, for him, probably meant nothing. He was thinking outside the box before anyone knew that there was a box to think in; he had the energy of a true visionary and the courage to act upon it.
“From the high garden, or from one of your tree-top castles, you look out upon everything, you see for miles and miles; but in your dark little cave in the ivy-bank you can sit and dream. Up in your tree-castle you often sit dreaming, of course; and from your hidden cave, through its ivy curtain, you love to peep; still, in the main, one is the Out-world’s Watch-tower, the other the In-world’s Gate. You wonder sometimes why so many grown-ups look unhappy? There are many reasons no doubt; but one great reason is that too many have fallen from the first of these, or have lost their way to the other.”
‘The World Without and the World Within – Sunday Talks with my Children’ by Patrick Geddes
Professor Patrick Geddes was elected a Council Member of the RSGS in 1896, and played an important role in shaping the fledgling Society. The Geddes Environment Medal was introduced in 2009, honouring people who find innovative solutions to man’s increasing impact on the Earth’s natural environments.
‘Think Global, Act Local – The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes’, ed. Walter Stephen
‘A Vigorous Institution – The Living Legacy of Patrick Geddes’, ed. Walter Stephen
Camera Obscura, Edinburgh
‘Nature study and geographical education‘, address to the RSGS in 1902, from Scottish Geographical Magazine
‘The World Without and the World Within: Sunday Talks with my Children’ by Patrick Geddes
‘Patrick Geddes in India’ by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt (1947)
Ballater Geddes Project
College des Ecossais, Montpellier (‘Metagraphies’ by Sabine Kraus)
‘Patrick Geddes – Social Evolutionist and City Planner’ by Helen Meller
National Library of Scotland
‘The Evergreen – a Northern Seasonal’
Genevie Fernandes, via The Essayist
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf except Geddes’ portrait, Camera Obscura and Tel Aviv plan which are via Wikimedia