The Television in the Garden

When architects Rem Koolhas and Kenneth Yeang discussed "Cities on the Move," a recent exhibition on design and art in key Asian cities, they used the phrase "wish landscapes" to describe a noticeable tendency in urban projects to amalgamate every desirable landscape in the world. Wish landscapes provide for the consumption of the ecstatic experience and nothing less. This condition of hybridity, by extension, can be seen as a space of fantasy that is located within the city, garden, home, harem and television.

Idealized landscapes are not novel phenomena, but the spaces in which they play out continue to mutate. A particular instance of this change can be found by tracing the establishment of the Arcadia Arboretum in Los Angeles, and later the filming of the television episode Fantasy Island within the Arboretum in the late seventies and early eighties. Constructing Eden, virtual or otherwise, merges in this history of Fantasy Island and the Arcadia Arboretum. While they share moments of physical space, each of these Edens is constructed with different media, and the media itself ultimately produces new idealized landscapes.

The arboretum, aptly named Arcadia, is itself a hybrid collection of every exotic and luscious plant to be found on the globe, with gardens organized according to continent. Lucky Baldwin, pioneer and proprietor, is responsible for the transformation of the site when he purchased the land in 1875. In establishing his ranch, he converted the desert setting to a romantic garden. Lucky built a Queen Anne cottage for his deceased third wife. This cottage was later to become the primary setting and icon for the opening shots of Fantasy Island.

Transforming the desert into an idealized garden confronts a perceived void and makes it a stage for our desires. That is exactly how Lucky dished his tricks at Rancho Santa Anita. He planted the place over as an oasis in the desert and had a constant stream of mistresses to keep him entertained. Presto: the desert was transformed into a promised land of earthly delights. Lucky’s staking out of the desert, and construction of a wished-for landscape, seems to hail straight from even older notions of that pastoral paradise, Arcadia.

How we imagine the landscape of paradise can ultimately shape what we see. In Landscapes of Desire, William McClung recounts how the earliest mappings of California delineated the state as an island, most likely influenced not by actual geography but by a then-popular romance novel that described an island, an earthly paradise very similar to California. In the confusion of the real and the imaginary, fantasy becomes a structuring principle for how we see and make landscape.

Where exactly landscape is made, however, can be an indistinct locus. Fantasy Island is a landscape devoted exclusively to wish fulfillment, but the setting is at once the arboretum, a mythical island, and a television screen. Broadcast between January 1978 until August 1984, the television episode starred Ricardo Montalban as Roarke and Herve Villechaize as the "vertically challenged" Tattoo. A significant portion of the show was shot at the Arboretum in Arcadia. The Queen Anne cottage exterior was used extensively in opening footage, and the plane motored in across the arboretum lagoon. The signature bell-tolling and opening cry of Tattoo, "De plane, de plane," was also shot in the tower of the Queen Anne cottage.

But the opening sequence of Fantasy Island situates the televised island in the middle of endless horizons of ocean, with the island boasting spectacular waterfalls and high cliffs. This sequence was actually shot in Kauai. Together with the other filming sites it forms a landscape collage that telescopes the viewer from an indeterminate void to the mythical island. The hopper plane navigates the void, appearing from indistinct origins and a presumed desert of unfulfilled desire, to arrive at the gentle and promising lagoon of Fantasy Island. In the episode, "The Séance," it is noted that the island is perhaps the only place where one can communicate with the dead. In "The Treasure," a childhood home is recreated as a beginning point for a man whose fantasy is infinite wealth. It is as though the island itself writes the script of fantasy and at the end the guests depart into the same void they came from, but it is now charged with the expectation of happily-ever-after.

Establishing the place of fantasy is essential to its realization. Further telescoping of fantasy space within fantasy space and islands within the island, occurs in harems, childhood homes and automobiles. Even Tattoo is allowed to indulge his fantasy, when in one particular episode he is unusually depressed by the fact of his height. How can he, be at the service of so many fantasies when he must suffer his imperfect and short stature in a tall world. To console him, Roarke offers Tattoo his very own island automobile, appropriately sized. The epitome of a personalized fantasy island, this souped-up red golf cart with candy-striped awning is the wish granted that finally perks up Tattoo.

Telescoping out from these wish micro-landscapes brings the television set into focus-a particular instrument for framing and assembling wish landscapes. The television itself has been called a wishing machine, an apparatus of desire; and contained within it are many micro-islands of fantasy. Like a peepshow, the television holds the promise of a larger, more exciting world beyond. And it further defines, in a sense, what we see as desirable or wished-for landscapes. While the Arboretum contains gardens from across the world, a tropical savanna location was chosen, complete with palms and lagoon, and accessory hula girls, as the filming site for Fantasy Island. Like the obligatory "smiles, everyone, smiles" that Roarke bellows to the island workers upon the arrival of guests, these are the scenic props that ensure our wishes will be fulfilled.

More often than not, chasing one’s fantasy and arriving under the tutelage of Roarke and Tattoo leads to the revision of fantasy. In "The Treasure," the man in search of infinite wealth nearly drowns trying to unearth a gold statue. He says, "What have I got to lose," and "Is it un-American to want something better?" A feeling of desperation and hopelessness about current circumstances fuels the pursuit of fantasy. But when the same man is rewarded with wealth, he doesn’t know whether he should be glad or grieved that his wish is fulfilled. The same is true in "The Sheik," when a teacher of a private girls’ school wishes to have women at his command in his own harem. Making and revising fantasy is much easier and more elastic in a televised paradise. If only Lucky could have looped between the utterance of his wishes and the revision of those wishes, between a desert, a garden and an easily exchangeable harem.

In many ways, Lucky was the early set designer for this later televised world. Unknowingly, he was shaping not only a garden, but also a set of narratives and framing screens for that garden. Multiple films and television shows from Tarzan and the Huntress to Lassie and Jungle Jim were all shot at the Arboretum. The transformation of the site evolved from shaping an actual edenic garden to shaping the site through a camera lens. A previous director of the Arboretum, Francis Ching, once noted that the landscape of Los Angeles, like that of the Arboretum, is ninety nine percent introduced material, and without this material the landscape would be a "virtual desert." Now, arguably, the remaining one percent of material is the structuring frame, the television screen that is, as Virilio says, the "third window that...opens onto a phoney day." This frame displaces all material to a condition of the introduced, of the spectacular.

The construction of these landscapes, idealized garden and televised spatial fantasies within the garden one hundred years later, blurs the real and imaginary components of landscape and raises the question of where landscapes are actually made. The Arcadia Arboretum, Fantasy Island and the individual television set coalesce into a series of frames, islands and instruments that construct landscapes at the same time that they construct wishes.