Monthly Archives: February 2014

Japanese Zen Gardens by Yoko Kawaguchi and Alex Ramsay Frances Lincoln 2014 – review

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

This book has excellent photographs, by Alex Ramsay, and the inclusion of garden plans is most welcome. Kawaguchi writes with admirable clarity about Zen gardens – compared to those I have seen of the 1,926 books on Amazon returns for a search on Zen Gardens. Allen Weiss, for example, begins Zen Landscapes (2013) by stating that ‘The essential elements of the dry Japanese garden are few: rocks, gravel, moss’. Kawaguchi explains that this is not how ‘Zen garden’ is used in Japan: it simply means ‘the garden of a Zen temple’ and such gardens are not stylistically distinct from other Japanese temple gardens. So Weiss should have used kare-sansui or dry landscape in his book title. I would also complain if ‘Protestant’ was the adjective used, overseas, for the gardens of eighteenth century England. I therefore recommend Kawaguchi as the first book to read on Zen gardens. Yet there are some critical points to make. First, I would like the introduction to have said more about the principles of Buddhism, the distinct characteristics of Zen Buddhism and the relationship between Buddhism and gardens. Second, the plans lack contours and, to my eye, look too English. Third, I would like the points made to have had bibliographic references. I do not think this would have spoiled the book design and I do not think it would have mattered if the references were to Japanese publications which English readers cannot follow.
Part One of the book gives a historical overview of the gardens made for Japanese Zen temples. The first such temples are dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (while the first Buddhist gardens in Japan date from the sixth century). The influence of Chan Buddhism, from China, which became Zen Buddhism in Japan, is associated with the Emperor Kameyama. He abdicated at the age of 24, in 1274, and became a Buddhist monk in 1289 and the abbot of Nanzen-ji. Ryoan-ji, which fascinates visitors and provides foreigners with their image of a ‘Zen garden’, is a mystery. Little is known of its date or its symbolism: ‘it is almost as though visitors to the temple have needed to be reassured that the garden is indeed a work of genius rather than a case of humbug’ (p.61). Kawaguchi also discusses the influence of Zen on twentieth century gardens, notably in the work of Shigemori Mirei.

Part Two of the book reviews the symbols and motifs used in Zen gardens. Many have Buddhist roots and many do not. The view from Shinju-an (illustrated below) uses symbols drawn from the beliefs of pre-Buddhist Japan: Shinto. Other symbols come from Daoism and China, including the turtle, the crane and the islands of the immortals.

My view is that it is pity to make either ‘Japanese gardens’ or ‘Zen gardens’ without the understandings of ideas and symbols which Kawaguchi provides. To state a tautology: the gardens of Zen temples are temple gardens.

japanese_zen_gardens_kawaguchi2

The landscape architecture of Maidan Nezalezhnosti = Independence Square Kiev

Independence Maidan Kiev

Independence Maidan Kiev

Asked by a communist dictator to design the central space in a capital city what should a landscape architect do?

  • go for the Baroque, as so many communist leaders did (left above)?
  • spend on bling, as was done in Kiev? (below)
  • keep the space clear, to facilitate future revolutions (right above)?

It was the ‘square’s’ name which made me wonder about the alternatives. ‘Maidan’, I assume, is a Persian word which, I guess, was brought to Kiev by the Tartars. They were a Turkic people and the Turks, as former nomads, learned much from the urban civilisation of Persia (just as the Persians, also formerly nomadic, learned from the urban civilisation of Mesopotamia). See photos of the Maidan in Isfahan – it was a space used for markets, games of polo and military displays. The present square dates from after the Tartar period and took its present form after the Second World War. In 1919 it was Soviet Square and in 1935 it became Kalinin Square. The present name came with independence in 1991. Please correct me if I am wrong but I think the bling (fountains, planters etc) appeared after the Orange Revolution of 2004. [Note: one can’t help wondering if the re-design proposal for Gezi Square is, in part, an idea for how to prevent public spaces being used by revolutionaries). If so, please could we know the designers’ names.
Should the Maidan be re-designed to take account of the latest revolution?
independence_square_kiev_maidan

Urkraine President's palace garden

President Viktor Yanukovych's garden

President Viktor Yanukovych’s garden

As always, we welcome the fall of a dictator (Yanukovych, today) and puzzle over their bad taste. It looks like narcotecture, (aka poppytecture). Does the world have a design school with a specialism in this type of work? What are its origins? Hitler’s architectural taste was better. Though the (Berghof) was grandified vernacular it did not dissolve into baroque terracing or a bastard-baroque garden. It might be an idea for every presidential aspirant to design a garden and let voters inspect their work before the election is held. Jefferson, Washington, Churchill and many Japanese princes were respectable garden designer. Yanukovych also had a Japanese garden, very badly. Presidential candidates with gardening experience would reveal their character and learn that without loving care their subjects will perish.
(Photo BBC)

A Landscape Manifesto, by Diana Balmori


Still working on a landscape architecture manifesto, I was pleased to find Diana Balmori’s book A Landscape Manifesto (Yale University Press, 2010). She comes across in the above video as a thoughtful and likeable person. I also support the principles of her manifesto (see below) while thinking they could be shorter and clearer – her drawings and design work are strong in these respects (see, for example, Balmori’s Garden Climbs the Steps in Bilbao). The word ‘manifesto’ derives from the Latin manifestum, meaning clear or conspicuous. It came into English during the seventeenth century and the practice of issuing art and design manifestos became widespread in the 20th century. Let’s hope landscape architecture manifestos become widespread in the 21st century. Heidi Hohmann and Joern Langhorst got us off to a good start in 2004, with Landscape architecture: an apocalyptic manifesto, though its strength is in making the case for manifestos.

25 points: Diana Balmori’s Landscape Architecture Manifesto

1. Nostalgia for the past and utopian dreams for the future prevent us from looking at our present.
2. Nature is the flow of change within which humans exist.  Evolution is its history. Ecology is our understanding of its present phase.
3.  All things in nature are constantly changing.  Landscape artists need to  design to allow for change, while seeking a new course that enhances the coexistence of humans with the rest of nature.
4.  Landscape forms encapsulate unseen assumptions. To expose them is to enter the economic and aesthetic struggles of our times.
5.  Historical precedents do not support the common prejudice that human intervention is always harmful to the rest of nature.
6.  Shifts are taking place before our eyes. Landscape artists and architects need to give them a name and make them visible.  Aesthetic expertise is needed to enable the transforming relations between humans and the rest of nature to break through into public spaces.
7.  High visibility, multiple alliances, and public support are critical to new landscape genres that portray our present.
8.  Landscape—through new landscapes—enters the city and modifies our way of being in it.
9.  New landscapes can become niches for species forced out of their original environment.
10. The new view of plants as groups of interrelated species modifying each other, rather than as separate and fixed, exemplifies fluidity—a main motif of landscape form.
11. Nostalgic images of nature are readily accepted, but they are like stage scenery for the wrong play.
12. In his History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (l780), Horace Walpole says William Kent “was the first to leap the fence and show that the whole of nature was a garden.” Today landscape “has leapt the fence” in the opposite direction, to the city, making it part of nature.
13. Existing urban spaces can be rescued from their current damaging interaction with nature.
14. Landscape artists can reveal the forces of nature underlying cities, creating a new urban identity from them.
15. Landscape can create meeting places where people can delight in unexpected forms  and spaces, inventing why and how they are to be appreciated.
16. A landscape, like a moment, never happens twice. This lack of fixity is landscape’s asset.
17.  We can heighten the desire for new interactions between humans and nature where it is least expected: in derelict spaces.
18. Emerging landscapes are becoming brand new actors on the political stage.
19. Landscape renders the city as constantly evolving in response to climate, geography, and history.
20. Landscape can show artistic intention without imposing a predetermined meaning.
21. Landscape can bridge the line between ourselves and other parts of nature—between ourselves and a river.
22. Landscape is becoming the main actor of the urban stage, not just a destination.
23. The edge between architecture and landscape can be porous.
24. Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive and open to multiple interpretations.
25. We must put the twenty-first century city in nature rather than put nature in the city. To put a city in nature will mean using engineered systems that function as those in nature and deriving form from them.

Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North and its landscape setting

The Angel of Death and the Angel of the North

The Angel of Death and the Angel of the North

Gormley is one of my favorite sculptors. I often wish he had taken a course in landscape design but, more often, I wish landscape architects had taken courses in sculpture. The Angel was finished 16 years ago today and the BBC has just played an ‘on this day’ clip of a speech he made at its opening. Gormley explained: ‘I want to convey what it is to be alive at the end of the twentieth century – its immense potential and immense danger’. For me, this encapsulates one of the big things artists should be doing: using images to ‘say’ something about the nature of life.
The above images are from Wikipedia. It has many images which show the sculpture looking good (eg right above) and very few showing it as most people see it from the road (eg left above). From the road is how I normally see it and my usual thought is ‘he should have made it higher’. But with the explanation I heard today I am not so sure. Were it higher, the sculpture would say more about ‘opportunities’ and less about ‘dangers’. Ambiguity is its own message – between the spirituality of an angel and the tragedy of a plane crash or a dying steel industry in the north of England.

MODERN art, design and landscape architecture

If this is NOT modern and NOT contemporary THEN what is it?

If this is NOT modern and NOT contemporary THEN what is it?


Having long argued that ‘Modern’ is obsolete as an adjective for the art and design of the twentieth century, I was interested to read today that ‘Modern’ (modernus) was used for the first time in the late fifth century in order to distinguish the present, which had become officially Christian, from the Roman past… the term ‘modern again and again expresses the consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new’. By ‘again and again’ the writer is thinking of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Walpole’s famous 1771 essay, for example, was ‘On modern gardening’. Thankfully, we have new names for the art and culture of times further past. But what other name to we have for the art, design and landscape architecture of the twentieth century? Since I was told recently that ‘Andy Warhol and many contemporary artists are dead’, I do not see Contemporary as a useful candidate.
Image courtesy icstefanescu

Sayes Court Historic Garden Restoration Proposal

Sayes CourtFrom the standpoint of design history and theory, Sayes Court was the most important English garden of the seventeenth century. I am therefore delighted to read in Building Design that something of its character may be recreated. But why appoint a firm of architects (David Kohn) to co-ordinate the project? OK, they have good garden designers and plantspeople on board – but if I wanted a design for a bridge I would not appoint a firm of architects as the lead consultants (at least not unless they were very particular fiends of mine). Here is an account of the team for Sayes Court: ‘DKA has been appointed by Lewisham Council to assist a Community Interest Company in Deptford develop ideas for a Centre for Urban Horticulture at historic Sayes Court, a World Monument Fund site. The project is in collaboration with Dan Pearson Studio, the National Trust and Eden Project. The commission follows DKA’s previous work in Deptford for Lewisham Council and the Mayor of London’. Who is the garden historian on the team? Who has made a study of how Baroque ideas came to influence English gardens? Who has read John Evelyn‘s Sylva with the expert knowledge to understand its import? Who brings the essential knowledge, which Evelyn had, of seventeenth century gardens in Italy and France? In the unlikely event that anything is more certain than death and taxation, it is that Lewisham Council lacks this expertise. Mark Laird should be invited to join the team.
See previous post on Sayes Court.

Flood protection bunds: the waffle method and the chickens coming home to roost

Catal_huyuk_somerset_levelsWhat goes around comes around. The top image is a reconstruction of one of the world’s oldest settlements, at Catal Huyuk in Turkey. Ancient Chinese cities were also protected from floods by high walls. The lower image (from yesterday’s Daily Mail) shows a builder’s determination to protect himself from the floods which have engulfed the Somerset Levels in 2014. See previous posts about the Waffle Method of protecting property from floods. This is what I would do if I lived in a flood-prone area: take my own flood-protection measures. I would of course have no objection to taxpayers building levees and digging channels to protect my property – but I would not trust their generosity. Here is another example of waffle-flood-protection in the flood plain of the Mississippi. Knowing that climate change is taking place, despite Prince Charles’ view of my stupidity, I would build the bund into the design of my garden rather than waiting until the flood waters crept up on my boundary. The bund would also protect the chickens-with-heads I would like to keep in my country garden. Since it would be protected against foxes I could let them enjoy a free-range lifestyle and roost in the trees in my country garden. One other thing: if I was a wealthy builder I would employ a garden designer for my private paradise in Somerset.