Category Archives: Book reviews

Capability Brown in Kent – book review by Tom Turner

Capability Brown in Kent, published by the Kent Gardens Trust, is available from Amazon

Capability Brown in Kent, published by the Kent Gardens Trust, is available from Amazon

Congratulations to Kent Gardens Trust for producing a book on Lancelot Capability Brown’s work in Kent. Despite there being little of his work in Kent, the content is interesting and the book is very nicely produced. I particularly commend the editors for their use of plans. Far too many ‘garden history’ books make no use of plans. Instead, they use long descriptions of garden designs that are hard to read and must have been difficult to write. Using plans is so much better. They can be understood at a glance and they let the reader make comparisons between what the designer intended, shown on historical plans, and the present condition of the gardens. The present day plans in this book (by Liz Logan and Rowan Blaik) were done using OpenData from the Ordnance  Survey. It is great that the OS allows their data to be used in this way – I wish Google and Bing allowed satellite maps to be used in a similar fashion. There is much to be learned from air photography.

The gardens analysed in the book are:

  • Ingress
  • Leeds Abbey
  • Valence
  • Chilham Castle
  • North Cray Place

As the editors state, they were relatively small-scale projects. Yet ‘though they may not be amongst the most significant, but they do provide some highly valuable insights which help broaden our understanding of his work’. As a contribution to Brown scholarship, this book makes a most-welcome advance with its use of contours on plans. Brown had no effective way of representing landform on his own plans despite it being one of his main design considerations. This is one of the factors which make his own drawings both puzzling and disappointing.

It would be good if the detailed research in this book could be used to restore some of Brown’s Kentish planting.

The 1857 estate map shows a recognisably Brownian design, with the design concept much more intelligible when seen with the contours on the Kent Gardens Trust Map (right)

The 1857 estate map shows a recognisably Brownian design, with the design concept much more intelligible when seen with the contours on the Kent Gardens Trust Map (right)

Tim Richardson Oxford College Gardens – book review by Tom Turner

Oxford College Gardens

Oxford Colleges have plumped for the National Trust Style of Planting design (right) and are lucky to have excellent gardeners (left)

Tim Richardson  (Author), Andrew Lawson (Photographer) Oxford College Gardens  Frances Lincoln 2015 ISBN-13: 978-0711232181

Tim Richardson’s text is excellent.  Andrew Lawson’s photographs are excellent. Tim is the best informed and most readable of contemporary British garden historians. Andrew is a technically skilled photographer with artistic talent. Working together, they have given us a biography and portrait of Oxford’s colleges and their gardens.

Oxford College gardeners have done a great job too, century after century, and Tim does them justice. But from my standpoint they are too fashion conscious and too determined to make the college gardens look as though they belonged to the National Trust. Modern additions would be welcome but more historical traditions could have been conserved.

Plans of All Souls College Garden, Oxford

Plans of All Souls College Gardens. The new plan (left) has no information on planting design. But the 1598 plan (right) is rich in information.

I have three criticisms of the book. First, there is a lack of integration between the text and the illustrations.  Too many of the photographs were taken ‘in the garden’ rather than ‘of the garden’. They therefore fail to illustrate interesting points which the author has made.

A second criticism concerns the specially drawn plans. Plans are very welcome and I wish garden writers made more use of them. But this set of plans does not show the planting which everyone agrees to be a key feature of gardens – and many see as their defining feature. No trees, no shrubs, no hedges, no herbaceous plants. The plans only show buildings, water, paving and a green tone which might be grass. Future historians could have been very grateful for information about the planting design.

A third criticism is the lack of historical illustrations. There are a few – but there are far too few. Oxford is particularly rich in drawings, paintings, engravings and photographs. It would be great to see more of them. For example: p.35 refers to David Loggan’s engraving of Balliol. It is freely available on the web but it is not in the book; p.51 refers to Loggans drawing of Christ Church showing parterres.

One of its most enjoyable aspects is the balance between comment on the colleges and on their gardens. I knew little of the separate histories of the colleges and found that, as well as being of great interest, they helped me make sense of the gardens. Perhaps the title should have been Oxford Colleges and their gardens. A good map shows the locations of the colleges but there are no details of opening times.

Let me conclude by saying again: I really enjoyed reading the text and looking at the pictures.

Tivoli Companion,Tim Cawkwell – book review by Tom Turner

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell

Tim Cawkwell’s 78-page book Tivoli Companion is, scholarly, enjoyable and puzzling in equal measure. The puzzle, for a reviewer, is the intended audience. I guess I know more about Tivoli than most general readers but a good deal less than those with specialist knowledge of Italian garden history. So perhaps the guide was written for people like me. But, are there many other people like me with an in-between knowledge of Tivoli?
The title A Tivoli Companion is well-chosen, reminding one of Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome. The Introduction is explicit that ‘this is not a guidebook that will tell you where to stay and what to eat’ but also states that ‘Tivoli is a rich enough place to have its own guidebook’. So is it a ‘guidebook’? Not really. The contents page identifies the main section of the text as an ‘Essay’ and this is the truth of the matter. It is akin to an extended magazine article. About half the text is about Tivoli’s three famous gardens: Hadrian’s Villa, the Villa d’Este and the Parco Villa Gregoriana, with their history and character dealt with rather glancingly. The author’s photographs tell us more but not as much as they could have done with more consistent and informative captioning. The book has only one plan. Hand-drawn and with almost unreadable labelling. But the information is useful and interesting: ‘Tivoli and R. Ariene in 17th century showing channel dug under the town to the NE corner of Villa d’Este’.
Just possibly, the puzzling aspect of the Companion is explained by the information about the author on p.78. Most of his writing has been about cinema. His literary approach is filmic. I am pretty confident that Calkwell’s Companion is, to date, the most extensive discussion of Tivoli’s graffiti in the English language,

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2015)

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele, Priscilla Elliott – book review by Tom Turner

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele by Priscilla Elliott

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele by Priscilla Elliott


I opened this short book with some puzzlement, wondering why the author wrote it when a longer book had been published in 1989 and revised in 2003 (Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker’s Life, 1885-1971 Robin S. Karson). Elliott must surely have read Karson’s book but does not list it in her bibliography.
The explanation of Elliott’s approach lies in her title: her focuses is on the gardens Steele designed. They are explained with quotations from his letters and grainy old sepia photographs from the Library of Congress Archive.
Fletcher Steele’s career has parallels with that of Thomas Mawson (1861-1933). He was born 28 years after Mawson and the comparison is interesting. Both were strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and by its transformation into another Italian revival. In terms of design quality, the work of both men was less-inspired than the work of Jekyll and Lutyens. But in one respect Steel’s work is more interesting and important than Mawsons. Steele was interested in the modern world and keen to draw upon them. Mawson ridiculed the Art Nouveau style. Steele was attracted by the currents of Art Deco and Art Nouveau and interested in Abstract Art. This helped him achieve something Mawson never managed: a design classic – at Naumkeag – which Elliott sensibly illustrates on the cover of her book.
Though she lists and documents Steele’s gardens, Elliot is disappointingly quiet on stylistic issues and on Steele’s place in the histories of garden design and landscape architecture.
The Gardens of Fletcher Steele, American Landscape Architect by Piscilla Elliott (2014) is published by Guysborough Press 72 Cottage Street Melrose MA 02176

Great Gardens of London, Victoria Summerley – book review by Tom Turner

Good writing and good photography are real assets for garden books. Great Gardens of London was produced by a skilled investigative journalist working with two expert photographers. Victoria Summerley explains that the book is ‘aimed at residents and visitors alike’. Yes. But it is not particularly aimed at garden visitors. Or should I say ‘it is not aimea at all garden visitors’. The book’s first garden is that of the Prime Minister’s official London residence: 10 Downing Street. Doubtless it has been seen by many important visitors to London but I doubt if many travellers on omnibuses from Clapham are to be counted among their number.

Great Gardens of London by Victoria Summerley, Hugo Rittson Thomas, Marianne Majerus Frances Lincoln (2015) ISBN-10: 0711236119, ISBN-13: 978-0711236110

The book has a map and appendix with details of which gardens can be visited: 13 of the gardens are never open and 17 are open in various degrees. I did not know that Downing Street lets in a few visitors by ballot. Another appendix suggests more gardens to visit. 

America is said to have less of a class system but Winfield House, second in the book and the American ambassador’s London residence, is not part of the tourist circuit. No matter: the book is a great opportunity to see and read about these important gardens.

I don’t know whether to be pleased or sorry that PM Gordon Brown’s wife (Sarah) introduced raised vegetable beds to Downing Street. Good to think of the happy couple doing something useful with their time but I worry about how the beds fit into the garden aesthetically and about why they wanted the beds to be raised. Did they use railway sleepers? Raised beds are fashionable, and possibly a Tory idea, but my experience is that unless your ground is badly drained or polluted, or you want to avoid carrot fly, vegetables do better in unraised beds and need less watering. I’d like to know whether Downing Street harvests rainwater for its garden – or does it make unsustainable use of tap water? I was interested to read that Margaret Thatcher commissioned the Downing Street rose beds and that they contain a rose named after her. Great that it survived the dark age of Blair and Brown, much as the nearby statue of Charles I survived the Civil War. Do they use strips of iron to protect the adjoining lawn?

Sustainable gardening is high on the agenda for Winfield House. Even memos are composted. Just think how much Wikileaks trouble would have been avoided if the US had stuck to composting. Obama liked Winfield garden so much that he joked about wishing he had been Ambassador to London instead of President.

The gardens and parks in the book which are accessible to the public are well worth visiting, though most are flattered by the excellence of the photography. Eltham Palace Garden is an interesting place but, despite continued efforts by English Heritage, I find the quality of the gardens disappointing. Summerly sees Eltham as the product of ‘two dynasties’: the Tudors and the Courtaulds. But one does not sense their tastes in the design. It looks like a municipal park. English Heritage say the aim is restore Eltham to the style of the 1930s and they have used archive material to this end. Perhaps the problem is that the Art Deco style, which worked well for rebuilding Eltham Palace, was never resolved in English gardens. Fletcher Steele, as he showed at Naumkeag, could have done a much better job.

The garden of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill was ‘pretty dreadful’ before the Strawberry Hill Trust began a £9m restoration of the house and garden in 2009. Generally, I think individuals and trusts do a better job of this kind of work than bodies, like English Heritage, with national responsibilities. The Strawberry Hill Trustees have the wisdom to run a volunteer programme. Why don’t all publicly owned green spaces do this?

The next chapter is on Hampton Court, where much garden history research and restoration has been carried out. I am sorry that the book does not use historical drawings or plans but can understand that they might be thought unsuitable for a non-specialist readership.

Moving on, I was very pleased to find a chapter on the Downings Road Floating Gardens in Bermondsey. The wretched, unimaginative, blinkered bureaucrats of Southwark Council have been trying to get them removed for years. Their inclusion may help those who have long campaigned for their recognition and protection.

The book’s 30 gardens are categorised into five chapters. Some are unconvincing as groups. Chapter 4, on roof gardens, is a good group and a pleasure to discover. My dream is that London will become a Roof Garden City. This chapter shows what is possible. Most roof gardens are, understandably, not open to the public. But they are great places and, unlike most of the design styles represented in the book, they look contemporary. Jane Brown wrote of ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’. Much though I like them, that afternoon continues to linger on beyond its natural lifespan. What London needs is a wealth of roof gardens. Unlike many capital cities, including Washington, Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow, London has a climate which is very well suited to the enjoyment of roofs – providing they are well planned and well designed. I hope the second edition of Victoria Summerley’s Great Gardens of London will include the University of Greenwich Roof Garden in Stockwell Street. And if space can be found, I’d like to have more discussion of garden design styles.

Tom Turner

Great Garden Design by Ian Hodgson – review

Ian Hodgson Great Garden Design book jacket

Ian Hodgson Great Garden Design book jacket

The Society of Garden Designers has produced a very good book on garden design. I commend it to anyone commissioning a garden and to future historians of garden design.
The section I like best, on Outdoor Experiences, deserves to become a book in its own right. There are only four sections, on Relaxing, Dining, Playing and Bathing.  But there are subsections, so that Dining includes Cooking Outside, Keeping Livestock and Growing Your Own.
This approach to garden design comes, in the UK, from John Brookes. His Room Outside, first published in 1969, launched British garden design on its profression from the Arts and Crafts Style to Modernism. In his introduction to Great garden design Brookes draws attention to the way in which ‘this book breaks down the overall plan of a garden and deals with the various sections and functions it may include’.
A failure to grasp the key principle of Modernism hindered, and hinders, the development of garden design. ‘Form follows function’ is the most convenient summary of Modern Movement principles but caused problems for garden designers. ‘What’ they wondered, ‘are the functions of a garden?’ My criticism of Great garden design is a weakness in the history and theory of garden design.
After Brookes’ Forward and an Introduction by Ian Hodgeson (the author) there is a chapter on Contemporary Garden Styles. A section on Sourcing Inspiration is followed by a section on Choosing a Style – which struck me as a return to the high Victorian eclecticism of Edward Kemp and the Mixed Style. It is followed by a menu of styles. Their names are Contemporary Formal, Urban Chic, Cottage and Country Style, Natural Style, Water Gardens and Subtropical Style. This is a departure from Modernism but I would not call it Postmodern and nor do I think the categories will be of use to those future garden historians who come across this useful and very well-illustrated book.
Great Garden Design was published 5th March 2015 by Frances Lincoln www.franceslincoln.com.

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

Robert Holden and Jamie Liversedge Construction for Landscape Architecture – book review

Holden and Liversedge have produced the best book on landscape architecture construction. It is well written and well illustrated. More important, it is well conceived and based on the authors’ personal experience of design projects and construction sites. The authors describe their book as ‘an introductory text’. It is true that no prior knowledge is assumed but the scope of the book is not limited to introductory matters. Robert Holden is the leading European landscape architecture critic of his generation. The book contains much wisdom and sets a new standard for this type of book by combining:

  • technical principles
  • design judgment
  • knowledge of materials
  • sustainability considerations
  • weathering and life cycle considerations
  • examples of construction/site/weathering problems

The illustrations, which are excellent, include analytical hand-drawings, photographs of traditional details, modern details and sequential photographs showing stages in the construction process. I particularly commend the annotations on the drawings. Instead of giving near-useless data (eg “200mm layer of 10mm pea shingle”), the captions are explanatory (eg “filter media improves fast filtration”).
One aspect of the book deserves a sharp criticism: the front cover shows is ugly. It shows an inexplicable CAD drawing tinted in what a friend used to call “architects’ green”: an insipid vomity yellowish-green. WHY? Publishers need to be nice to authors: the age of the eBook is upon us and it will be as easy for authors to cut publishers out of the loop as it will be for recording artists to cut the record labels out of the loop. Authors are less dependent on the marketing skills of publishers than musicians. Authors may prefer receiving 70%+ of the cover price from Googlebooks to receiving the 10%+ ‘royalties’ currently on offer from traditional print publishers. One can’t be sure.
I look forward to future books on specific aspects of landscape construction and recommend giving priority to a book on the construction design for water and water features.
When I was a landscape student we only had one good book on landscape construction: Elizabeth Beazley’s Design and detail of the space between buildings, for which I retain an affection. It combined photographs of high-quality designs with over-detailed technical information. Since then, many landscape construction books have been published – most of them with too many specifics and too few explanatory principles. Here is a list:

• David Langdon Everest, Spons External Works and Landscape Price Book 2009
• Pitman, Phil External Works, Roads and Drainage: A Practitioner’s Guide Spon: 2001
• Stephen Bird External Works (ENDAT standard indexes) : annual
• Charles W. Harris and Nicholas T. Dines Time Saver Standards for Landscape Architecture: McGraw Hill: 1998
• Alan Blanc Landscape Construction and Detailing Batsford : 1996
• Black and Decker Complete guide to landscape construction : 60 Step-by-step Projects for Creating a Perfect Landscape Creative Publishing International: 2006
• J.William Thompson and Kim Sorvig Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide to Green Building Outdoors Island Press: 2008
• James Blake Introduction to Landscape Design and Construction Gower: 1999
• Derek Lovejoy, C.A. Fortlage,Elizabeth Phillips, Landscape Construction: Earth and Water Retaining Structures Ashgate:2001
• David Sauter Landscape Construction 2e Delmar Learning: 2004
• Harlow C Landphair and Fred Klatt Jr Landscape Architecture Construction Prentice Hall: 1998

Recent Waterscapes by Herbert Dreiseitl – book review

Lewis Mumford, in his introduction to Ian McHarg‘s Design with Nature, wrote that ‘It is in this mixture of scientific insight and constructive environmental design, that this book makes its unique contribution’. It was a perceptive remark and I would like to pay a similar comment to the books which Herbert Dreiseitl has published with the title Waterscapes: Herbert Dreiseitl combines scientific insight with an ethical concern for sustainability and an enthusiasm for artistic creation. See Herbert Dreiseitl biography & cv. Waterscapes is already on our list of 100 best books on landscape architecture and in 2009 Dreiseitl published Recent Waterscapes.
Dreiseitl has the scientific insight to understand the water cycle and the negative impacts upon it from poorly conceived urbanisation. He also practices constructive environmental design and he makes a unique contribution. Landscape architecture would be a far stronger profession if more designers were able, simultaneously, to make the world more sustainable and more beautiful. But is it art? and, indeed, What is art? Leo Tolstoy asked this question and, in the Wiki summary: ‘According to Tolstoy, art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, one that “infects” the viewer.’ The Wiki entry on Art, begins as follows: ‘Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings.’ I think Dreiseitl passes these tests but I also remember Tracey Emin‘s declaration that one of her works was art ‘because I say it is art’. Dreiseitl could pass this test – and I think he should have a go at it, with a better explanation than Emin. He could say that he has analysed the nature of the world’s watery aspect and found a way of expressing his view in a 3-dimensional and visually dramatic way which depends upon the exercise of hard-won skills. His water sculptures are made in a studio at a 1:1 scale and then cut in granite. Similarly, Rodin worked in clay and had his sculptures cut in marble or cast in bronze. Rodin’s interest was sex; Drieseitl’s is also concerned with the future of life on earth. But my account of his work will not do: Dreiseitl needs to pen an account of ‘why I am an artist’ – and he should exhibit sculptural work in galleries so that it appears in catalogues and passes the commercial test for a work of art.
My favourite projects from Herbert Dreiseitl’s Recent Waterscapes, from left to right, below are:
The Nuremberg Prisma, Hannoversch Munden, Town Square in Gummersbach, Tanner Springs Park in Portland,

There is one problem with Dreiseitl’s projects: the vegetation is often managed on a habitat-creation basis and this tends to look ragged in the early years. In the fullness of time, they may well become beautiful semi-natural habitats. But one wonders if there is a way of making them more beautiful in the early years. The example below is a rainwater retention scheme on the Kronsberg in Hanover, Germany.

The Renaissance Garden in England by Sir Roy Strong – book review

Covers of the 1979 and 1998 copies of The Renaissance Garden in England by Sir Roy Strong

Covers of the 1979 and 1998 copies of The Renaissance Garden in England by Sir Roy Strong

I have been slow to review this book – the hardback (left) was published in 1979. The paperback (right) was published in 1998 with a statement from the author that ‘I intend to rework the whole subject, incorporating all that has happened in the last twenty years’. So my comments may be of use to the author.
(1) Put dates on the front cover
The present title may be compared to a book on The Great War in which you have to read half the first chapter to discover that it is really a book on The Great War 1914-16. Strong writes on page 13: ‘In this book I am only going to take one period and one thread. The period stretches from the accession of Henry VIII (1509) to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and the thread is the evolution, design and meaning of the palace and the great garden’.
(2) Revise the book to include the century from until 1642-1742 (or more)
This is when Renaissance ideas had most influence on English gardens – as shown by Kip and Knyff’s topographic drawings. One could be disappointed in a book on The Second World War which only covered the period from September 1939 to the fall of France on 22 June 1940. As Kip and Knyff show in Britannia Illustrata, English gardens in 1707 were much more ‘Renaissance’ than ‘Baroque’. They had aignificant ‘Baroque’ aspect but it was never dominant. The avenues in the Kip and Kynff drawings half-hearted additions to fundamentally High Renaissance plans.
(3) Prefer the cover of the paperback edition, despite its parenticidal cropping (see the original)
As Roy Strong notes, on page 211, the garden of Packwood House (as used on the cover of the 1979 hardback edition) is ‘long famous as a garden planted in the 1660s, it was in fact, a mid-Victorian re-creation’. Apart from the question of it being a highly dubious ‘re-creation’, even the original is outside Roy Strong’s period

(4) Remove the book’s silly dedication
It reads ‘IN MEMORY OF ALL THOSE GARDENS DESTROYED BY CAPABILITY BROWN AND HIS SUCCESSORS’. The most significant Renaissance gardens discussed by Roy Strong are Hampton Court, Whitehall, Nonsuch, Kenilworth, Theobalds, Wollaton, Wimbledon, Richmond. Hatfield, Ham House, Worcester Lodge, Dowsby, Northampton House, Twickenham, Chastleton House, Gorehambury, Moor Park Herts, Wilton, Arundel House, Danvers House. A little historical investigation, aided by a pocket calculator, could reveal that >10% of these gardens fell victim to the landscape movement.

What is landscape urbanism?

Charles Waldheim Landscape urbanism reader

Charles Waldheim's Landscape urbanism reader

[See notes on Urban design and landscape urbanism]

London’s Architectural Association has picked up the term landscape urbanism and come near to draining it of meaning. The programme’s ‘rationale’ states that landscape urbanism is understood as ‘a model of connective, scalar and temporal operations through with the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is diagrammed as a landscape; a complex and processual ecology’. In social science, ‘processual’ means ‘of or relating to a process, especially to the methodological study of processes’. In physics ‘A scalar is a quantity with a magnitude but no direction’. So I would describe the above ‘rationale’ as profoundly vague.
Wikipedia defines landscape urbanism as ‘a theory of urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience’. This definition comes from The landscape urbanism reader edited by Charles Waldheim (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Waldheim associates the term landscape urbanism with James Corner’s essay Terra Fluxus. Corner, in turn, associates the term with a conference organized by Waldheim in 1997. But Corner’s essay, unlike the AA statement, is cogent and useful and has a simple underlying message: buildings and landscapes must be considered together, planned together and designed together (my phrasing). They comprise a ‘field’ on which we operate. Corner works with an architect (Stan Alan) and their firm has the name Field Operations. Corner’s essay allows one to understand what the AA means by processual. City planning should rest on an understanding of the ecological and social processes which underpin Ian McHarg’s Design with nature approach. The term Terra Fluxus is therefore a contrast with Terra Firma: the world is not firm – it is a flux (as Heraclitus observed). I commend James Corner for his clarity and abhor the AA’s obfuscation of the term.

For more discussion see Jason King’s landscape + urbanism blog. It is an important debate and I have provisionally added Charles Waldheim’s reader to the list of 100 Best Books on landscape architecture.

See also: the definition of landscape urbanism

Kerb – is landscape architecture dead? – a magazine review

RMIT University in Australia publish the annual publication Kerb and Vol 17 asks the question ‘Is landscape architecture dead?’. It is a good question and a handsome volume with interesting illustrations. But most of the articles in Kerb led me to think that ‘if this is the future of landscape architecture, then it deserves to die’. The images do not have either captions or any discernable relationship with the text. Most of the 26 articles are inconsequential: significant questions are asked; random assertions are made; obscure paragraphs abound eg1 ‘Contemporary landscape architecture has not produced an aesthetic paradigm that describes the vicissitudes surrounding the idea of nature today’ (p 10),  eg2 ‘landscape is not an object. yet this image of landscape is projected upon the world with each project you undertake’ (p.73)  eg3 ‘interpret ‘scape as meaning ‘pretty dress up’. Dig up a Chinese creek bed, polish the booty, and dress up my ‘scape outside the screen door’ (p.92). But I must be wrong: many young Australian landscape architects come to work in London and they have earned a good reputation for Australia’s landscape schools.


Helena Atlee Italian Gardens – book review

The illustrations are excellent but the text is disappointing. Italian gardens suggests a book about the gardens of Italy but as the subtitle – a cultural history reveals it is not a book about garden design.  Design is mentioned but it is not treated systematically. Chapter 2, on Medici gardeners 1518-1550 opens as follows ‘The desire to make gardens is like a hereditary disease’. While not objecting to wit, I do not see this as a useful explanation of  how one of history’s greatest gardening families acquired its passion for gardens. Nor does Atlee give any account of Italy’s Roman gardens, as the title would lead one to expect. A newcomer to the subject might think the first gardens ever made in Italy date from the fourteenth century. Atlee is the author of several travel guides to Italian gardens and this book is more akin to a guide book than a history book.

The cultural history of gardens is an interesting topic but I do not see why it should be detached from the design history of  ‘how and why gardens took their present form’ (see comment on John Dixon Hunt’s use of the term cultural history). One could write cultural histories of furniture, or milk bottles, but they would not serve as  substitutes for design history. So why separate the two approaches to history? My impression is that cultural historians have less appreciation of design than design historians have of culture. They tend to be ‘words people’ instead of ‘word and image’ people – and they don’t seem very good at reading plans. My recommendation to someone taking up garden history is to begin by measuring, drawing, photographing and writing about a single historic garden, including an account of  the cultural context in which it was formed. From the other end of the telescope, I believe designers should have a broad appreciation of the cultural,  technical and artistic context in which they are working.


Set for a King – 200 years of gardening at the Royal Pavilion Brighton – book review

Humphry Repton's design for the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion surives and could be an influence on the layout of the gardens

Humphry Repton's design for the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion surives and could be an influence on the layout of the gardens

Written by Mike Jones and published in 2005, this is a beautifully produced book on the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Jones was head of Conservation and Design in Brighton and has contributed a remarkable set of flower paintings to the book. It gives a full account of the original project and of the restoration project. One could hardly ask for more but, for me, the project raises a question: was the decision to restore the Nash garden design right? John Nash designed the garden but his ‘inspiration’ undoubtedly came from his former partner, Humphry Repton. Repton published a full account of his own garden design ideas and they were much better than Nash’s scheme. So isn’t there a case for implementing Humphry Repton’s design?

A Cultural History of Italian Gardens by John Dixon Hunt – book review

John Dixon Hunt The Italian Garden

John Dixon Hunt The Italian Garden

John Dixon Hunt edited a book on The Italian Garden: art, design and culture (Cambridge University Press, 1996). He is now working with Michael Leslie on a six volume  Cultural History of Gardens (scheduled to be published by Berg Publishers in 2011): The blurb  states that “Michael Leslie is Professor of English at Rhodes College. He was founding co-editor of the Journal of Garden History (now Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes – SHGDL) and Senior Fellow in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks (Harvard). John Dixon Hunt is Professor of Landscape Architecture at University of Pennsylvania. He was previously Director of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks and is editor of the journal, SHGDL and series editor of the Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture.”

The book on Italian Garden indicates what is meant by the term ‘cultural history’ .  It is the work of  ‘a distinguished group of Italian, American, English and German scholars, with different backgrounds in art history, literature, architecture, planning and cultural history’. I appreciate the study of every aspect of gardens but am most interested in the questions of how and why they were designed, which appears not to be a significant aspect of ‘cultural history’.

The 1996 Italian Garden Chapter of most interest to me is D R Edward Wright’s ‘Some Medici gardens of the Florentine Renaissance: an essay in post-aesthetic interpretation’. He concentrates on the social use of gardens, a topic of much concern to designers but often neglected by garden historians. Wright comments that it is ‘as if human use of planned environments was a mere afterthought to an essentially artistic endeavour’. He distinguishes between the high society uses of the Boboli Garden, the relatively pastoral use of the Villa Castello – as a health resort, and the use of Pratolino as a hunting park. I hope the projected Cultural History of Gardens has more chapters like this and fewer literary canapes than Italian Garden.

Anne Whiston Spirn and the language of landscape

Colin suggested adding Anne Whiston Spirn’s book on The language of landscape to the list of 100 Best Books on Landscape Architecture and I said I would re-read it. It is a good book, and as a commentary on a host of landscapes, it is inspirational. As a text on the theory of design, it is disappointing. The introduction (p.3) explains that ‘I was determined to write an entire book about the poetics of city and nature, one that would fuse function, feeling, and meaning’. But the word ‘poetics’ does not appear in the index and is not adequately explained in the text (though there is a reference to Aristotle but on urban planning). Wikipedia states that ‘Poetics refers generally to the theory of literary discourse and specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of “theory” itself’. Spirn apparently uses poetics as a synonym for ‘theory’. But her book’s strength is in its observation and analysis, not its theory. She uses language and linguistic structure as analogies but (p.4) ‘places are my primary data’. Wikipedia also tells us that ‘A language is a system for encoding and decoding information’ with ‘The concept of information closely related to notions of constraint, communication, control, data, form, instruction, knowledge, meaning, mental stimulus, pattern, perception, and representation’. While not disputing the relevance of Spirn’s analogy, I believe it needs a great deal more theoretical analysis than it receives in her book. But thank you for the suggestion, Colin: I have put it on the list because far too few people give theoretical attention to landscape architecture.



Hundred best books on landscape architecture

We have begun updating the list of 100 Best Books on Landscape Architecture and would be pleased to have suggestions for additions – since it has does not yet have 100 books. There are overlaps with garden design, urban design, architecture and planning. For the convenience of second hand book buyers we have added links to the Abebooks website (from which books can be ordered and delivered to any country). What are your favourite books?

Historic garden conservation and restoration

Richmond Castle garden

Richmond Castle garden

A summer of visiting English gardens and today’s visit to Restoration House and Garden in Rochester set me thinking about historic gardens – and reminded me to take a closer look at the 2007 English Heritage Handbook on The management and maintenance of historic parks, gardens and landscapes. It is an admirable book, well written and illustrated, but it is not the book which historic gardens most needed, because the emphasis is so much more on the technicalities of managing historic gardens than on the the strategic questions of what, why, when and where. To draw a military analogy, it is a book for quarter-masters – not a book on generalship. Also, and understandably, it offers only praise for the work of English Heritage on historic gardens. There is no clearer illustration of this point than the chart (p.47) of Job Titles and Garden Staff Roles. The highest position on the chart is Head Gardener/Garden Curator/Garden Manager and his/her qualifications are described as “M.Hort (RHS), Degree, Botanic Garden Diploma, HND or equivalents + 7 years experience’. The next column summarizes the necessary skills as ‘specialist technical skills and ability. Proven management and policy-making ability’. There is no mention of the two other essential skill-sets for managing a historic garden: historical knowledge and design judgment. It is like putting builders in charge of historic buildings, in full disregard for the need for historical knowledge and design judgment relating to architecture. Lets hope the book goes to a second edition and that this gap is filled. Meantime, we offer readers the Gardenvisit.com notes and guides to Historic Garden Restoration and and Garden Heritage Conservation.

English Heritage’s strategic weakness in garden conservation is illustrated by their work at Hampton Court and Kenilworth Castle. The handbook boasts of English Heritage’s Contemporary Heritage Garden Scheme – which I regard as almost entirely misconceived. ‘Contemporary Heritage’ is within an ace of an oxymoron – and why should they be building contemporary gardens in the precincts of great historic buildings, like Richmond Castle? To attract visitors? To give proof of their trendy tendencies? The scheme should go for scrappage.

Photo Notes: (1) the top photo shows Richmond Castle with a ‘contemporary heritage’ topiary garden (left photo) and a sensible picture of a fifteenth century orchard-vegetable garden on the English Heritage sign (top left corner of right photo) (2) the left and right photos, below, show two additional views of the ‘contemporary heritage’ garden.

The lawn (right) and the herbaceous border (left) at Richmond Castle Garden

The lawn (right) and the herbaceous border (left) at Richmond Castle Garden

Stonehenge theories revisited


 

Stonehenge Sunrise June 22nd 2009

Stonehenge Sunrise June 22nd 2009

The paperback version of Rosemary Hill’s Stonehenge has just come out. In this witty and erudite volume she unpicks the various theories of the purpose of the stones and shows how they “say more about the theorists and their time than the place itself”. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1861978804/ref=sib_rdr_dp

Like Pevsner and among many others I have shared Tom’s disappointment in visiting Stonehenge in the middle of the day with a thousand other tourists, and have done the same visit only once since we were no longer allowed to have picnics on the sacrificial stone.  And no one can tell me that it is not indeed a sacrificial stone, since my own time and place meant I was brought up with the romantic view of Stonehenge as described by Clive King’s immortal ‘Stig of the Dump’. In it the time-misplaced caveman Stig who lives in a chalk pit, leads our adventurous hero out of his long summer holidays and back in time to witness Stonehenge one Midsummer’s Eve. The sense of time and timelessness of the stones are ingrained via the experience of childhood.

It is in the moonlight or early morning that the stones look at their most magical, or in the drama of a storm as portrayed by Turner. One must go out of hours. The only way to visit Stonehenge in my view is then to keep your romantic beliefs, and in the current layout to keep your distance. One must see it without the crowds; the coaches and concessions; barbed wire and information panels – (the latter soon to be redone by English Heritage’s ‘intellectual access scheme’ which apparently involves rewriting all information so that it can be understood by someone with the reading age of ten.)

One of the best views of the Stones and the settings is from the footpaths behind Countess Farm, on the Amesbury roundabout. Walking up behind the Kings Barrows and looking out along the Avenue you get the sense of scale and grandeur which makes the whole plain feel like a cathedral nave with the stone circle as the trancept. One of the fairly recent proposals was to have the visitor centre at Countess Farm, with pedestrian access to the stones from there. This would be a brilliant way of regaining the atmosphere of the place, with the half mile walk allowing the time and space to feel the sense of place. The cars and coaches would be out of the view too. We would then just need to get rid of the barbed wire.

At the poet and philosopher John Michell’s memorial service last month was read this poem:

How Lord Montagu Gave Stonehenge to the Freemasons

By John Michell, Midsummer 1988

WHEN philanthropic Mr Chubb gave Stonehenge to the Nation

(He’d bought it just before he made this generous donation)

He laid down two conditions: public access as of right

And nothing to be built nearby to mar the sacred site.


The answer to these clauses form the government Trustees

Was ‘Bother Mr Chubb, we’ll do exactly as we please.

A few more buildings round Stonehenge aren’t really going to spoil it,

Beginning with a carpark and a gents’ and ladies’ toilet.


The Commissioners of Works who were the first administrators

Were succeeded by another bureaucratic apparatus

Entitled ‘English Heritage’, and what these people do

Is bugger up historic sites; their head’s Lord Montagu.


They made a fence of steel and wire which everyone bemoans

And dug a concrete tunnel from the carpark to the stones.

No one is permitted now to walk inside the ring

You’re kept behind some ropes so you can hardly see a thing.


There used to be a festival to greet the summer sun

And people would assemble there as they had always done.

In 1985 we saw the end of that tradition

Lord Montagu decided on its total abolition.


But ever since he ordered that the festival should cease

Stonehenge has been surrounded by an army of police,

And if you try to join them they get terribly excited

And tell you that it’s private and you haven’t been invited.


Now, I’m not the sort of person who’ll impetuously hasten

To spread the word that every single policeman’s a Freemason,

But many of them are you know, and here’s the subtle dodge;

Stonehenge has now been proved to be an old Masonic Lodge.


The person who revealed this – and he certainly should know-

Is Mr Russell Herner of the Grand Lodge, Ohio.

His book about Stonehenge says it was built for all eternity

To house the Master Mason and the rest of his fraternity.


So when upon the longest day, St John the Baptist’s Feast,

You see a group around Stonehenge who gaze towards the East,

They’re not just simple coppers spoiling other people’s fun,

They’re members of the brotherhood out worshipping the sun.

Perhaps there was a senior officer at the memorial, for we learn this week that all pagan police officers are to be given time off to celebrate the Summer Solstice. And all witches in the force are to be given Halloween for religious parity. Who will police the solstice then?


Soho House and Gardens in Birmingham

matthew_boulton_house_birminghamMatthew Boulton was a notable  industrialist, James Watt’s partner and the designer of his own ‘landscape garden’, between 1761 and 1809.  It was a key period between the classicism of the eighteenth century and the eclecticism of the nineteenth century. Boulton took an interest in many of the arts and sciences of his time. His approach was summarized in verse:


Nor Knight, nor Price nor Burke sublime
I ape in landscape nor in Rhyme



These lines define Boulton’s garden horizons: he was influenced by the Brownian approach; he was not willing to adopt a fashionably picturesque approach; he had a fondness for follies and a fondness for flowers. But, judging from  plans and paintings,  he lacked design talent.  The garden has been carefully and usefully researched by three authors [Phillada Ballard, Val Loggie, Shena Mason: A lost landscape – Matthew Boulton’s gardens at Soho (Phillimore & Co, Chichester, 2009 ISBN978-1-86077-563-5)]. Their work is good but it is a pity they did not invite a fourth contributor: the book lacks the specialist perspective of a garden historian.  It lacks a stylistic oversight of the period in which the garden was made.  Brown died in 1783. Repton’s career began in 1788 and reached its first peak in 1794. Boulton’s work casts a fascinating light on the ‘gap’ between the famous designers – but the authors seem unaware of their subject’s wider significance. This will not matter to those with a broad kowledge of the period but it could limit the popularity of the book. Another source of regret, for me, is that the conjectural plans of Matthew Boulton’s garden in 1794 and 1809 are casual sketch plans. It they had been drawn with more care they would have been more useful.  The book should have been a study in the early development of the picturesque. But I recommend the book to local historians and to specialist garden libraries.  Boulton’s house has become a museum and the authors have undertaken a botanically interesting garden re-creation.

Image courtesy jo-h