Category Archives: Book reviews

Mirei Shigemori and modern Japanese garden design

Christian Tschumi has written a very useful book on Mirei Shigemori – Rebel in the Garden – Modern Landscape Architecture (Birkhauser 2007) though it puzzles me why he does not see it as a book on garden design.

Mirei Shigemori (1896–1975) wanted Japanese gardens to be modern but he did not want them to be western, despite the fact that in admiration of the west he had named his children after Immanuel Kant, Victor Hugo, Johann Goethe, Herman Cohen,  and Lord Byron – an astonishing group.  I have often admired photographs of the Moss garden at Tofuku-ji (1939), as illustrated in the Wiki article on his work. But the designs illustrated by most of the photographs in Tschumi’s book do not reach this standard and another photograph of the same garden (image, right, courtesy I-Ta Tsai) makes this point: the design is too experimental; the scale is not well judged; the geometry is unsophisticated.

Shigemori  identified three possible approaches to Japanese garden design (1) pursuit of the classical style (2) using the best of classical and modern ideas (3) creating something completely new (modernism). These policies are discussed elsewhere on this website as Similarity, Identity and Difference (SID). I support them all!

Shigemori  was an artist and a scholar whose own approach, ‘(2)’ in the above list, was certainly context-sensitive. So what went wrong? I have not seen his work except in photographs but will hazard two guesses:

  • his adoption of a western design method (design-by-drawing) detached him from the intimate craftsmanship and immaculate judgment of scale which is crucial in Japanese gardens
  • his introduction of concrete to Japan was a complete mistake – the material is inherently at odds with the wabi-sabi aesthetic and ill-suited to the interpretation of nature on which the Japanese garden depends.

Multi-objective water conservation in India

A stepwell in India

Multi-objective design being more characteristic of traditional societies than modern ‘scientific’ societies, India has the best record in the design of structures related to water conservation. This step well, in Abhaneri, is a temple and a place of resort in hot weather – as well as a water tank and a place to wash. Such structures are found throughout the Indian subcontinent, though many were put out of use by British engineers who saw them as breeding grounds for the malarial mosquito. They are known as baolis or hauz, and many other names, in India and are often called stepwells in English because of the steps which give access to the water at whatever level. The design of step wells and ghats (steps to water) was fully integrated with other aspects of town design. Today, most of them are neglected and rubbish-filled. It is a pity – and too late to blame the imperialists.

I have been reading Amita Sinha’s book on Landscapes in India: forms and meanings (2006). An associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, she writes that ‘Rivers, mountains, seashores, and forest groves nurture the rich mythology of gods and goddesses. The association of pilgrimage centers with water can be clearly seen in the number of sacred spots that lie on riverbanks, at concluences, or on the coast. The devotees bathing in rivers on particularly auspicious days gather spiritual merit (punya) and are absolved of their sins. Along with mountains, water is one of the most important natural elements in Hindu mythology, and most sacres sites contain one or both of these elements. Many temples are along riverbanks; others have water in the form of lakes, ponds, or built tanks. Tanks are essential at any worship complex’. London has many, welcome, migrants from the Indian subcontinent and I wish their traditions were employed in the planning and design of the River Thames landscape. See review of London’s riverside landscape and riverside walks.

Design theory in architecture and landscape

The softness of lime mortar has allowed the doorway in an old garden wall to  be filled with respect to the bond pattern.

An email arrived today with the comment that ‘My primary interest is in design excellence (aesthetics) & I have been writing about how architecture is an art, and unlike other fine arts it is a practical art: a public art.’ But that ‘… because of the demands of sustainability there needs to be a way of re-thinking how we do architecture, privileging design. Central to this idea is that architecture is functional (modernist programme), sceniographic (post-modernist) and meaningful (post-postmodernist agenda)!?’

I agree that architecture and landscape architecture are applied arts. But in this, they do not differ from garment design, furniture design, etc. All should be functional and are best when they have high aesthetic quality. Sustainability considerations apply to each of these arts: if the world is running out of resources then we need to be more economical. This is, amongst other things, an argument for using lime mortar instead of cement mortar. Lime bonded brickwork and stonework can be disassembled, allowing design changes the the reuse of materials.

The public aspect of some applied arts raises other issues. The furniture in my home would seem to be entirely my own concern. But if I want to build a tall modern building in a medieval village then this becomes a matter of legitimate public concern. Ditto for the Martha Schwarz post-modern amhphitheatre in Castleford, especially because a bunch of idiots dipped their hands into the public purse to fund the park.

‘Meaning’ is another issue. A modernist approach to the Castleford Park would have been to discover what people wanted for the space and then make provision for their activities. The postmodern approach, as used by Schwarz, was to give the space a ‘meaning’. I do not know what words she used – could it have been to ‘echo a Roman approach to open space design, as exemplified by the Colisseum’ – but they must have been something inappropriate. A post-Postmodern approach to the Castleford park would have involved recognition of the multifarious interests of local people combined with intelligent design leadership. Beliefs shared between the public and the designer would have facilitated their combination. Flying in a US Design Queen might have worked in the context of shared beliefs.

Plant combinations and planting design

Bad advice on the beauty of gardens

Having long believed that good plant combinations are a key to successful planting design, I was pleased to get a copy of The Encyclopedia of planting combinations by Tony Lord and Andrew Lawson (Mitchell Beazley, 2005). They are both expert photographers and Tony Lord, who wrote the text, is a former Gardens Advisor to the UK National Trust. Unsurprisingly, the photographs are excellent – if not quite as excellent as one might have expected. Disappointingly, most of the text is about the individual plants. Since there are many books on individual plants, this could have been omitted. The plant descriptions are followed by remarks on plant combinations and, as one might expect from a pair of photographers, they have a good eye for line, colour and texture.

The most surprising thing about the book is the appalling standard of the introductory section on ‘The art of combining plants’. It reveals the author to have no understanding of garden design as a fine art and somewhat reminded me of books written in the 1920s. Take the opening statement as an example: ‘A garden’s beauty invariably comes from the plants that it contains, the way they work together, and the overall effect they produce’. Does this apply to the Alhambra, to Versailles, to the Taj Mahal or to Rousham? Of course not. A garden is a composition of five elements: landform, vegetation, structures, water and paving. If one element is strong and the other four are weak you will not have a truly great garden.

After this blinkered introduction, the first sentence is ‘Making a successful garden is a question of balancing what is already there with what is required of the plot’. But what IS ‘required of the plot’. The author does not say. The second section (p.13) opens with the sentence ‘Once any hard landscaping is in place, selection of the plants can begin’. Goodness gracious me! You should not employ a gardener when you want your central heating fixed – and you should not employ a horticulturalist when you want a design for your garden. Similarly, the UK National Trust should employ horticulturalists for horticultural advice and garden designers as gardens advisors.