Category Archives: Book reviews

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.


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.