Category Archives: Book reviews

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”.

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

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.