The Landscape Guide

John Dixon Hunt Greater Perfection: the practice of garden theory   (Thames & Hudson: London 2000) [Review by Tom Turner, originally published in Building Design)
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We must thank John Dixon Hunt for having given the theory of garden design and landscape architecture perhaps its most serious treatment since Repton laid down his pen. The text is clear and the author has good design judgement. But he is a very knowledgeable man and readers lacking familiarity with the literature, in which group I  find myself, may have difficulty in following parts of the argument. It encompasses a vast literary terrain. I particularly recommend the first chapter, the last chapter and the fifth chapter (on 'Word and image in the garden'). The author is a literary critic, an art historian and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a landscape architect and garden historian, not unduly masochist, I  enjoyed Hunt's trenchant criticism of these subjects: 'though much has been written about the garden, none of it satisfies even the basic requirements of a theoretical position' (p7); 'gardens are arguably unique among the arts in this combination - only the dance and body painting otherwise come to mind as arts that actively involve a living, organic and changing component' (p9); 'the most sophisticated form of landscape architecture is garden art' (p10);  'landscape architecture, locked into a false historiography, is unable to understand the principles of its own practice as an art of place-making'; 'the lure of the bon mot. has made Walpole's arguments irresistible; their single-minded contribution to the distortion of landscape architecture history is truly amazing' (p209). The book is a treasure chest of interesting points and astute observations.

Hunt defines landscape architecture as exterior place-making (p1) and sees the garden as having a 'privileged position' within landscape architecture because gardens 'are concentrated or perfected forms of place-making'. The book title comes from Bacon's remark in an essay 'Of Gardens', that 'Men come to Build Stately, sooner than to Garden Finely: As if Gardening were the Greater Perfection'. Hunt suggests that gardens stand to landscape architecture as poetry stands to prose. The poet requires formal and creative skills, technical resources, linguistic invention, compactness and concentration. Poetry and gardens also share an uneasy relationship with tradition. The creative artist wants to draw upon and celebrate the past without being constrained by tradition.

Hunt proposes eight agenda items for future debate about the art of  place-making, which I will endeavour to reduce to eight sentences. We need to be clear that there are many sorts of place-making, just as there many sorts of writing between the shopping list and the sonnet. To rest the art on one leg, be it land art or ecology, is dangerous. There are factual and fictional issues, which can be clarified by learning more about how people respond to actual places. Place-making of high quality involves the conscious meeting and interchange of subject and object as viewer and viewed. Diverse ideas of place, ranging from the prosaic to the extremely poetic must be kept constantly in mind, lest design becomes a dull compromise. Places tell stories to those who will listen. Consulting the genius of the place will actively work against the worst enemy of fine design, homogenization. Landscape architecture re-presents forms and motifs from other natures, with gardens seen as a Third Nature (the First Nature is wilderness and the Second Nature is man-made countryside and town).

The curious reader might like to compare Hunt's eight agenda points with the 'Seven working principles' I published in chapter 14 of City as Landscape. There are points of similarity and, in my less-academic way, I have written on a few of the subjects treated by Hunt. From my perspective he makes two unexpected omissions. I wrote, in a chapter  on 'The blood of philosopher kings' about the influence of Plato's Theory of Forms, from which Neoplatonists derived the axiom that 'art should imitate nature'. If western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato, then one of them explains the history of art - and gardens would only need a toe-note. It might trace the first sense of 'nature' from Plato's theory, the second from man's employment of the forms and the third from the attempt to make perfect places on earth. My other surprise was Hunt's neglect of the three writers I regard as the foremost landscape theorists of the twentieth century: Patrick Geddes, Ian McHarg and Geoffrey Jellicoe. They defined the intellectual scope of the discipline, notwithstanding the theoretical issues on which Hunt so effectively fixes our gaze.