The Landscape Guide

Four landscape designs by Kathryn Gustafson

Kathryn Gustafson is one of the most admired landscape designers of her day and has completed a portfolio of work which, judging from, is of the highest quality. I visited four Gustafson schemes in 2004 and, reluctantly, came to the following conclusion: Gustafson is a fine sculptress but not yet a great landscape designer. Another way of putting this is that Kathryn Gustafson's designs have brilliant features but are not brilliant places. The three schemes in France were completed before the partnership with Neil Porter was formed. On the evidence of these four designs (& 4 photographs of each, below), going into partnership with an architect may have been a professional misjudgement - to the extent that his were not the complementary skills, in place-making, which she needed. See visiting notes at foot of this page and note on books and comment on Westergasfabriek. Tom Turner.

Diana Memorial Fountain, London

Designed as a memorial to Diana Princess of Wales, the fountain was opened in 2004. It was designed to be a place of tranquility, a loop of finely sculptured granite. Water enters at the highest point and flows in two directions, meeting at the lowest point, from which it is recycled. The arrangement is capable of many symbolic interpretations: the circle of life; two people joining, parting and coming together as they leave the world; the meaninglessness of endeavour; a moebius strip; life and death. Close-up the sculptural work is excellent; from afar, the fountain looks like a low concrete retaining wall.

Rights of Man Square, Evry

A polished marble channel is perched above the square. Water is intended to flow along its course but, as with so many water features, it is frequently non-operational. The channel bounds and ornaments the Rights of Man Square but is not integral to its design or determinant of its character.

Exxon Mobil HQ France

This is my favourite of the 4 schemes. It has the freshness of vegetation and the charm of flowing water. The curved seats beside the river are excellent. But the water depends on heavy applications of algicide to keep working, the humped mounds are very difficult to mow and the space is scarcely adapted to the recreational needs of office workers.

Shell Petroleum HQ, France

Given the high level of my expectations, this was the most disappointing of the four schemes. The main pedestrian scheme is extremely blank and open, a desert to be crossed before reaching the HQ building. The mounding looks far better in Gustafson's photographs (see the firm's website) than in our photographs. The grass is a nightmare to maintain and there are no concessions to sustainability or the social use of outdoor space. The stone clad walls are too like tomb stones for comfort.

Visiting notes for Kathryn Gustfason landscape designs:

(1) opening times for the Diana Fountain can be found on the Royal Parks website.

(2) The Rights of Man Square is about 500m east of Evry railway station, 40 mins south east of Paris. See Ville d'Evry though it does not boast about the Square.

(3) the Exxon Mobil HQ and the Shell HQ (now owned by Schneider Electrics) can be seen by taking the RER to Rueil Malmaison (about 30 mins north east of Paris). Walk from the station to the river, then walk east and turn inland to see the Schneider building. Both are secure corporate HQs but the landscape designs can be seen from the riverside walk (Exxon) or the street (Schneider).

(4) See also a comment Westergasfabriek Park in Amsterdam + Garden Finder note