Cogent landscapes: new landscape design

Cogent landscapes: new landscape design

Sutherland Lyall


By Robert Holden. London: Laurence King, 2003. [pounds sterling]35.

If anyone asked you who currently is the most thoughtful commentator on landscape design in the UK you would almost certainly nominate Robert Holden. Now combining teaching postgraduate programmes at the University of Greenwich with working on landscape projects with consultants Cracknell Ferns, he has paid his dues in early stints with the big commercial practices and, since then, has engaged in some nice bold projects plus a lot of writing about landscape design in the UK and US technical press.

Age commonly hardens the arteries but Holden’s are in supple shape–as this survey of the best of recent international landscape design happily demonstrates. For people grimly hanging on to the simplistic flower-orientated English Garden tradition so popular with the current rash of television presenters and for Landscape Institute (LI) neo-vernacularists, Holden is dangerously catholic. He is not wedded to the invariability of planting, likes the idea of diversity, is happy with landscape jokes, he deals impartially with formalism and informalism. He has a (rather forlorn) hope that landscape designers might have developed some kind of underlying theory, is comfortable about non-LI people designing landscape and is passionate and inquisitive about the totality of landscape design.

In his introduction he says, ‘Many people may work on a project but unless theirs is a perceivable intellectual framework then it is unlikely to be of interest’. And this, ‘This book has kept away from the forms of corporate design that are the norm in Anglo-Saxon countries. British landscape architects work in offices; French landscape architects work in ateliers … There is an alarming tendency, certainly in some countries, to view [landscape design] as a profession first–in a narrow, exclusive and limiting sense–rather than as a uniquely liberating and all embracing activity.’ For ‘some countries’ you may as well read the UK although Holden later notes that he wrote a similar survey half a dozen years ago. This time, ‘the choice of British projects has been very encouraging compared with the dearth of them in 1996’.

So this is a sweeping survey of new, great landscape design around the Westernized world. The only schemes south of the equator are Australian. One is that exuberant, witty Garden of Australian Dreams in Canberra by Room 4.1.3. The other is a thoughtfully researched scheme for an aboriginal settlement which is more in tune with the Neo-Bush aesthetic prevailing among current Oz landscapists. Holden is aware of this northern bias but that’s how it has worked out with interesting landscapes in the last six years. There are, however, designs from Israel and Mexico and Japan, apart from the US and European designs. Designers include the endlessly inventive Martha Schwartz, her quondam teacher and partner Peter Walker, Richard Hargreaves, Dan Kiley, Michel Desvigne, Gustafson Porter, Battle McCarthy and Murase Associates.

The book is in that familiar format originally developed by Thames & Hudson: an introductory essay plus case studies in sections. In this case there are nearly 40 post-1995 landscapes in five ‘chapters’. As anyone who has written this kind of book will know, publishers feel that grouping the case studies into sections attaches gravitas to the text and, for want of a real reason, resort to citing the alleged demands of foreign rights negotiators. But the truth is, to use Holden’s words, ‘the categorisation of these projects is as much to do with serendipity as it is with definitive classification’. Laurence King book designer Mark Vernon Jones plainly has acute vision because he has decided on a light, condensed, sans serif face which, in the tiny point size he uses, is a real strain to read. That’s a serious disservice to the writer, who has cogent things to say. Needless to say, the pictures and the schemes are terrific and, even if you have to pay a visit to the opticians first, this is a book you must buy.

COPYRIGHT 2004 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group