Settings and Stray Paths: Writings on Landscapes and Gardens By Mark Treib.Routledge, 2005. 238pp.£24.99
After years in the doldrums, the UK landscape profession has been in better shape of late, thanks to practices like Gross Max. But anything which encourages this renaissance, and prompts architects and clients to enrich the landscape element of their projects, is welcome, and Marc Treib's book of essays does just that.
Treib is professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and a prolific author; the 12 essays here are just a sample of his writing during the past 25 years. He says that there are three keys to understanding landscape - the cultural, the environmental and the formal ('as in space and materials, rather than degree of formality') - and is happy to call himself a Modernist, looking to the past for lessons, not solutions, and preferring an 'economy of means'. He wants the pragmatic to become poetic, 'not by avoiding social and environmental conditions but by achieving more than rote peformance'.
Treib's essays move smoothly back and forth from analysis of specific schemes - Asplund and Lewerentz's Woodland Cemetery, earthworks by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, the mosscoated garden of Saiho-ji in Japan - to what's fundamental in our response to landscape.
An essay titled 'Traces Upon the Land' spells this out, as Treib - citing both Stonehenge and a clearing in the Tatra Mountains, a rectangle in the forest - suggests that a combination of the natural and man-made can create 'an aesthetic presence' greater than either in isolation.
Arguable, perhaps, but an argument worth having.
The central essay here is 'Must Landscapes Mean?', written in 1995 and taking stock of attempts in the previous decade or so to counter the ecological mantras of Ian McHarg with a new wish to make 'meaningful' forms. 'In neighbourhood playgrounds and suburban office parks, one began to encounter hills coiled with spiral paths, circles of broken stone and clusters of sacred groves, ' says Treib dryly.
Often the results had no more substance than the clip-on pediment of a Po-Mo building.
To this quest for instant significance, Treib opposes the idea of pleasure, of designing to satisfy our physical senses, and one expects him to supply some examples - but frustratingly the essay ends there. In a later piece, however, called 'The Content of Landscape' (2001), Treib both further analyses some limitations in contemporary design - pattern-based, photofriendly schemes, for instance - and discusses the work of three practitioners he admires:
George Hargreaves, Dieter Kienast and Georges Descombes. His discussion of Descombes' Voie Suisse, a 2km path above Lake Brunnen in Switzerland, is particularly convincing, conveying how the designer intensifies our experience of place.
Treib has a nice turn of phrase ('nature, like the casino, always wins') and there are no dense thickets of theory to penetrate. And while Routledge can make the most interesting book look dull, Treib's is almost attractive; it is certainly well worth reading.