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BOOKS Seeking the poetic in everyday life

The Landscape Approach Bernard Lassus University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. 196pp. £30. (Distributor 01752 202301)

In an afterword to this volume, Stephen Bann argues that landscape - 'largely disregarded' by Modernist architects and planners - is now being seen again as a model of 'the multiple relations that bind us to the visible, and tangible, world'. How, he wonders, can we understand 'this complex affiliation' without help from the painter, the poet, and the historian? The choice of the French landscape theorist and architect, Bernard Lassus, is apt, then, in inaugurating this new series from the University of Pennsylvania, 'Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture', for there is something of all three - painter, poet and historian - in Lassus' approach.

Apparently the series will stress 'connections between theory and practice', which again makes Lassus a good choice, for he is very much a theoretician who at last had the chance to build. Early texts in this book, dating from the mid-1960s, reflect his background in the visual arts; later came unrealised proposals for, among others, a park in the New Town of L'Isle d'Abeau and for La Villette; while executed projects include a rest area on a motorway near Nimes and, most substantial, the Garden of Returns at Rochefort-sur-Mer (1982-now), where the River Charente meets the Atlantic.

In his writings, which are poetic and persuasive, Lassus often reminds us that landscape is 'a cultural reading . . . a construction of the mind', and that this reading changes over time; for instance, the mountains abhorred by one generation become tourist haunts for another. Physical qualities may be more or less fixed but not their meaning, from which Lassus makes an important inference: 'To suggest a landscape, it is not therefore always necessary . . . to plant a number of trees or to widen a river. To say, to show, to make understood, is to propose other readings without changing the constitution of the concrete space.'

Such reconceptualising (by just 'minimal intervention') is part of Lassus' strategy to give his landscape schemes the character of narratives, in which two elements are paramount - time and movement. As in his (unselected) design for the renovated Tuileries in Paris, Lassus likes to make historical layers explicit, to highlight developments over time. Meanwhile, the visitor's movement around his landscapes - a calculated sequence of events and allusions, with give-and-take between the tactile and (more distant) visual realms - is integral to their understanding. This could just be academic, but one of Lassus' strengths is to ground his theory in immediate, sensory reality. He writes of the importance that the sound of 'an unseen torrent' might have, or the scent of flowers hidden by undulating terrain; a series of his photographs records the play of light and shade on pine-tree trunks in a French forest, their bark fractured and lichenous.

So far, so beguiling - but what happens when Lassus' schemes leave the drawing-board? At the University of East London conference, 'Rethinking the Architecture/Landscape Relationship', in 1996, Marc Treib for one found some of the results too close to Disney and to kitsch. Photographic evidence in this book is inconclusive. At Istres a metal footbridge leads to twin arches of imitation stone straddling a four-lane highway; the arches have the stylised, artificial look of mountains in an early Renaissance painting while, down the length of the footbridge balustrade, colourful metalwork butterflies hover in a row of roundels. Whimsical or worse, perhaps - but popular; this footbridge is a favourite place for wedding photographs.

At which point it is worth noting that Lassus has studied sympathetically the ways in which people personalise their gardens with model figures, animals, buildings and the like. The results are often patronised and seen as kitsch, but to Lassus they are imaginative individual worlds that reveal 'the importance of the poetic in daily life'.

Of the built works included in The Landscape Approach, the Garden of Returns at Rochefort - renewing the town's relationship with its maritime past (and earning Rochefort a Grand Prix National in 1993) - looks especially worth studying. But the book can simply be seen as a repository of stimuli and ideas. Lassus seeks something other than the bland schemes we hurry through and past - a more replete landscape in which our senses, intellect and imagination are all brought into play.

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