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Enlightened attitudes

REVIEW: LANDSCAPE BOOKS - Changes in Scenery: Contemporary Landscape Architecture in Europe By Thies Schroder. Birkhauser, 2001. 184pp. £42

A quick flick through this book might suggest it is little more than another compilation to celebrate what Christophe Girot in the foreword calls the 'quiet revolution in landscape architecture'. Fourteen practices are discussed in mini-monographs of 10-14 pages, grouped either side of an essay entitled 'Codes of Complexity'. The selection contains some of the usual suspects, such as West 8 and Desvigne and Dalnoky (the latter regular collaborators with Foster and Rogers), and several less familiar names.

Happily, the compilation is bound together by a visual and verbal argument calculated to delight Europhiles and provoke others. On the one hand, says Schroder, a European 'school of landscape thinking and design' is emerging, grounded in the Enlightenment understanding of nature as culture. Its formal language is Modernist and the shared aesthetic values are being steadily reinforced by common educational aims, professional practices, publications and competitions.

On the other hand, in the spirit of 'subsidiarity', as it were, the landscape architect is becoming the prime 'builder of local identity' to whom the greatest cultural potential, for all that is common lies not in unification but in regional polarisation.

The 'quick flick' readily confirms the shared culture. Abstraction fit to grace the heroic period is dominant, sharpened by derivations from Minimalism and Land Art.

To what extent this is due simply to careful selection or genuinely representative of a large-scale trend is not argued - and the fact that work by leading American practitioners, such as Peter Walker and George Hargreaves, could fit in seamlessly does raise the question of how specifically European it is.

The case for the emergence of distinctive local identities is less persuasively illustrated.

The Austrians Langenback and Ivancsis, for example, are said to have 'a design approach that is entirely their own', yet several photographs struck me as almost interchangeable with, say, Kathryn Gustafson's work. To what extent this lies in the designs or in their representation is hard to say - landscapes are known to be fiendishly difficult to illustrate.

The acclaimed 'fractal landscape' of Barcelona's New Botanic Garden by Bet Figueras, terraced with folding triangular planes of Cor-ten steel, clearly exhibits the exuberance associated with the city - but does that make the minimalism of Battle y Roig, typical of the post-Franco cultural explosion, any less authentically rooted?

As with the EU, we Brits can only feel somewhat marginal to this impressive Euroaction. The ubiquitous Gross. Max. is our only representative, and the informalities of the English landscape garden and its derivatives have been all but banished. Given a day or two to acclimatise, the great Le Notre would surely feel at home prospecting the crisp lines of gabion walls and steel-edged terraces of Buro Keifer, wandering among the elegant, bedded-out parterres of Guido Hager's Swiss gardens or strolling the straight-as-a-die paths through Desvigne and Dalnoky's memorable and muchimitated groves of bolted birches in the Rue de Meaux housing in Paris.

There is much more to admire here: Ilex's bold attacks on urban peripheries; the refined details of Stig Andersson; Peter Latz's masterly transformations of disused industrial sites; the artful artificialities of Cornelia Muller and Jan Wehberg of Lutzow 7;

Agence Ter's image-making; West 8's stormy profusion of ideas.

We have depressingly little that can compete, although, as younger British designers engage with the emerging pan-European consensus, that is certainly changing. But for all there is to envy, some on this side of the Channel will, I suspect, remain as uneasy with the latest manifestations of the tradition of forcer la nature as, in their day, were William Kent and 'Capability' Brown.

Can we still take courage from the thought that their discontent changed the world?

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