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Going to plan

review - Garden History: Philosophy and Design 2000 BC - 2000 AD By Tom Turner. Spon Press, 2004. 240pp. £50

Tom Turner has set his sights high, with what appears at first to be a preposterously ambitious range of subject matter to contain in a book of this size - no less than the history of landscape gardening over four millennia.

The volume contains Turner's observations and notations accumulated during his long career as a teacher of landscape architecture and on his many travels.

In its unashamedly personal perspective, his book is refreshing, since most books aimed at a general readership are the outcome of the publishers' demand, as opposed to the author's inclinations - always with the marketing department as final arbiter. Book making, rather than publishing, has become the norm.

At the other end of this bookish landscape are the steep heights of academic publishing.

Turner is happily placed at neither extreme.

Inevitably, the demands of space and the immense time-span mean that Turner skates fast over the periods of European landscape design with which the reader is most familiar, but in return he introduces an immense swathe of examples and styles of gardening from less familiar regions and eras. This canter through 4,000 years of man's manipulation of earth, plant material and water - for pleasure rather than profit - turns out to be unfailingly enjoyable.

The arrangement of the book consists of a first chapter that bravely attempts to encapsulate garden-design philosophy over the period covered, followed by chapters giving a necessarily extremely brief historical account of each period, and sometimes an entire culture, with illustrations - many of which are unusual and almost all of which are the author's own.

Then follows a section of types and examples, given in plan form. Each of these is described in two columns, referring to 'use' and 'form'. First, principles and key examples are laid out, then, with the help of footnotes and bibliography, eager students are led on, should they wish to pursue a topic further.

Turner's simplification of complex ideas sets its own traps but the scheme, viewed as a whole, is a creditable attempt at the near impossible, bringing between the covers an astonishing breadth of material.

Turner's extensive use of plans, backed up with maps and diagrams, is the feature that distinguishes his book from the run of generalised garden-history volumes. He does not attempt to embark on a history of public landscape design, although there is mention of the Boston landscape plan of the 1890s, and a smattering of Olympic parks and high-profile urban open spaces. In this book, the landscape architect as professional and the civic or public authority as client are merely incidentals within Turner's coverage of 20th-century gardens.

In a brief postscript, Turner raises points for discussion. Ever the teacher, he lists some lessons, from the micro to the macro, that his observations on this long and distant journey might suggest for the future. From the ancients and the world of Classical antiquity, he believes the designer could learn to use the internal courtyard and the rooftop; from their successors comes the central example of architecture integrated in its immediate or wider landscape. He is a strong believer in the garden as a force for good, the begetter of everything from simple enjoyment to the wider moral order. And who could disagree?

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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