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Life on earth

Landscrapers: Building with the Land By Aaron Betsky. Thames & Hudson, 2002. 191pp. £29.95

Future Systems' half-buried house of 1998, located on the cliffs of the Pembrokeshire National Park, begins this book and illustrates what is good and bad about such compilations. Betsky gives us five impressive photographs of this house, but no plan, and he does not tell us it is in a National Park in Pembrokeshire.He is dependent on what the designers give him.

This is a survey of buildings and constructions relating to the land selected by Betsky, now head of the Rotterdam-based Netherlands Architecture Institute.

There are a couple of parks and three unbuilt schemes, but they are mainly completed buildings. An American architect turned museum curator, Betsky is ex-Yale, exFrank Gehry's office, ex-San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an author and frequent competition judge.

So this is an interesting exercise of Betsky's taste, which is half-American and half-European (he was brought up in Holland), on the theme of landscape, ground, and buildings. The book is organised under four headings: 'Engineered Utopias', which covers engineering the earth; 'Caves'; the idea of 'Unfolding'; and a fairly monumental set of schemes classed as 'New Nature', which is a merging of nature and architecture. There are introductory essays for each of these four categories, and then a couple of pages of pictures of each of 56 projects (sometimes with a plan).

The result is a fascinating and provocative survey of mainly European and North American schemes: fairly hard-edged, sometimes quite heroic, often expressionist in character. This is architecture with balls (remember Betsky wrote Building Sex).

Betsky argues that since Roman times architects have denied the land, endeavouring to mask it - and this marks our sin. The architecture of castles, temples, palaces, churches and libraries was, to Betsky, a defensive act; whether against attack or against the climate. In consequence, Western architecture has never been at one with nature. But with the end of the millennium, guilt has set in, and there is a counter-movement, embracing and working with the land, which is the theme of his book. This is tosh. Betsky is seduced by a freewheeling rhetoric and generalises ad absurdum.

As a selector of schemes, however, he shows his taste and width of vision; he is a good arbiter; and the idea of buildings and the land is an interesting one. Betsky illustrates this with some monumental schemes, ranging from the water tower-like lookout, which is West 8's Secret Garden for the Malmö Festival (pictured), to Emilio Ambasz' 15-storey-high Fukuoka Prefectural Hall, which is like a Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Massimiliano Fuksas' Niaux Caves' entrance is by contrast celebratory, while Tadao Ando's Naoshima Art Museum is extremely subtle.

Betsky writes in an embattled way, which is perhaps as much to do with him as to do with his selection of projects. This is more a book to look at than to read.

Robert Holden teaches at the University of Greenwich

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