Modernist lessons that lie in landscape
Landscape and Garden in Britain, 1930-2000 At 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1, on 27- 28 March
The intention of this conference, jointly organised by the Garden History Society and the Twentieth Century Society, was to achieve a cross- over of awareness between two interest-groups who had little contact. Each is concerned with the integration of history, criticism, practice and preservation in its own field, but garden history of the twentieth century is still relatively undeveloped and the awareness of landscape in the architecturally-based community of the Twentieth Century Society is often lacking.
The conference programme aimed at a scatter-gun approach over two days, with a symphonic structure of varying moods rather than an attempt at complete coverage. This certainly appealed in advance, as around 200 delegates demonstrated, and seemed to work in practice, despite the many different interest groups and categories - apart from the separate interests of architecture, there are palpable rifts between horticulturalists, garden designers and landscape architects, all of whom seemed to welcome a broadening of experience.
Much of the proceedings of the first day revolved around the search for a definition of Modernism in gardens and landscapes. This is often sought by analogy to architectural Modernism, but even examination of the garden designs of the famous Modern houses of the 1930s offers no easy answers. The French 'cubist' garden enjoyed a brief vogue, but by 1935 a completely different mood encouraged a broader approach, described by Christopher Tunnard in that important but ambiguous book, Gardens in the Modern Landscape (1938). The difficulty of finding a Modernist gardening style is not so much the fault of English conservatism but of looking for the wrong thing. Gardens and landscapes offer a different paradigm, less discernible in purely visual terms, more liable to Post-Modern tendencies of pluralism and overlaid reference. As Brent Elliott demonstrated on the second day, there is almost no wholly original style of gardening, and styles follow a rapid cycle of revival more analagous to dress and textile design than to architecture.
At the same time, enthusiasm for gardens and landscapes has an important effect in revising and modifying the understanding of architecture and planning. In itself, this opens up a new insight on Modernism understood as the primacy of space, for space is, above all else, the medium of the landscape and garden designer. Only when the internal space in buildings becomes the figure rather than the ground can a Modernism occur which is fully differentiated from eclectic stylism, an effect seldom held in balance with the monumental aspirations of modern architects and certainly demanding from the architect a full awareness of context and landscape design. The distinction between these two figure/ground modes is seldom applied as a method of historical analysis, but could beneficially relegate consideration of architectural style as a schema of classification.
Focus on landscape can, and often does, have a deleterious effect on the purity of Modernism or any other doctrinaire style, as the Greek Revivalists found no less than the mars group. The history of English architecture and planning in the period between 1935 and, say, 1965, is not a story of style-development but of growth in other directions - social consciousness, the dynamics of movement and communication, regional planning and broader questions of ecology. The new towns and university campuses, and the landscaping of motorways and power stations, all played a part in holding at bay the tentacles of what Sir Clough Williams-Ellis called the 'Octopus', described in Richard Haslam's lecture as the epitome of unredeemed materialist values, despite so much loss and destruction of nature.
Landscape designers have a self-appointed role in trying to make life more tolerable, as the trio of older speakers, Sir Peter Shepheard, Ivor Cunningham and Michael Ellison, all demonstrated with incisive wit. On the other hand, they did not share the younger generation's concern with recording and conserving twentieth-century- designed landscapes. 'If we lived in a civilised society, that wouldn't be necessary,' said Sir Peter, but we don't (yet) and the spatial understanding of landscape ought perhaps to work some modification of the object-based and often literal-minded culture of preservation towards a more flexible attitude to change, combined with some quantifiable index of the social benefit of the preservation process.
Such, at any rate, was the opinion of Jan Birksted, speaking of the need for an understanding of meaning and relationship in assessing landscapes and monitoring their future. This brought the conference round to one of its original intentions, to promote a better awareness of the cultural importance of designed landscape and gardens. Patrick Eyres, editor of the New Arcadian Journal, showed how this brilliant, off-beat publication has made garden history challenging, enjoyable and artistically alive while Tim Richardson, gardens editor of Country Life, displayed an optimistic appetite for the new, looking forward to a garden design course taking its place among other avant-garde practices at Central St Martin's.
Amid some millennarian speculations from Ken Fieldhouse, editor of Landscape Design, there was little reference to the potential convergence with science's growing understanding of holism in place of Cartesianism. While the Charles Jencks garden in Dumfrieshire is an elaborate toy model of certain scientific theories (and thus itself an essentially Cartesian creation), a more developed practice of landscape and garden offers the most obvious and effective bridge between the arts and sciences (social as well as physical), which in itself could be the final fulfilment of the Modernist programme. Alan Powers is an architecturalhistorian