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Nature and artifice

A degree of ambiguity about landscape design's identity and purpose is revealed in the amount of literature on the subject which appeared during the 1990s. In England, the trend continues to be towards the naturalistic, contrasting with a bolder exploration of artifice in France. And while the English tradition exerted an enormous influence on European practice for a long time, French ideas are beginning to infiltrate across the Channel. The arrival of 'painter, poet, professor, and landscape gardener' Bernard Lassus to speak at the Institut Francais last week, combined with an exhibition of his work at Burford Gardens in Shropshire (the National Clematis Centre), and the launch of a book (The Landscape Approach, Penn, £31), could be part of this process.

Lassus breaks the taboo of mixing the natural and the artificial. In his optical bushes project at Niort of 1993, for example, brightly coloured flowers are arranged in rows alternating with painted coloured strips and mirrors. Lassus says he is aiming towards 'an optical synthesis of the natural and the constructed'. In 1969, an unexpected view of a camouflaged warship in Stockholm harbour crystallised his understanding of landscape as 'the sudden grasp of all those sections of various colors - houses, factories, or trees - in an assemblage, making possible the insertion of new objects all the time without the assemblage itself being modified and without the objects being able to be recognised'.

As a kinetic artist in the 1960s he developed an interest in public participation, manifested in what he calls the Garden Game. This is an exploration of artifice which addresses the continual transformation of a garden's form by later versions. At the Chateau of Barbirey-sur-Ouche, he prints drawings of historic elements of the garden onto the window panes in the salon, enlisting the public's participation in imagining how the garden would have looked in previous eras.

Ironically, Lassus has found an articulate apologist in an Englishman and professor of cultural studies, Stephen Bann, who presented the work at the Institut. It is suggested that his most comparable peer is in fact a Scotsman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who also generates his design work from a philosophical position. Yet the formal manifestation of Lassus' ideas seems unique to France. One of his biggest projects is a scheme for a section of motorway and rest area in the Charente which involves literally sculpting hectares of land into new rock formations.

Another is the Garden of Returns at Rochefort, which has been in progress since 1983 and was adopted by President Mitterrand, with full awareness of the political symbolism of landscape design, as a grand projet. This scheme involves the replanting of species originally introduced into Europe by way of the port at Rochefort, and the full-scale reconstruction of the masts and rigging of an old sailing ship, in a setting which curiously combines French formality with English naturalism.

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