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Options for shaping the new landscape

Review: Arcadia Revisited: The Place of Landscape Edited by Vicki Berger and Isabel Vasseur. Black Dog Publishing, 1997. 207pp. £16.95

Arcadia Revisited is based on a conference at the Royal Geographical Society (aj 25.7.96) but in appearance - an elegant design with many well- chosen illustrations and almost too much white space - it is far from the low-key collection of transcripts that fact might imply.

With the 530ha Norbury Park in Surrey as its focus (whose present character is largely eighteenth-century in origin), the conference sought to redress the 'absence of an acceptable contemporary landscape aesthetic' to guide the park's future - and, in so doing, to touch on more general issues of land management in the uk. Its participants, whose re-worked papers are presented here, were from diverse disciplines: 'a band of not greatly connected mercenaries, pragmatists, prophets, even salesmen and saleswomen', as Richard Hoggart puts it in his introduction.

Examination of Norbury Park had begun in 1994, with a project putting strong emphasis on the role of artists - not as suppliers of artworks in the landscape but as shrewd observers, most likely to see what might 'be done or even undone' there. The two artist contributors to this volume, Richard Wentworth and Tania Kovats, are engagingly oblique in their approach, and by no means prescriptive. Wentworth proposes that we have come to treat the surfaces of the earth as no different to a carpet: 'You can buy it in, lay it down, take it up, remodel it, start again.' Kovats ('Nature is an idea, not a specific place I know well') acknowledges an urbanite tendency to romanticise relationships with the natural world. She presents a series of photographs called Imports: their subject is those chanced- upon, abandoned items in the countryside (glue-sniffing equipment, a condom, a single shoe) that puncture the illusion of an Arcadian idyll.

Some participants are more explicit about the management of Norbury Park. With the apt image of a Leon Kossoff painting that shows a packed municipal swimming pool (a Saturday morning free-for-all), Ken Worpole tackles the question of unregulated open access. Given perpetual conflicts of need and interest between different users of public parks, can Norbury's character only be promoted by prioritisation and restriction? Worpole suggests that educational/environmental interests should be paramount and the park designated accordingly. But this is not a blanket recipe: 'Every large-scale public space will need to secure its own unique future . . .'

Jane Howarth, a philosophy lecturer, comes to a similar conclusion in a piece posited on the difference between a simple 'liking' of nature and an informed understanding. 'Spectacular sunsets have an immediate appeal, limestone pavements may be an acquired taste.' The park, in her eyes, could be a place where we learn that more intimate appreciation and in the process come to value nature, not just 'like' it. Her vision is of personal, but also cultural, enrichment.

Lamenting a 'terrible lack of intelligent discourse' among uk landscape architects, Gillian Darley shows exemplary images from abroad. Jay Appleton and John Workman (a National Trust forester) are both concerned with Norbury's 'Picturesque core', each making precise proposals for its enhancement. Appleton, for instance, stresses the importance of 'an irregular frayed edge' as boundary between woods and fields; Workman talks of cutting 'peepholes' in the woods, creating vistas without detriment to either foreground or skyline.

But the most provocative contribution in the volume is the last, from Richard Mabey. He addresses the management tendency to choose 'one high- profile moment' from the long history of a landscape and keep it constant through conservation. At Norbury Park there are, for instance, traces of Celtic field systems, and we know its pre-Norman character. Why then, he asks, should we immortalise 'a comparatively recent format, the country dweller's park, which is not only one of the dullest options available, but also the most elitist?' Mabey advocates a 'hands-off' policy, giving nature room to move and to be wild and surprising once again.

A burgeoning wilderness on the suburban fringe of London? One imagines a sharp intake of breath from Surrey County Council, current administrator of the site. But, given the suave design and modest price of Arcadia Revisited, Mabey's argument may reach a much larger audience than the conference convenors first envisaged. This book could impinge on both politics and practice; it helps us look at landscape in a more informed, imaginative way.

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