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Points of reference

REVIEW - LANDSCAPE BOOKS

Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History By Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Abrams, 2001. 544pp. £49.95

The Nature of Landscape: A Personal Quest By Han Lorzing. 010 Publishers, 2001. 176pp. £16

These two books are very different in format, weight and price but both are decidedly ambitious and try to look at landscape in the widest sense.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers' Landscape Design is the more orthodox. As its subtitle suggests, it seeks to provide an historical overview of landscape design from all times and cultures. The approach is essentially chronological, apart from a somewhat abrupt detour halfway through to the gardens of China and Japan, facilitated by a rather frail link - the Western taste for chinoiserie in the18th century.

Only 30 pages are then devoted to the East, so the section seems little more than a parenthesis in a dominantly Western account. But Rogers recognises 'the rich psychological and mythopoeic relationship of human beings to landscape throughout history', and - from the menhirs at Carnac to the Modernism of Dan Kiley, via Renaissance Italy, Cartesian France and the England of 'Capability' Brown - she seeks to unravel the meanings that landscapes embody.

In the process she avoids the false polarisations found in some historical accounts.

'Brown's style was in its way as abstractly classical as that of Le Notre, ' she writes, 'and the volume of earth movement and topographical regrading required to achieve his seemingly naturalistic results was no less than that required by the French master.'

No other book in print covers so much ground in such detail and, though text sensibly dominates, it is adequately illustrated.

But there are several caveats. As Brown's treatment of the 20th century makes all too clear, the kind of compression required in a book like this (despite its size) leads to all sorts of omissions. The perspective here is distinctly American. There is no mention of Geoffrey Jellicoe, for instance, or assessment of the Scandinavian impact on landscape design.As for the current scene, it seems perverse that Charles Jencks should be featured (for his Dumfries garden) when such prominent figures as Peter Latz and Kathryn Gustafson are omitted.

Nor do West 8 and Adriaan Geuze appear - strange in a book which earlier places landscape in an urbanistic context. But Brown seems not to have heard of Rem Koolhaas either, and his thoughts about the city; in her account, nothing postdates the New Urbanism of Duany and Plater-Zyberk at Seaside, Florida, and the like.

A further problem comes with the uniformity of tone. In a sense that is reassuring: the book is sober but lucid and well-written.What is missing, though, in so lengthy a work, are other voices that would make the imaginative response to landscape seem more varied and expansive. We stop by briefly at Paris' Parc des ButtesChaumont but there are no quotations from the Surrealists (particularly Louis Aragon) that this site so inspired. That great writer on landscape, J B Jackson, is mentioned but again without a quote.

This reinforces the impression that Landscape Design is destined for the reference shelf, to be consulted as necessary for information rather than browsed through often for inspiration - but on that shelf it should have a long life.

The tone of Han Lorzing's The Nature of Landscape is markedly more subjective;

again, as the subtitle implies. But Lorzing, a Dutch landscape designer teaching at Eindhoven University of Technology, is not just indulging in personal impressions; what he supplies, and what structures his book, is an analytical framework for understanding any landscape anywhere.He is as happy standing on the top of the huge gasometer at Oberhausen, with its panorama of the postindustrial Ruhrland, as he is sitting in front of a 17th-century painting, Meindert Hobbema's The Avenue, Middleharnis, in London's National Gallery.

Lorzing goes back to basics; to the straight line and circle, the simple geometrical forms by which man 'carves his niche in the world'; and to the word for landscape in 20 European languages - a revealing chapter in which he learns that in Russian there are two distinct translations for the word, each referring to a different concept of landscape.

One, peyzazh, denotes its subjective aspect - its poetic, pictorial and emotional associations. The other, landshaft, points to a more objective, technical approach - to land as it may be harnessed by dikes or dams, or on which a wind-farm whirrs to life. 'In other words: there is a landscape that we can measure, and there is a landscape that we can only feel. The former is seen by most people in the same way; the latter by some people and in different ways.'

Lorzing's analytical tool comes in the shape of his 'mindscape diamond': a device by which four key influences on landscape - four attitudes to its design, planning and perception - are situated as contrasting pairs. On one axis, man-made is opposed to natural; on the other, foreign to native.

(The term 'foreign' describes a landscape inspired by situations or ideas from elsewhere; hence the English landscape garden of the 18th century, a source for many public parks elsewhere in its idealised nature, is firmly in the foreign/natural quadrant of Lorzing's diamond. ) The most contentious chapter is where Lorzing seeks socio-political equivalents for these terms (idealism versus conservatism;

order versus chaos) to look at views on society and planning. His account of the failures of functionalism (placed in the order/idealism quadrant) is crudely cliched, though he does allow that the houses at the Stuttgart Weissenhofsiedlung were 'subtle, almost elegant'. But as a way of situating specific schemes (he looks at 30 in turn drawn from the past five centuries), or broader approaches to land use, the conceptual diamond proves its worth.

Unlike Rogers at the end of her volume, Lorzing is prepared to speculate on what the future landscape will hold, with a belief that 'there is more in this world than what is happening in my profession'. He says early in his book that people who want man's effect on the landscape to be inconspicuous are 'cultural pessimists', and the same sentiment informs his ringing conclusion: 'We may be shocked by what is happening in our present-day landscapes but it is hard to deny that man has made the world a more exciting place than nature ever could.'

So we certainly know where he stands.

This is a thoughtful and opinionated book, with many apt, if tiny, illustrations, and anyone who reads it will surely look at landscape anew.

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