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Private Landscapes.Modernist Gardens in Southern California


By Pamela Burton and Marie Botnick. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 192 pp. £28.95

'Men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, 'Francis Bacon famously observed in 1625, writes Richard Weston. Four centuries later, in southern California, his dictum was gloriously defied. The lineage of Modernist gardens began in 1921-22 with the SchindlerChace house, and achieved its highpoint in the work of the architect who replaced the Chaces in Schindler's vision of paradise, Richard Neutra.

Professing a passion for 'the profound assets rooted in each site', Neutra favoured drought-tolerant, sculptural plants (see above).

And by framing 'borrowed scenery'and running materials between inside and out - separated only by 'the subtle sheen'of polished plate glass - he achieved an unprecedented unity of house and garden.

Dependent on regular maintenance, and cheaper to refashion than buildings, gardens are notoriously fugitive. As compositions of space, rather than of surfaces or forms, they are also difficult to photograph. This book is replete with seductive images from the archive of Julius Shulman and lens of Tim Street-Porter, but many feel like generic shots of 'good design'- the stuff of style magazines - rather than records of particular places. And much of what is presented is recent: either re-workings 'in the spirit of the original'or attempts, several by Pamela Burton, at historically accurate restorations.

The pictures are supported by short essays and project descriptions, in which the efforts to claim the gardens as wholly indigenous achievements do not do justice to European innovations, while the manifest debt to Japan is not discussed. This book will be an enjoyable addition to any coffee-table but is a somewhat lightweight offering from the normally impressive Princeton Architectural Press.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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