REVIEW: Mental images
Landscapes of Memory and Experience Edited by Jan Birksted. E & FN Spon, 2001. 272pp. £29.99
This collection of 14 essays spans extreme topographical differences: from the desert - as paradigm of the Modernist frontier - to the water distribution systems of 17th-century Rome; from colonial gardens in Australia to Gothic church excursions in Victorian England.
In general, the essays focus on previously undefined thresholds between nature and culture. Frequently this creates a narrative of exploration, as extreme topographies are 'conquered' in the name of aesthetics or science. But, as Jan Birksted stresses in his introduction, it is the encounter between the individual and terrain that matters here.
What Birksted calls 'the landscape perspective' raises issues that are just as valid for architecture, but often ignored. 'Landscape studies might also highlight those art and architecture historians - now often marginalised - who concentrated on movement, change and process, ' he writes.
The question of movement - the acknowledgement through design of the peripatetic viewer - is a common theme in garden history, though these essays do little to advance its practical application. Stanislaus Fung's brief descriptions of patterns of scenic change in the 17th-century Chinese garden treatise, Yuan Ye, do, however, reassess the notion of 'borrowing views' - from a simple doctoring of vistas to a total spatial and psychological priming of garden space, that binds 'here and there, far and near, inner sentiment and external scene'.
Birksted's own chapter, on Cezanne's property Les Lauves, could be seen as an example of this expanded concept of 'borrowing views', with the garden itself eradicated in favour of a direct transition from the interior of the property to the Provencal landscape. This, Birksted claims, anticipates the 'semi-wild uniformity' that was the garden/backdrop for Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Ocatillo and Taliesin West (pictured) figure in Alessandra Ponte's examination of the symbolic role of the desert in the work of art historian John Charles van Dyke. Wright's 'encampments' appear as Ponte discusses the desert in relation to entropy. The notion that they 'prefigure the remains they will leave behind' directly echoes the influential writings of the land artist Robert Smithson. The possibility of Modernist design acknowledging its own fragility is also taken up in Anne-Catrin Schultz's essay on Carlo Scarpa's work in Venice.
The book's illustrations could make a thesis in themselves. Birksted points out that the means of visual representation in landscape studies is particularly problematic, and stresses the need to distinguish between 'the representation of sites. . . and in situ sites as representations'. Photography often proves to be the least satisfying of the media involved. The graphic language of a diagram seems more fitting - it tends to support, rather than diminish through realism, the effect of mental terrains created in the texts.
This suggests that landscape theory tends not to reconcile the general with the sitespecific, and while all of these essays are valid as critical exercises, few present a clear basis for conversion into landscape practice.
Robin Wilson writes on landscape, architecture and art