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Sculptural vision

review: landscape books Visionary Gardens: Modern Landscapes by Ernst Cramer By Udo Weilacher. Birkhäuser, 2001. 288pp. £45

From flower-filled gardens in the Ticino to compositions of Zen-like austerity, Ernst Cramer ran the gamut of 20th-century landscape design. But the catalyst for renewed interest in his work among young Swiss designers was one extraordinary project: the Poet's Garden, designed - and destroyed - in 1959 (pictured below).

Born in 1898, Cramer trained as a gardener. He embraced the vision of 'Liberated Living' extolled by Sigfried Giedion, but the new ideas were too progressive for his early private clients and so he turned to horticultural shows for opportunities to innovate - and to startle a largely conservative profession. A 1933 demonstration Pool Garden featured a functional shower in place of a fountain, while the later Hospital Garden offered rest terraces screened by gridded, Lshaped glass walls arranged in a fan shape, like an Aalto library.

During the Second World War, Cramer immersed himself in Switzerland's burgeoning Modernist culture. He joined the Swiss Werkbund and got to know Johannes Itten, Max Bill and Alfred Roth, who launched the campaign for 'Die gute Form' at a Basel trade fair in 1949.

Echoing the progressive mood, his style became more abstract. Geometric figures appeared in paving and details, and then expanded to take over entire designs. By 1958, in a seminary at Menzingen, the topography was rendered crisply geometric and a striped carpet of paving with alternating, variablewidth bands of black asphalt and pale quartzite, was laid ceremonially across a large plaza. Clear and austere, it was landscape's equivalent of Swiss School typography.

And then, seemingly from nowhere, came the Poet's Garden. Four grass-covered tetrahedral mounds and an asymmetrical grass cone were deployed around a rectangular pool and paving, on which pre-cast concrete cable-cladding elements were placed and stacked to form benches, like premonitions of Minimalist sculptures.

Asserting its independence from the setting, the composition was aligned to the compass, reinforcing the feeling that it was more like Land Art to come than anything from Cramer's, or almost anyone else's, immediate past. Giacometti and Noguchi might have provided inspiration (both had been published in Switzerland) and Cramer certainly drew freely on diverse stimuli - a cemetery in Blözen, for example, featured Mondrianesque gates which were far less persuasive than its banded plan.

The Poet's Garden asserted the right to treat the garden as an autonomous work of art, and other commissions - private gardens, inventive playgrounds, corporate plazas, cemeteries - received increasingly sculptural treatment. Cramer's mastery of manipulating the ground into geometric planes, swelling mounds or volcano-like planters is everywhere apparent, and following a student's example he took to modelling earth forms in table salt, whose angle of repose conveniently mirrors that of many soils.

For the horticultural show in Hamburg in 1963, he created the Theatre Garden (above left), a set-piece sculptural composition in concrete inspired by a visit to Brasilia. It did not rival the Poet's Garden, however, and to my eyes the most intriguing of the later projects was a 1967 design for a cemetery in Volketswil. Composed of three intersecting egg shapes, the plan looks as fresh as the day it was drawn and might easily pass as something by OMA, but at the time did not even merit a mention in the competition report.

Cramer's architectural style, with its reduced palette of plants and materials, and use of non-native species, was coming under increasingly vicious attacks from eco-purists who accused him of raping nature.

Depressingly few of Cramer's projects survive, and many that do have been altered almost beyond recognition. Profusely illustrated with archival photographs and drawings, Weilacher's meticulous study is a fitting tribute. As history, it is especially valuable for paying close attention to the intricate web of collaborations from which the designs emerged. And as a study of landscape practice, it contains a treasure trove of ideas which may well excite a new generation of designers.

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

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