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Social dimension of Danish landscape

Guide to Danish Landscape Architecture 1000-1996 by Annemarie Lund. Arkitektens Forlag, 1997. 296pp. £27.95 (Available fromTriangle bookshop 0171 631 1381)

Visitors to the Danish countryside might be forgiven for imagining that everything, the entire place, has been designed by an exceptional landscape architect. Whether you look at the agricultural scene, which offers such surprises as compact fields of grain hedged with lilac, or at village churchyards lovingly subdivided into miniature topiary gardens, at the gentle juxtaposition of woods fringed by water or of meadows gently turning into parkland, it is a quiet, uninterrupted picture which has until recently informed an entire approach to landscape.

Annemarie Lund's guide to Danish landscape architecture follows the same attractive and portable format as the guides to Danish architecture and that of Copenhagen (which she also wrote) published recently. She divides her subject chronologically (with due acknowledgement, in the earlier historical examples, to the processes of change and restoration) as well as typologically. Her account opens with a valuable introductory survey, from dolmens and barrows through the introduction of the monastic cloister garden up to the Renaissance, and on through the familiar route of Baroque, Classicism and Romanticism to the very robust Functionalism of early twentieth-century work. A country poised on the fingertips of Germany, with Sweden almost on its shores, could hardly remain impervious to the main European trends of recent centuries.

The final section of this introduction is, justifiably, implicitly critical of the new 'spectacular and speculative' approach to the urban landscape.

Especially in the case of the new city parks, where elaboration and a plethora of objects and features (sometimes of baleful quality) can overwhelm the potential sociability of the shared space, she tactfully refers us back to the 'underplayed, pure yet painstakingly conceived' Danish landscape, the real achievement of this small, scrupulously elegant country.

As might be expected, many of the schemes illustrated show the close attention that the Danes have always paid to quality of materials and precision of finish. In a forest cemetery such as Mariebjerg, laid out in the late 1920s, the naturalness of the planting and hedging is echoed by the utter simplicity with which the tombstones are laid into the turf. The implicit philosophy, that of repose in death, recalls the traditional approach of the Moravian congregations in their burial grounds/gardens around the world.

There is an uncontrived use of form, carved out of the natural properties of landscape or plant material, which the many landscape designers credited in this account seem to understand without difficulty. It can be seen in the dense blocks of clipped beech that run between the waterside and the harbourside warehouses in central Copenhagen, or in the abstraction of the planning of a series of allotment gardens, such as those at Naerum (1948) or at Brondby (1964), which take on the configuration of a settlement conceived by Ledoux or Robert Owen - the geometry, in this case, simply the consequence of meticulous careful hedging. The common enterprise has given rise to an idiosyncratic landscape language of its own.

Thus, landscape design in Denmark has been well conceived, at least until recently, to address social and public concerns. Inevitably the landscapes of educational and cultural institutions are - according to this account at least - far more integrated than their awkwardly presented commercial counterparts, where an assumed need to produce a more flamboyant, disjunctive kind of setting does not always read so well. Image making, so often derivative, does not sit easily here.

Although Annemarie Lund's account is a guide, and a seductive trail for anyone who is tempted to follow it, she argues forcefully for the qualities in landscape which are specifically Danish, and of which the wider cultural (and social) landscape of her country offers a constant, inspiring reminder. Oddly perhaps, in Denmark it is only the modish that doesn't seem modern.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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