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Kathryn Gustafson's views on landscape 'desecration'

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

Kathryn Gustafson's opinion that architects ignore context too often, and that 'in landscape we're the menders' of the environments they desecrate, seems unlikely to endear her to the architectural profession - but, then again, she does not seem to depend on it directly as a source of work.

Indeed, in the case of her involvement in the highly controversial Swiss Cottage redevelopment scheme in London, she seems hardly aware of the architects working on the project. Gustafson seems to have little interest in architecture per se, and also makes a point of distancing her working methods from those of the architect - 'the plan just doesn't do it' for her, she declares, preferring to work in clay, the most effective method she has found of finding her way in space.

Gustafson's lecture at the AA was a showcase of work extending back 10 years and more, revealing a collection of commissions most architects would be envious of. Of these, her competition-winning landscape masterplan of 1997 for a site in Amsterdam presented a direct comparison with the apparently doomed ambitions of the South Bank Centre and its site in London.

The Dutch project is on a former industrial site, incorporating a large house and park as well as industrial buildings and plant. It is currently used for a variety of arts purposes, but is being redeveloped as a formal arts and leisure development. The scheme is under way despite initial strong opposition of the local neighbourhood, which 'just wanted a park' - much like the local Waterloo community group. But in the Amsterdam case, a year's public consultation was 'very organised', led by 'a strong client', and the scheme is due for completion at the end of 2002, with two buildings by Mecanoo.

For Gustafson, this project presented a clear opportunity to think about 'changing attitudes to landscape' - from the 1950s and '60s view of the discipline being about 'recreation and agriculture' - through the decades of suburban sprawl, up to the present, when she believes 'a balance between man and nature' is the key to the future. But her own analysis of her work seems to focus entirely on cosmological or historical narratives and symbolism, incorporating plenty of water features along the way, without any substantive level of political or cultural critique.

She seems happy to accept retail and restaurants as activators of social space in Seattle, or the imperative of luxury goods shopping as a catalyst in landscape formation in California. She does not even mention the intense political dimension of the Swiss Cottage development, which, it seems, can be soothingly swept away under natural woodland gardens, an outdoor amphitheatre and, possibly, a water feature. This kind of approach to landscape seems to be a rather banal celebration of the sensory aspects of human existence, which avoids addressing the more difficult issues at stake in social relations in the contemporary world.

Kathryn Gustafson was speaking on her work at the Architectural Association, London

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