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Place-making principles

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Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory By John Dixon Hunt. Thames & Hudson, 2000. 273pp. £32

The familiar history of gardens begins with the medieval hortus conclusus and moves on briskly to Renaissance compositions of outdoor 'rooms' and virtuoso fountains, before hailing the first genius of the art, Andre Le Notre - master of the grand axis and level lawn, canal and embroidered parterre, who gave visual embodiment to Man's mastery of Nature (not to mention the Sun King's domination of France).

Finally, the English take centre stage, with Pope and Kent preparing the ground for Capability Brown to sweep away the 'Princely Pomp' of the French Baroque and establish a 'natural' style of garden that became 'England's greatest contribution to the visual arts' and a paradigm for nineteenth century parks around the world.

This simplistic narrative, still widely promulgated, goes back to Horace Walpole's politically motivated History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780) and runs as an adversary throughout John Dixon Hunt's ambitious new book. Its implications, he believes, still ripple through landscape theory and practice, not least in the tendency to talk in terms of such naive dualisms as formal and informal, straight and curved - and ultimately, all too often, to equate these with 'unnatural' (bad) and 'natural' (good).

The resulting theoretical impoverishment has left landscape design on the sidelines of the Modernist adventure, prey to both utilitarian versions of ecological and other problem-solving 'methods' of design and, more recently, to excessive zeal for innovations such as Land Art: all greatly to the detriment of the task of 'place-making' - of which the garden is, Dixon Hunt argues, the most complex form.

After exploring definitions of 'garden', the argument gathers momentum around the Classical idea of the 'Three Natures' - wilderness, cultivated land and the garden, which is always involved in a dialogue with the other two - and then goes on to examine the ramifications of 'representation'. Idealised representations of the natural world are discussed at length and two chapters are devoted to the role of words and images in the making and experience of gardens.

Capability Brown still emerges as a pivotal figure because, by obscuring the (apparent) difference between art and nature, his consummate designs became indistinguishable from 'second nature' with, Dixon Hunt believes, 'disastrous results'. In France, for example, the eminent theorist Quatremere de Quincey refused the garden status as an imitative art because its materials could hardly be distinguished from its objects.

A detailed and fascinating 'Historical Excursus' pivots around John Evelyn, author of Elysium Britannicum, an unpublished manuscript compiled in the wake of the formation of the Royal Society in 1661. Evelyn emerges as a model of the interplay between theory and practice that Dixon Hunt espouses, with the Elysium offering a grounding for the art which (as Evelyn put it) 'hath of all other diversions the prerogative alone of gratifying all the senses virtuously'.

Dixon Hunt ends by arguing the case for understanding the garden once again as the 'ideal mode of all place-making'. The pleas for variety, new models for landscape practice, fictions as well as facts, specificity amid globalisation, are all eminently reasonable dictums for our Post-Modern times. They are illustrated by a good mix of familiar and unfamiliar, mostly recent, examples, among which the current doyen of meaningful landscape, Bernard Lassus, looms large.

After the zest and originality of what had gone before, these final thoughts are slightly disappointing, but this is a minor blemish in a ground-breaking book that positively bristles with ideas and insights. It could be read with equal profit by architects and landscape architects, historians and theorists. Dixon Hunt is surely right in concluding that landscape architecture has everything to gain from studying 'the practice of theory' in its own manifold and diverse traditions - and far less from desperately seeking to 'emulate the excessive theorisation of architectural discourse'.

Richard Weston is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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