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Reinventing landscape

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Modern Landscape

By Michael Spens. Phaidon, 2003. £45

New Landscape Design

By Robert Holden. Laurence King, 2003. £35

It is fair to say that little in the paltry discussions of 20th-century landscape design has reinvigorated the rich intellectual history of the subject. Latterly cultural historians have seized the higher ground and shifted the focus far away from the modern designed landscape. In the thoughtful introduction to his handsome new book, Michael Spens is refreshingly honest about the failure of modern critics and art historians to engage effectively with the subject, dogged by the sterility of early 20th-century attempts to convert painterly forms into stylistic echoes or, more recently, to pick up the more meretricious aspects of Post-Modernism and plant them upon the unsuspecting.

Between the two World Wars, landscape quite simply fell off the screen. Its inexplicable omission from the Bauhaus programme both helped to drive European landscape design back to the past or into the ground.

Only in the United States, and there largely within the universities, was anything stirring. First Abstract Expressionism, and then Land Art, provided empathy in the visual arts. Spens highlights the influence of such powerful and effective figures as Peter Walker, whose thoughtful Minimalism has offered a way of dealing with 'difficult transitions' (his term), or Georges Descombes, the most resonant and poetic interpreter of contemporary Romanticism within landscape.

Spens is critical - as should we all be - of the banal 'commodified landscapes' that leading architects use as so much wallpaper around their monumental intrusions in the city centres of London, New York or Tokyo.

The finger of blame for the paucity of worthwhile urban contemporary landscape design points at those leading architects who have squandered opportunity upon opportunity to look beyond the immediate building envelope, and developers and funding bodies who have found that, come the inevitable squeeze, the landscape is always the most expendable 'detail'.

Modern Landscape deserves a wide readership for its introduction alone. But the 30 international schemes that Spens has chosen, and which are illustrated magnificently both in words and images, help to illuminate the difficulties of categorisation within this slippery area. Some come right up to the perimeter wire of architecture, the author arguing that certain structures are primarily extensions of their setting. Otherwise, tiny corners of European cities, campuses, industrial complexes, motorway service areas and museums are typical sites. All but one are for public or corporate clients.

A handful of those examples are duplicated in Robert Holden's New Landscape Design, which covers many more sites and, since it is a companion volume to an earlier survey of his, includes nothing before the mid-1990s. Each is accorded the briefest of written entries, which gives the book a hectic quality, depicting a flurry of international landscape activity. Unfortunately, Holden has been extremely poorly served by his publishers; the quality of the photographs as printed is frequently execrable and the copy editing is shaky. The breathless pace at which the survey is conducted does not allow for fruitful discussion and many of the examples are - frankly - aesthetically unpleasant.

Jagged granite standing stones and hectic spirals neither gain nor confer beauty with their siting, materials or proportions.

Spens eloquently refers to the individual's need for 'natural sanctuary'. It is in ventures such as Anne Marie and Peter Latz's exceptional endeavour in the industrial badlands of the Ruhr and northern Germany, in particular the Emscher Park at Duisburg-Nord (included in both books), that it is possible to see ways in which a contemporary, disenchanted public can be cajoled back to a reinvented landscape - evocative, utilitarian, legible and elegiac all at once.

The delicious congruities of Jacqueline Osty's Parc St Pierre at Amiens or the Promenade Plantée - a linear park mounted upon a viaduct in central Paris, the inspired rebirth of some kilometres of the Paris-Strasbourg railway line - are gifts of a quality every modern city deserves. Each of these fine schemes builds on existing links, to memory and locality, and then subtly inverts and enriches them.

One of the most significant figures in landscape design of recent years, bringing new resonance to the balance between ecology and utility, innovation and continuity, has been the Californian, George Hargreaves. Both authors illustrate major schemes by his practice, but Spens' choice, the Homebush area of the Olympic Park in Sydney (1997-2000), shows how in masterly hands every strand of the complex tapestry can be interwoven, equally to enhance the unique occasion or the daily urban routine.

Patronage is, as ever, the key. London's Olympic bid might just be its best chance for an utterly transforming landscape.

Gillian Darley is a writer in London

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