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The American Lawn

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Edited by Georges Teyssot. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 220pp. £24

More than 60,000 injuries caused by lawnmowers are treated in the USA each year - only the car is more deadly: 'Countless toes, fingers and limbs are severed as people put parts of themselves into the moving blades, fall under machines, or run into friends. Mowers escape, catch fire and explode.' So says Mark Wigley in his contribution to The American Lawn. The cropped emerald oblong is obviously less placid than it looks.

Wigley's is the concluding essay in a book that accompanied an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture last year. With well-chosen illustrations (paintings, photographs, advertisements and so on), seven writers trace the history of the lawn from its paradisal appearance in medieval tapestries and miniatures, via eighteenth-century English gardens, to its symbolic density in post-war USA.

While the lawn has an institutional, corporate and recreational identity, the focus here is primarily domestic. A properly tended patch-of-green is the sign of a properly-functioning family, dutiful towards community and country. Woe betide too much individualism when it comes to lawn maintenance, as Diller + Scofidio's selection of court-case disputes between neighbours proves. One defendant charged with violations of his local Weed Ordinance, protesting that the offending plants were 'wanted' and therefore not really weeds, was told that 'individual vegetal preferences are hardly relevant to enforcement of the ordinance'.

In all this, it is the 'dark side' of the lawn, in Wigley's account, that has most immediacy: its menace a feature in recent Hollywood films from Blue Velvet to Lawnmower Man, where designers' dreams of effortless maintenance, in the form of the perfect robot, are forever frustrated. That robot notwithstanding, this is the age of the electric lawn, as the number of wires concealed in the green continues to grow. Sensors monitor temperature and humidity to trigger sprinkler systems or register a footfall to warn against intruders; pet fish in the pond are fed automatically, and pests are zapped. By the end of Wigley's chapter, any sense of the idyllic is entirely subverted.

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