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The Language of Landscape

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by Anne Whiston Spirn. Yale University Press, 1999. 326pp. £25

American landscape architect and academic Anne Whiston Spirn believes that landscape has a definite language which it is essential to learn if one is not to make fundamental errors in the design of buildings and places, writes Ruth Slavid. This book is an attempt to define that language. Although she talks at times about syntax or about nouns, she does not really succeed, but that does not matter.

What the reader of this book does get is a richer understanding of landscape: Spirn has travelled widely and her examples are varied, from the obvious such as Stourhead and Taliesin West to Uluru (the PC name for Ayers' Rock) and Mill Creek, a depressed area of Spirn's native Philadelphia.

Among the many insights on the way are, for instance, the significance of a 'wolf tree' - a single tree with widely spreading branches in a tightly packed copse - and the role of rice fields in high-value Japanese cities. Sometimes Spirn becomes a little whimsical about the wonders of nature, and she tends to approach her ideas through parables, but this is fine since landscape itself is full of allusion. As she observes: 'Complexity without order produces confusion; order without complexity produces boredom.'

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