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Turf wars

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REVIEW - Moving Horizons: The Landscape Architecture of Kathryn Gustafson and Partners By Jane Amidon. Birkhäuser, 2005. 207pp. £40

When Kathryn Gustafson expanded her Paris landscape practice to London in the mid1990s, she arrived as an energising presence among her peers. Trained as a professional fashion designer who had switched fields and graduated from Versailles in landscape design, her approach was to model the site and its landforms in clay and to think in terms of swatches of fabric stretched across the surface of the landscape.

This essentially tactile view of earth and water led to several commissions for major corporate headquarters in France - Shell, Esso, L'Oreal - in which grassy undulations and wafer-thin 'scrims' of water (dictionary definition: 'a kind of thin canvas for lining in upholstery') set off the architecture. Similarly, she manipulated the detritus of roadworks (at Morbras) into rumpled turf blankets and thin aqueous sheets, while the competitionwinning electricity pylons that she designed, in association with Ian Ritchie, for the French national electricity company have been marching across the French countryside since 2002.

Much was expected of Gustafson when she began work in Britain, and she duly received the first Jane Drew Prize in 1997 (an accolade not mentioned in the book), which was set up to acknowledge and reward women who were judged to be expanding the possibilities of collaborative and diverse design.

This volume marks her growing international practice and her move into the design of public space. In the latter field, Gustafson Porter - her London office with Neil Porter - has encountered more than its share of headaches in this country. Some of the setbacks have come from the frustrating business of trying to change well-established or historic sites, others from funding cutbacks. The original scheme for Crystal Palace was to be an ambitious reworking of its original form: a handsome terraced water-garden with a slash of planting to add colour and seasonality. In the end, chopped back and financially foundering, the scheme was reduced to little more than the restoration of existing planting at the furthest south-eastern corner, where the listed dinosaurs lurk.

The National Botanic Garden in Wales (wonderful project, wilfully obscure site) has suffered its own troubles, through no fault of any of the designers involved, while the saga of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park need not be retold here, although the text, explaining the allusions of the water necklace to its subject's elements of 'assertion and vulnerability', strays into cloying cliché.

There is little in the well-funded, carefully tended and essentially private world of corporate landscape to prepare a designer for the knockabout daily reality of heavily used, even mobbed, public space, nor for the stringencies of the always uncertain public purse or the devil that lies in that all important detail - continued high-quality maintenance.

Nowadays Gustafson runs two offices:

Gustafson Porter and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in her home town of Seattle. Sometimes such expansion brings creative dilution, and in these pages there is a sense of a growing formulaic response. Designs for two, roughly comparable, sites on opposite sides of the Atlantic (one from each of her offices) deal with areas of leftover urban space: the Swiss Cottage Open Space in London and North End Parks in Boston. The solutions are a little too close for comfort.

But give Gustafson a location with special qualities and resonance, and her flair for teasing out form and meaning from a site with a strongly delineated and coherent solution is back in evidence. Gustafson Porter's 1999 competition-winning design for the Hadiqat As-Samah - an extensive public garden at the heart of that resilient urban battleground, Beirut - promises well. Due for completion this year, it is be a tiered oasis, both an archaeological site and a shady place of conviviality - a landscape to prove that people and places can be battered, but not beaten.

Gustafson has risen to the landscape designer's responsibility of bringing life into degraded, demoralised places, with all the sensitivity at her disposal.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape design

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