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Unnatural Horizons: Paradox and Contradiction in Landscape Architecture

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by Allan S Weiss. Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. 112pp. £12.95

At first sight Unnatural Horizons seems pitched at an academic audience, but practitioners should not ignore it. With wide-ranging erudition, Weiss reveals the depth and multiplicity of meanings that the designed landscape can contain. In five chronological chapters he explores changes in sensibility and philosophy that have characterised landscape architecture since its renewed appreciation in the Renaissance.

On the way we visit the gardens of glass, silk and gold in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; examine the tension between 'baroque instability' and 'neoclassic proportion, closure and perfection' in the French formal garden; join the Marquis de Sade, obsessed with nature's destructive power, on his ascent of Vesuvius; and watch thoughtful pedestrian Thoreau gazing westwards across America as technology (and speed) begin to transform perception - culminating in the scenic 'parkways' built there after the Second World War where the landscape, meant to be experienced at speed, becomes a calculated succession of vignettes framed in the car windows. Weiss brings the story close to the present in discussing the 'non-sites' of Robert Smithson, and the site-specific garden sculptures of Henri Olivier ('canals devolved into mirror slits, pools condensed into puddles of rainwater filling out hollowed sculptural spaces'), where we have simultaneously a landscape and a condensed commentary upon it - a conceptualised landscape.

Weiss' inclusive vision of his subject involves 'the intertwining and hybrid histories of poetry, literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture, surveying, hydraulics, and botany'. As the book's subtitle, with its echo of Venturi, implies, he relishes the ambiguity that such intertwining entails. No meanings are precise or eternal; the landscape is always 'an open text'.

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