Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Katie Campbell, Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design (London: Frances Lincoln, 2006), 176 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £30.00 (hbk), ISBN 0-711-22533-8

Katie Campbell, a postgraduate researcher in garden history, has chosen twenty-nine landscapes in Europe, North and South America and has built these into lively and searching case studies of changing attitudes to the moulding of spaces around buildings in the twentieth century. There is a wide range of types and scales of sites, which includes industrial, funereal, park, museum and monumental associations, many of which are open to the public. Most are well known to the interested explorer of twentieth-century design — Guevrekian’s Villa Noailles at Hyères, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Thomas Church’s Dewey Donnell Garden and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, for instance – but there are less prominent examples, such as Brenda Colvin’s Eggborough Power Station and José Luis Sert’s Maeght Foundation. Several built features have only their own, non-green landscapes, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, DC. The small but significant gardens of Martha Schwartz (Bagel Garden) and Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, have been included.

Campbell explains in her Introduction that the examples are linked to the changes in twentieth-century social, political and cultural history, which have ‘pushed the boundaries’ and challenged ‘assumptions about the form, use and meaning of landscape’ away from the dominant conservative attitudes of recent times. Each site is explored in depth, its landscape architect placed in his/her own historical context, and the landscape related to the ideas and philosophies which influenced their maker. Christian and non-Christian symbolism melding with nature formed the Woodland Cemetery at Enskede in Stockholm. Communal living was a key factor in the building of the Maeght Foundation in St-Paul-de-Vence, though this ideal was eventually abandoned. Colvin’s 1947 warning about the damaging ecological consequences of man’s activities on the planet must have been uppermost in her mind as she designed her Yorkshire power station in 1962. Isamu Noguchi’s garden in the UNESCO building in Paris is described as ‘a very personal combination of Japanese philosophy and modernist aesthetics’. Martha Schwartz, a follower of Noguchi, was able to make a name for herself by exposing the ‘staid and predictable’ nature of American landscape architects by poking fun at them in a garden decorated with the perishable bagel.

The poetry and preoccupation with war in the pastoral setting of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta and Charles Jencks’s evolving explanations about his scientific approach to his Garden of Cosmic Speculation are expanded and carefully explained. The book draws to a close with a perceptive appreciation of the landscape around Daniel Libeskind’s startling and shocking Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Campbell has visited many of the sites, and clearly much research has underpinned the case studies. It is a pity, however, that she does not acknowledge any of her sources, and does not include a bibliography. For the student of landscape it is important to be able to follow up primary material, and to separate the anecdotal from the factual. Who made the ‘many imitations’ of Jarman’s garden? Campbell repeats the myth about an American oak which is supposed to produce flame-red leaves at the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede at the anniversary of his assassination. Can Bentley Wood really be considered a Christopher Tunnard garden? Serge Chermayeff had laid out the greater part, only leaving Tunnard some flowerbeds to construct. Neither did Tunnard ‘create a modern British landscape style’ for Bentley Wood — or anywhere else. Though exasperated by British resistance to Modernism, he was unable to devise a modernist style himself — in common with Le Corbusier at Villa Savoye. Generalizations such as ‘European formality’ are misleading: the Dutch and the Germans have produced ‘natural’ landscapes which owe their creation to their concentration on horticulture. It is also a pity that none of the recent horticulturists who use trees, shrubs and plants in an architectural manner — such as the Spaniard Fernando Caruncho — has been included here. And sadly, there are too many embarrassing errors in the spelling of the names of sites and makers.

Janet Waymark

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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