In Gardens: Profiles of Contemporary European Landscape Architecture

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Udo Weilacher, In Gardens: Profiles of Contemporary European Landscape Architecture, trans. Michael Robinson (Basel: Birkhauser, 2005), 192 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, €49.50 (hbk), ISBN 3764370785

In this collection of brief studies of twentyeight contemporary European sites, including one Indian garden which is described because it reminds the writer of Parc Güell in Barcelona, the writer seeks to find direction and meaning in some of the landscape architecture completed in the last ten years – qualities which he considers to have been missing beforehand. Will it, he asks, simply add to the ‘trivial background noise of interchangeable image worlds, … or enrich it with connections and contents, thus making sense’? Udo Weilacher is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Design at the Department of Architecture and Landscape, University of Hanover, Germany. His interest in contemporary design led, between January 1999 and December 2003, to a series of articles in the gardens column of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s FOLIO magazine. Some of these make up the present volume, which is well-illustrated by the photography of the writer and his wife, Rita.

Weilacher uses the term ‘garden’ to apply to varied sites ranging from the large landscapes of the Barcelona Botanic Garden, to urban squares such as the Place de la Bourse in Lyon, and, even, to the space belonging to a geological information station at the top of a cable car service on the Swiss/ Italian border. Similarly, he elides the distinctions between architecture, landscape architecture and fine art, in which he includes garden-making, and looks for ‘empathetic conversation’ between the three. He has chosen his garden examples because they ‘enrich the meaning of the places’ in which they have been made, and encourage the maker and visitor to ‘become more sensitive to their built and natural environments’.

Two recent trends in garden-making seem to emerge strongly. One is the ‘making sense’ of old industrial landscapes, rather than tearing them down because of economic changes. Landscape architect Peter Latz’s reinterpretation of the abandoned landscapes of coal- and steelworks along the Emscher River for leisure and cultural uses has given a new purpose to a blighted area. Israeli artist Dani Karavan has taken the essence of empty industrial buildings along the Rhine at Duisburg and has transformed them into a sculptural landscape in which, as with the Emscher Valley, the past can be read. Another trend is what Weilacher calls the abandonment of formal aesthetics in favour of ecology – letting stretches of grass, trees and stream banks develop as they will. At the Museum Island, Hombroich, near Du?sseldorf, sculptor Erwin Heerich has built eleven pavilions in a park landscape for art collector Karl-Heinrich Müller to display his collection for the public. Superimposed on earlier formality, Müller wanted his landscape to resemble an untrimmed, Impressionist picture; one of the towers remains empty with windows to frame the wild view. Müller also took over an abandoned NATO site in the park; here the conflation of landscape history and landscape conservation emerges strongly, as works by Japanese architects Tadao Ando and Katsuhito Nishikawa transform the Cold War buildings.

Weilacher touches on other connections of culture with nature – American artist Jenny Holzer’s war memorial for two world wars and the victims of National Socialism, made from black flowers and plants in Nordhorn, West Germany; Kathryn Gustafson’s Gardens of Imagination at Terrasson, France; the association with earth movements at Bad Oeynhausen; nature’s perpetual changes in Zurich’s Oerliker park in Switzerland; a stage for political argument in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta in Scotland. The book appears to be for the knowledgeable reader of art, architecture and landscape history, though its meaning is often obscured by its clumsy translation. There is much to interest those who seek explanation of current gardens, and Weilacher successfully makes his case for the combination of culture and nature.

Janet Waymark

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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