Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by Charles Boot

David Leatherbarrow, Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 288 pp., 95 illus. in black-and-white, £36.00 (hbk), ISBN 0812238095

Based on previously published material, this book explores the relationship between landscape and architecture through a series of essays looking at specific places and buildings covering a wide spectrum of architectural history from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The author also tries to rationalize the similarities between the theory and practice of landscape and architecture by putting forward the term ‘topography’, in which he includes theme, framework and place as their common ground. He redefines the two disciplines as ‘topographical arts’. This argument, offering a new way of linking landscape architecture and architecture, is meant for those professionals and students involved in these two disciplines; however, some of the essays might interest a wider range of readers as they touch upon other fields, such as garden history and anthropology.

The author builds his argument on his teaching and research as a Professor of Architecture. A critical analysis of the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, enables the author to demonstrate the influence of topography on building form. The professional connections between landscape architect and architect are explored through the work of Garrett Eckbo and Richard Neutra. Neutra’s work is also used amongst others in the following chapter to illustrate the relationship between ‘the laws of nature’ and design. These studies are well illustrated, but the photographs contribute only marginally to the argument as they are not referred to in the text. This is followed by a brief historical account of various techniques of altering topographical levels; and a detailed study of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury’s estate, St Giles in Dorset, which illustrates the birth of informal gardens. The fifth chapter is an essay on eighteenth-century English landscape garden buildings through the writings of Robert Morris, followed by an analysis of a sixteenthcentury landscape, the Sacro Monte in Varello, Italy, also called the New Jerusalem. In this last chapter, the author demonstrates the importance of the setting of buildings in the landscape. In order to link these diverse topics, each chapter has been given a subtitle that includes the term ‘topography’. However, the only chapters dedicated to the development of a new theory in the consideration of the relationship between landscape and architecture are the Introduction and the Conclusion.

To conclude, the author identifies six characteristics linked to the term ‘topography’, which could summarize essential aspects of both landscape and architecture. He defines them as: ‘the horizon of both landscape and architecture; mosaic heterogeneity; neither land nor material as such; not the play of forms in light; given, not shown; saturated with traces of praxis’. These very obscure headings illustrate the difficulty of fully comprehending the author’s theory. Furthermore, in order to develop his argument about the similarities between architecture and landscape and to define ‘topographical arts’ convincingly, the author might have been better advised to rely on specific examples illustrating his point rather than this compilation of only vaguely related papers. As Billie Tsien points out on the dust jacket: ‘this is not a book for lazy minds’; but this should not deter future readers, as each chapter is well researched and contains interesting information related to landscape, architecture and history.

Laurence  Pattacini

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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