Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Tim Richardson and Noël Kingsbury (eds), Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens (London: Frances Lincoln, 2005), 91 pp., £16.99 (hbk), ISBN 0711225753

The stated purpose of this book is to raise the profile of gardens and garden design by offering a series of essays discussing the culture and politics of gardens. The editors aim to unravel ‘a secret history of gardening’, which explores philosophical, sociological, cultural, and political ideas associated with gardens and gardening rather than the traditional garden and landscape history dealt with in other publications. They also intend to widen and intellectualize the limited range of garden writings and achieve ‘a stimulating, entertaining and diverse range of original essays that might appeal to anyone with a deeper interest in gardens than pure horticulture’.

The sixteen essays are certainly diverse and do not limit themselves to gardens, but also deal with wider landscapes and urban spaces. The book begins with reflections on the appreciation of gardens (art and/or nature) and their position in the hierarchy of the arts. Claire Rishbeth looks at the issue of inclusiveness in multicultural Britain and this is followed by an article on garden visiting in France by Gilles Clement, who argues for a better understanding of nature and ‘living beings’. This topic is also touched upon later by Noël Kingsbury, who examines the politics of the ‘natural garden’. Other essays written by garden designers introduce their own practical work. The diverse format of the essays results in Vista reading as a series of articles rather than as a coherent compilation of papers, but, towards the end, two essays seem to give a better idea of what the editors originally had in mind. Tim Richardson‘s essay ‘Psychotopia’ is meatier and more challenging as he tries to update the concept of Genius of the Place using theories derived from phenomenology and existentialist philosophy; while Lorna McNeur’s exploration of the cultural issues and symbolism related to Manhattan and ‘Ground Zero’ is instructive.

There is no doubt that the variety of the essays and the diverse backgrounds of the contributors to Vista ‘reveal the exceptional richness and scope of the subject matter’, but the publication reads like a professional magazine in that it provides a taste of a range of issues without dealing with them in sufficient depth to satisfy the reader. It is promising, however, that the editors see this publication as the first of a series of other Vistas, which would be themed around specific ideas and theories related to studies of gardens. This might enable some of the topics introduced in this publication, such as ‘the philosophical meanings of gardens’, the assumptions behind the concept of ‘natural planting’ and the notion of the garden as a form of installation art, to be further explored. Fewer well-selected essays with more substance would enable the laudable ambitions stated in the introduction to be better fulfilled.

Laurence Pattacini
Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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