Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

The Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly members’ journal The Garden is a predictable mix of plant profiles, gardening tips and lists of UK gardens to visit. It is glossy and pleasant and pretty safe.

So it was heartening this month to see it branching out into a different kind of journalism, with Edens beyond the razor wire, an article on gardens in the war zones of Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel. The photographs, by Lalage Snow, are stunning, showing how people will plant gardens in tiny inhospitable places and while under the daily threat of death. The title is eye-catching and one of the photos heads up the contents list on page 3 (it would have been even better on the cover, rather than the usual macro shot of seasonal plants). My only gripe would be that the accompanying text could have done with some firmer editing (for instance, one of the men interviewed is described as “Mohammad, aged 105,” with no comment at all on that improbable length of life).

As a longtime RHS member I was cheered at the decision to take a different, thought-provoking look at what drives us to garden. May such off-beat articles become a regular feature of all gardening journals.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, reproduced with permission, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

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Landscape history is a fast-growing academic field (excuse the pun), with new university courses being set up and increasing numbers of conferences arranged and books published. But there are still few publications that offer a general survey of the history of designed landscapes.

Ten years ago, when I was studying the topic at Harvard’s Landscape Institute, we used Norman T. Newton’s Design on the Land as our basic text. It was generally an excellent introduction, although already 30 years old and with a focus mainly on the history of Western landscapes.

Recently I offered some advice on landscape history curriculum development to a local university, and was surprised to realise that not much seems to have changed in ten years. Newton’s book is still widely used, as is Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s 1975 work, The Landscape of Man. More recent surveys include the glossy Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History published in 2001 by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, and Tom Turner’s chatty series on the history and philosophy of Asian Gardens (2010), European Gardens (2011) and British Gardens (2013).

John Dixon Hunt, one of the most distinguished and thought-provoking landscape history scholars, has recent joined the fray. According to the publishers, his 2012 book A World of Gardens “takes us on a world tour of different periods in the making of gardens.”

The book has received mixed reviews. The indomitable Penelope Hobhouse, writing in The Garden, saw it as “a comprehensive work of great value; a giant distillation of the author’s knowledge; a reference book that makes many earlier histories almost irrelevant.” Writing for Times Higher Education, however, Professor Timothy Mowl attacked the book with relish, dismissing it as “intellectually compromised… woefully light on recent scholarship… frustrating… tiresome… confused.”

Layout 1My own take (in a review originally published in Historic Gardens Review) is that, especially given its title, the book has a regrettably uneven feel. There are some areas where Hunt’s mastery of the subject oozes from the page: the chapter on “Betweenity,” for instance, effortlessly uses Walpole, Addison, Shaftesbury and Switzer (as well as the Victorian architect John D. Sedding) to produce a nuanced picture of the gradual transition from Le Nôtre to Kent, and the distinctive nature of the gardens in this ‘between’ period.

Other chapters are less assured. Hunt readily admits to no personal knowledge of many of the gardens he covers and to being reliant on the scholarship of others. Thus he offers a standard analysis of Japanese, Persian and Indian gardens interspersed with curious examples of the style: much of the chapter on Japanese gardens describes Noguchi’s work in the US and Paris, while the discussion of Mughal gardens ends with details of a 21st century park in Cairo and a recent garden for Pakistani immigrants in Bradford.

The book is finely illustrated, with plans, sketches, paintings and photographs, most of them well reproduced and informative although, frustratingly for the reader, many illustrations are on a different page from the reference in the text.

A World of Gardens is perhaps not vintage Hunt, but the best parts are still full of the intellect and verve that have made his work a pleasure for so many of us for so long. It is a good supplement to existing surveys of landscape history but, sadly, certainly not a replacement for them.


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A friend who sells vintage accessories has just sent me an old postcard of parc Monceau that she bought in the northeast of England. Postmarked 1905, it shows the rotunda designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s as a tollgate for a deeply unpopular customs duty. Now, as in 1905, the splendid neoclassical building sits at the main entrance to the park.


Parc Monceau 1905


Parc Monceau 2011

Comparing the postcard with a photograph taken this morning in much the same spot, what is interesting is the similarities between the two. Apart from the obvious seasonal differences, not much has changed at this grand Paris park in 106 years. The fine ladies promenading with their children have become scurrying commuters dashing across the park. The building looks rather cleaner, and there are the distracting features of a modern city parks department, including wheelbarrow, empty terracotta pot and bright green rubbish sacks. But the essential layout and feel remain the same: a wide, inviting pathway, shaded by large trees, leading to the rotunda and the gilded entrance gates, backed by two stately Haussmannian apartment blocks.

You would need to go back another fifty years to see real change at Monceau, and indeed throughout the capital. In the 1850s and 1860s Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann thrust grand boulevards through the old medieval city, in the first example of major urban planning. Haussmann is frequently reviled today as a destroyer of the charming byways and old buildings of Paris, and it is easy to forget that one of his aims was to introduce light and air into filthy slum districts.

book jacketA new book, Paris avant – après: 19e siècle, 21è siècle by Charles Marville and Patrice de Moncan (Editions du Mécène, 2010), shows the impact of Haussmann’s work, taking nearly four hundred photographs of the city from 1865, which capture old Paris in the midst of its transformation, and pairing each one with a photograph taken from the same place today. It is fascinating. Fellow blogger Adam has an interview with author Patrice de Moncan, who defends Haussmann’s legacy and wonders what future Parisians will think of today’s city.

As well as new boulevards, sewage systems, aqueducts, grand civic buildings and uniform apartment blocks, Haussmann also created a network of public parks and squares around the city ‘where the working classes could beneficially spend their leisure time… and all families, whether rich or poor, could reliably find healthy places for their children to play.’

For me, one of the most fascinating images from the book is a site in the 19th arrondissement. Previously a limestone and gypsum quarry, a rubbish dump, an outlet for the city’s sewage and – for many centuries – a gallows, the place had become a barren industrial scar until Haussmann and his team turned it into the city’s most dramatic park, Buttes-Chaumont. You can see from the two photos here that the steep, entirely artificial topography of the quarry was retained, but softened with extensive vegetation, including fine trees such as beech, chestnut and cedar of Lebanon. The arched viaduct is also still present (now known as the ‘suicide bridge’) and leads to the romantic Temple of Sybille, added in 1869. It was designed by Gabriel Davioud, who also created the beautiful gilded entrance gates at Monceau, visible in the postcard above.

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 1865, photograph by Charles Marville

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 2010, photograph by Patrice de Moncan

The mairie has some of the book’s images on its website and there is an exhibition to accompany its publication at the Académie d’architecture (in place des Vosges), from 4 to 24 February.

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Marc TreibMarc Treib is one of my favourite writers about landscapes. He is thought-provoking, prolific and easy-to-read, perhaps the three qualities to which I most aspire.

So it was with pleasure that I bought Spatial Recall, the collection of essays he edited last year on the role of memory in architecture and landscape. Each chapter is pleasingly disparate, reflecting perhaps their origins as papers for a symposium. Topics roam from the way that landscape design can help explain Ancient Egypt to the complex relationship between personal memories and state-sponsored historic preservation. I particularly enjoyed Susan Schwartzenberg‘s case study revealing how nostalgia and longing can alter our visual memories of a place. Treib’s own contribution, which ponders on our differing responses to ruins and remains, is typically cogent and persuasive. The book even confidently includes an essay by Andrew Shanken that challenges the very topic of memory and questions the modern industry of commemoration, mourning and memorials.

My only grumble (apart from the title, which is presumably a pun on the Schwarzenegger film, but for me fails to capture the thoughtful nature of the book) is the cover price: at some 270 pages and with only black-and-white images, the paperback edition retails at £31.99; the hardback is an eye-popping £95. Nevertheless, it is a stimulating, reader-friendly book, and a topic that is of increasing interest to those in the profession, and more widely.

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