Contemporary History of Garden Design: European Gardens Between Art and Architecture
In a volume of impressive detail and opulent photography the British landscape architect and art historian Penelope Hill has portrayed the developments in contemporary European garden art. Presenting hundreds of gardens -- some well-known, others unknown -- from the whole of Europe, she succeeds in demonstrating the rich inventiveness, the originality, and the provocative force of a form of art which has attracted renewed interest in recent years. Hill shows how in the field of garden design, the use of new materials, the influence of ecology and art as well as town planning have brought about a break with tradition, and how new goals are emerging.
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Just when you thought there couldn't be another coffee table book of recent designer gardens Penelope Hill, a Harvard alumni, pushes the others aside and bangs this one on the table. Large, lavishly illustrated, well written and comprehensive, the `Contemporary History of Garden Design' hopes to be definitive; the magnum opus of creativity in garden design that occurred in Europe at the close of the 20th century. Practitioners and students will make great use of this collection in not only understanding what is arguably a renaissance of the garden, but also in approaching their own designs and offering examples to clients.
Beginning with an essay that locates late 20th century experimental garden design within a glossed history of landscape architecture, Hill then organises the work in to categories - categories that were always going to struggle to hold true. They are; New Designs on Classic Themes, Architecture and the Landscape, The Vertical Garden, Leaping the Fence, The Planting Revolution, Art and the Garden, The Contemporary Garden as Art and finally, the most disappointing of all, Forums for the Future, where she can only conclude that Garden Shows are good test beds. Within each of these main chapters are sub-categories that go further toward defining the main typologies of contemporary landscape (garden) design.
Thus the book tries to categorise and historicise an unwieldy plethora of work which is, as the title suggests, neither art nor architecture but something in between. To be "in between" was a trendy but not unimportant theoretical position in the 1990's. Landscape architecture is by definition made up of--or, if you like-- in between many things and while Hill has done a remarkable job in terms of researching, categorising and interpreting so much work, her analysis of exactly where in-between is remains cursory. To properly (academically) establish the nature of being inbetween, one would need to turn to the polarities, in this case art and architecture, alas, little is said of either.
But if an academic can find her theory lacking such criticism must be countered by an appreciation of the remarkable fact that nowhere in her book does she dumb projects down, as is so often the case with coffee table heavy weights. So, even if you think you have seen all most of the projects in this book many times before (and most will have) remember that her descriptions and interpretations make this arguably the most intelligent survey of late 20th century garden design yet produced for a general readership. Every project is explained with a genuine understanding and appreciation of the designer's aims and strategies. This is a rich account of a great range of projects.
Even though the book is not written for them, academics, as they are wont to do, would also complain that the book lacks what they would call, "a critical curatorial agenda". Ultimately her position is simply that all the work she has collected is good because it's essentially innovative, though in fact, this is a harder won accolade than much of the work suggests. Whereas Hill rightly enthuses over the vibrancy of formal experimentation in recent work, she never really questions the work, nor the society that creates and consumes it. Where she is dazzled by the fireworks others might see shrapnel.
The book Penelope Hill has written wants to be historically definitive and therefore more than a catalogue, but her approach lacks the discrimination necessary to the task. Instead of what is a timid and overly general introduction she should have more studiously set out the criteria upon which she has made her selections-- and for that matter--her omissions. This then is not the last word on late 20th century European garden design, and we await a book that lifts the vagaries of being "inbetween" and calls bad art by its name, a book that upholds fewer projects for the mantle of historical significance.
This book is nonetheless a major, if not now the major celebration of a period of immense creativity in European landscape design. Indeed, if John Beardsley's Earthwork's and Beyond began a popular interest in environmental art for landscape architects, Hill's book maps its end point, that is, its manifestation in garden design - the place Smithson probably dreaded it would all end up. Garden design is of course not landscape architecture's whole story and it's a pity she hasn't put her mind to a broader range of the work we do.
By announcing what is, books also announce what is about to pass and the conclusion she has not written is that after the creatively cathartic period of the end of the 20th century, we can now move to a period of less image and greater substance. For, like the image on the cover, this whole book makes one wonder whether much of what landscape architects have done after the seminal works of environmental art is really profound or simply empty.
But these are academic problems, not the book's. There can be no question that within the pulp fiction world of garden design publications and generalist histories of landscape architecture, Hill has produced an excellent survey, one that could well be used to push all the others off the table.