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Architecture & design

A Christmas selection of garden and landscape art books

— December 2011

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Image from Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes  by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

Just waiting for spring to get back in the garden? Katie Campbell looks at a crop of inspiring books

Creating a garden is an art. Six books available this Christmas cover all aspects of garden design, from Monet at Giverny, and gardens that inspired his fellow Impressionists and other artists,  to a ‘top 20’ of classic British gardens and on to the inspiring, often quirky work of ‘avant-garden’ designers such as Piet Oudulf, and a round-up of landscape designers from critic Tim Richardson.

In Futurescapes, landscape critic Tim Richardson, author of Avant Gardeners  (2008), vividly surveys contemporary landscape architecture.He presents 50 firms from around the world. Whether these are large or small, urban or rural, Lebanese, American or French, certain motifs, materials and approaches recur. Landscape architecture is as subject to fashion as anything else.  Grasses, perennial planting and meadows are clearly in vogue at the moment, as are vertical planting, dramatic lighting, ground patterning to direct pedestrians and the greening of industrial wastelands.   ‘Innovation’ is the only the criterion for inclusion.  Each entry includes the firm’s statement of purpose, a description of several projects and some photos. 

Richardson explores the shift from Corbusier’s idea of city as machine to the current idea of city as organism or ecosystem.   The recent focus on ecological issues often privileges landscape design over architecture in new design schemes.  The shift has also inspired landscape designers to rebrand themselves as urban planners in an effort to control the design of vast urban environments.  Richardson suggests that rather than attempting to devise grand utopian systems to underpin entire cities, designers should concentrate on small but meaningful interventions in public parks and plazas.  He wants to redeem the apparently outmoded idea of gardening, while stressing that the accumulated meanings of a place should not be ignored in the name of a ‘redemptive’ ecology. 

Richardson also explores the current fascination with sculpting land to create landscapes that are also land art – or in the case of James Turrell, framing the sky to create sky art.  His final two essays record the widely differing thoughts of influential critics and practitioners on the opportunities and challenges facing the profession today. Richard Weller asserts that nature is ‘the new machine’, while Ron Lutsko makes a plea for environments that encourage human being to re-engage with the natural world. 

The book ends with Marc Treib’s caution against seeing sustainability and ecology as ends rather than approaches; Treib reminds us that every design needs a level of poetry as well as a level of plumbing.  With its rich and various insights this book is invaluable for anyone interested in garden design, landscape architecture, town planning or urban development – or, indeed, in how we live now.

One of the contemporary landscape architects in Futurescapes is Piet Oudolf.  Noel Kingsbury explores this pioneer of the New Perennials movement in Piet Oudolf Landscape in Landscape.  Since Oudolf first burst onto the design scene two decades ago with artfully woven drifts and clumps of perennial plants, he has shifted the focus from the transient element of colour to form and texture.  Following his lead, many gardeners are forsaking their annuals and ornamental shrubs for grasses and perennials.  

Hailed as versatile, lasting and ecologically sound, these new gardens revel in the changing seasons rather than trying to impose permanence through evergreen planting and hard landscaping.  Kingsbury presents 23 of Oudolf’s most significant designs.  These range from public commissions such as New York’s reclaimed High Line railway and the perennial beds at RHS Wisley to such private pleasures as England’s Trentham and Scampston estates.   

Kingsbury explores the origins, inspirations and unique way in which each responds to the surrounding landscape – be it the flat agricultural land of Northern Europe, a temporary dockyard at the annual Venice Biennale or a classical mansion on the banks of the Rhine.  Colour charts and simple planting plans give the reader a sense of the relationships between different areas and plant palettes.  

But the real joy of this book is its brilliant photographs, which depict the gardens in all seasons and all times of day.  These reveal Oudolf’s true genius in orchestrating his material; those who think of Oudolf as promoting dead flower heads will be staggered at the way he celebrates each stage of his plants’ life cycle, exploiting the colour of dying foliage as adeptly as that of massed blossom, at one moment leading the eye deep into the landscape, at another delighting with foreground islands of colour or a sea of billowing grass against the solid wall of a sculpted hedge. 

Whatever you thought you knew about Piet Oudolf, this book will challenge those perceptions; the image of his autumn flowers glowing against the mirror glass of Manhattan’s skyline shunts aside all talk of ‘natural gardening’.  Sustainable and ecological it may be, but his planting is anything but natural – which is perhaps why it elicits such a profound response in our unnatural world.  This book will be a source of inspiration to anyone interested in plants and design.

Another designer featured in Richardson’s book is Dan Pearson.  Fans of Pearson’s reverential but relaxed approach will find real inspiration in Spirit: Garden Inspiration.   A personal credo, written by the designer himself and illustrated with his own photographs, this is more a mood board than an analytical study.  Those looking for design principles or advice on laying out and planting will be disappointed, but the book is perfect for anyone wanting to understand the influences and inspirations behind the distinctive naturalistic style of this modern visionary. 

The book’s structure is quirky to say the least, with short chapters meandering  from Trees to Japan to Noguchi , or from the Pantheon to James Turrell’s Deer Shelter, to Richard Serra’s Sidewinder to Memorials.  As with Pearson’s own designs, the logic is more unconscious than rational, but the journey is all the more engaging because of it. 

Pearson embraces sculptors, artists, architects, whole landscapes and individual gardens, and his explanation of why he admires each is lucid and revealing.  He describes, for example, the way the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi created exquisite tension by juxtaposing the natural and the manmade. His work often incorporated into a single piece both crude, raw, unfinished elements and skilfully worked, finely honed areas to explore the material itself as well as its finished form.   Elsewhere he meditates on Yosemite National Park and its gigantic redwoods: another essay in form and space, this one shaped more by Nature than Man.

Debra Mancoff’s  The Garden in Art  is rather like a box of chocolates, one finds oneself taking in just one more page, unable quite to put it down.  It will appeal to both garden and art lovers who want a quick shot of pleasure without too taxing an encounter.

Mancoff has compiled dozens of paintings, frescoes, posters, etchings, stained glass, tapestries and rugs to explore  how artists have been inspired by the motif of the garden.  Few of the images are unfamiliar, and the idea of gardens is loosely interpreted to include everything from Rousseau’s jungle and Gauguin’s tropical islands to John Tenniel’s Queen of Heart’s Garden in  Alice in Wonderland; and  from Van Gogh’s  Wheatfield  to Mary Cassatt’s Autumn,  which depicts her dying sister sitting on a park bench.

The deeper one goes into the book the more engrossing it becomes.  The anecdotes and observations that accompany each image encourage the reader to examine the picture more closely and to think about the context as well as the author’s intention.  Who, for example, when delighting in Renoir’s  La Grenouillere,  thinks of the importance of the expanding railway network in allowing the creation of the images of the working classes at leisure so favoured by the French Impressionists?  Who  appreciates the role of the veranda in enabling Berthe Morison to fulfil her obligations as mother while pursuing her passion as an artist in such works as The Garden at Bougival?   Who notices how deftly Balthus leads the viewer’s eye into the mysterious garden beyond in Young Girl at the Window?   And certainly it enhances one’s appreciation of the finished work knowing that John Singer Sargent spent two autumns in Broadway attempting to paint the exact moment at dusk when the fleeting impressions of pale flowers match the flickering light of the lanterns in his beloved Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.  

No look at gardens in art could ignore Monet.  Monet at Giverny by Caroline Holmes is the paperback reprint of a 2001 book, but no less desirable for that. Holmes mixes domestic gossip, art history and horticulture to provide an intimate portrait of this much-loved site.

Monet’s Giverny was originally a cider farm but the artist tore out the formal box hedging and turned the flower beds into 38 ‘paint boxes’ in which to experiment with colour and form. He replaced the apple trees with flowering cherries and developed a plants-man’s passion for irises, roses and tender orchids before turning to the famous water gardens, which he developed till the end of his life. 

Holmes reveals that the famous central allée was a domestic battleground. Monet wanted to remove the flanking cypress and spruce to bring in colour and light but his indomitable wife Alice liked their formal elegance.  A compromise was finally reached when Monet shaved the lower trunks then softened the trees’ outlines with swathes of climbing roses.   The book combines sepia photos with reproductions of Monet’s paintings and images of the gardens today.  Artists, gardeners and anyone with an interest in Monet will enjoy charting the transformation from working estate to life-long inspiration, in this garden that was a seminal to the development of both art  and horticulture.

Helena Attlee’s stack of garden books is rising rapidly; to her gardens of Italy, Wales, Japan and she now adds  Great Gardens of Britain.  Perfect as a Christmas gift, this ‘top 20’ represent the full range of British garden styles and settings and indeed of British quirkiness – from the very contemporary walled garden at Scampston with its perennial planting by Piet Oudolf, to the very bizarre 17th-century topiary garden at Levens Hall, to the very beautiful gardens at Crathes Castle with their glorious herbaceous planting.  There are no surprises here, but the old favourites are revisited with Attlee’s witty, perceptive text and the photographs by Alex Ramsay are, as ever, gorgeous.

And for those who intend to get out and dig their own patches, Andrea Jones’ The Garden Source provides, as its subtext promises, ‘Inspirational design ideas for gardens and landscapes’.  Jones is a garden photographer who has worked with such taste-shapers as Tim Richardson, Noel Kingsbury and Ann-Marie Powell.  This user-friendly sourcebook provides focused images of design details from the best gardens by the best designers around the world. 

Though the majority of the images come from modern private gardens, there are also ancient woodlands, public parks and temporary show gardens, and while America is heavily represented, the featured gardens range from Brazil to Japan and Canada to Scotland. Basic linking features such as lawns, paths, bridges and gates are illustrated with examples ranging from a rustic gravel path in a small Twickenham garden to the stark, square, stone slabs laid directly into the lawn at the iconic Miller House in Columbus Indiana.  Other elements screen and separate – ponds, hedges and planting beds, a desert infinity pool, a glorious herbaceous border of silver and purple foliage, a fence of stainless steel posts snaking through a woodland, a wall of metal gabions filled with recycled bricks and a cement terrace in a North London cafe ornamented with glass beads.

A chapter on layout and design explores the different cultural biases as well as the individual requirements that determine how we define, fill and use a garden space. The final chapter focuses on the elements that create a distinctive style – from the lavender lined gravel path which screams Provence, to the billowy drifts of alchemilla in an English cottage garden, from the striking, white, marble rills of the modern courtyard to the polished steel pergolas, rusted steel walls, white birch groves, funky furniture, abstract statuary and night-time up-lighting which proclaim allegiance to all things avant-garde. 

Featuring the work of today’s finest designers such as Christopher Bradley-Hole, Dan Pearson and Steve Marino as well as anonymous amateur garden makers, the book provides a snap-shot of contemporary horticultural taste.  The photographs are, indeed, inspiring, but they are also clear and instructive; this book is bound to stimulate and motivate any designer or armchair gardener who intends to get down to work one of these days.

Futurescapes: Designers for Tomorrow’s Outdoor Spaces  by Tim Richardson is published by Thames and Hudson, 2011, 352 pp., 472 colour illus, £24.95. ISBN 978-0-500-51577-8

Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes  by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury is published by Thames and Hudson, 2011. 282 pp., 200 colour illus, £35.00. ISBN 978-0-500-28946-4

Spirit: Garden Inspiration  by Dan Pearson is published by Fuel, 2011.208 pp., 460 colour illus, £34.99. ISBN 978-0-9563562-9-1

The Garden in Art by Debra N. Mancoff is published by Merrell, 2011.240 pp., 200 colour illus, £29.95.ISBN 978-1-8589-4522-4

Monet at Giverny  by Caroline Holmes is published byGarden Art Press, 2011. 192pp, 88 colour and 53 mono illus, £19.95. ISBN 978-1-87067-374-7

Great Gardens of Britain  by Helena Attlee, Photos by Alex Ramsay is published by Frances Lincoln, 2011.144pp., 177 colour illus, £16.99. ISBN  978-0-7112-3134-4

The Garden Source: Inspirational Design Ideas for Gardens and Landscapes  by Andrea Jones is published by Eightbooks, 2011. 320 pp., approx 600 colour illus, £25.00. ISBN 978 0 9554322 7 9


Katie Campbell
Institute of Humanities, Buckingham University
Garden historian

Background info

For more on garden design, see Jenny Kingsley’s article on vertical gardening in October’s Cassone,  Patricia Andrew on ‘The metaphysical landscapes of Charles Jencks’  and ‘100 gardens to visit in Italy’ (both August Cassone)

Editor's notes

Piet Oudulf has created the landscaping for the High Line park in New York. Read Victoria Keller’s inspiring account of how waste land has become a site of leisure and spiritual refreshment in one of the world’s busiest cities

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