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Making sense

If your ears go back, like a frightened horse, at the word ‘conceptualism’ when applied to modern art, you may not be very pleased to know that this is a hot topic in landscape design at the moment.

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

If your ears go back, like a frightened horse, at the word ‘conceptualism’ when applied to modern art, you may not be very pleased to know that this is a hot topic in landscape design at the moment.

If your ears go back, like a frightened horse, at the word ‘conceptualism’ when applied to modern art, you may not be very pleased to know that this is a hot topic in landscape design at the moment. Before you gallop off round the paddock, however, I should point out that we could all be beneficiaries, if the result is brighter, more interesting public (and private) spaces. After all, there cannot be much to be said for the rigid geometry, concrete street furniture and off-the-peg greenery, which has been the norm for decades. At a symposium on the subject, organised by the Society of Garden Designers and held at Tate Britain last week, the mood was enthusiastic, optimistic, even excited. There was a recognition that conceptualism encourages a refreshing inventiveness in landscape and garden design.

According to Tim Richardson, whose recent book, Avant Gardeners (Thames & Hudson), contains a consideration of the work of 50 design partnerships worldwide, who work at least part of their time in this way, conceptualist garden design is the harnessing of an idea, or related ideas, as the starting point for work characterised by the use of colour, artificial materials (such as recycled glass, for example) and a visual commentary on a site’s history, culture or ecology. It often blurs the line between art and landscape. It can be witty, thought- provoking, beautiful even, although, it must be said, it is sometimes downright daft.


Conceptualism is only another way of expressing the very human desire to make sense, in an innovative and engaging way, of our world — which, let’s face it, is what drives many people to become gardeners in the first place. Conceptualist landscapes and gardens can have a function, but it is not central as it would be to Modernism and, though they can be flower-rich, they are demonstrably not in the tradition of British decorative horticulture. Many have a sustainable, ecological theme, not surprisingly, but the best are those which pay homage to their surroundings rather than wrench the spectator’s attention round to ponderous fears about global threats.

Conceptualist designers are great ones for show gardens, as witness their fondness for garden shows such as Cornerstone in California, Jardins de Mètis in Canada, Chaumont in France, and Hampton Court Flower Show (where the RHS for the past three years has encouraged the participation of half a dozen conceptualist designers, with impressive results). Of course, this is a very different matter from designing something which can carry its intellectual load over the long term, and these garden shows tend to encourage ‘one-liner’ designs. That is an ever-present danger with conceptualism, but at least these shows give designers an opportunity to stretch their imaginations, and for potential clients to see their work.

The problem can come with the real thing, when conceptualist layouts are often the target for brain-out-of-gear criticism — as was meted out, for example, to the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial fountain in Hyde Park, designed by Gustafson Porter. (Not only does the fountain say a great deal about both the appeal and the danger of the late Princess, but it is also a beautiful structure in itself and will be enhanced further when the trees around have had time to grow up to make a glade.)

What is encouraging about the conceptualists working at the moment is the heterogeneity of their vision. They are hard to pigeon-hole. Claude Cormier plumped for glossy red concrete tree trunks at the Palais de Congrès convention centre in Montreal, while Ron Lutsko has made botanically and ecologically nuanced ‘Sustainability Gardens’ in Redding, California. The English installation artist Julia Barton uses plants in her sculptures, while the German Herbert Dreiseitl is preoccupied with water in all its possibilities, a designer whom Richardson calls a ‘maker of liquid narratives’. And a number of them, like the Swedish Monika Gora, and the Americans Martha Schwartz and Topher Delaney (her of the monster shopping bag planters) have a lively sense of humour.

But, stay, have we not been here before? What is the early 18th-century English landscape garden, at its most refined, than the expression in land form of an idea, in that case the longing to inhabit a classical Arcadia, complete with temples and pavilions, and Elysian (sheep-grazed) fields.

So, although we private gardeners will probably always remain attached to our 19th-century style of decorative horticulture, which warms our hearts and breaks our backs, there really is nothing to be frightened of in this conceptualist stuff. And, especially if we live in cities and have gardens limited in size, we should at the least allow the ideas of Schwartz, Lutsko, Michael van Valkenburgh, Paul Cooper et al. to seep into our consciousness, and accept that there might just be intriguing possibilities for us as well.


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