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The shape of things to come

31 December 2011

10:00 AM

31 December 2011

10:00 AM

Futurescapes: Designers for Tomorrow’s Outdoor Spaces Tim Richardson

Thames & Hudson, pp.351, 24.95

Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Sketch to Screen to Site Edward Hutchison

Thames & Hudson, pp.240, 29.95

I opened Futurescapes with anticipation, knowing Tim Richardson to be a forceful commentator, and landscape architects to be in dire need of an articulate champion. The mixed marriage of ‘landscape’ and ‘architecture’ has always been an unfortunate union, blessed by the founding of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899, whilst Britain followed suit in 1929.

Landscape architects found their feet with the 1951 Festival of Britain and the new towns of the Sixties, when they became early converts to ‘globalism’ holding international conferences. They rode the first ecological wave of the Seventies and then followed the money to the Middle and Far East. They are an adaptable profession, but — with the notable exception of the Eden Project — their public image has been hazy of late.

In his introduction to Futurescapes  Richardson posits that we are ‘at a genuinely exciting period’, that ‘landscape’s moment’ has come. Designers are ‘now possessed of a clear and urgent sense of purpose in the light of the global ecological situation, coupled with clients’ new-found awareness of their ecological responsibilities.’ Even within the profession ‘a fruitful tension has arisen’ between those who want to subjugate design to nature, and those who see themselves as artists in the landscape.

Futurescapes presents a multi-layered argument. At ‘the heart of the book’ are the illustrated case-studies from 50 landscape practices chosen with the watchwords ‘significant’, ‘distinctive’ and ‘innovative’. These are places of delight, a veritable cat-walk display of the art of the seemingly impossible in landscape terms, though like elegant swans most of them are paddling hard beneath the surface. Here are buildings with insulating overcoats of greenery, flood defences masquerading as seductive serpentines along a beachfront or snaking through groves of thirsty young trees, unbelievable landforms that look as though they have been cut with a cheesewire, and glorious acreages of ‘prairie’ grasses bejewelled with perennial flowers — planting schemes that are viable, manageable and beloved.

Landscape designers have lately become known as ‘urbanists’, ‘urbanism’ being the buzz-word from American universities, which Richardson discusses in a lively essay. He concludes that ‘short, sharp intense interventions’ are of more use than devising ‘some kind of overarching utopian system’ for vast cityscapes. As a challenge to urbanism he proposes the virtues of gardening — the amalgam of people, place and plants — as a useful methodology. The idea of place, entangled with memories, is especially relevant in the redemption of derelict, poisoned industrial sites. The reclaimed Zollverein coalmine at Essen shows structures re-used and relics of its glory days respected: witnesses to the sense of place and the dignity of the people who worked there.

My major disappointment with Futurescapes is that there are hardly any people — a lone girl on a scooter, a Hockneyesque diver into a dark pool; but almost all these beautiful places are empty. I know this is the convention of ‘architectural’ photographers, but designed landscapes are for people or they are not at all.

On the other hand, Edward Hutchison’s Drawings for Landscape Architecture celebrates our human interaction with our surroundings on every page. Here is the landscape architect as artist — Hutchison studied at the Royal College of Art — but with a disarming humility, and rather in awe of all he discovers. ‘Unlike the lens of a camera’, he writes, ‘a designer’s brain constantly makes re-evaluation while drawing, often leading to new perspectives on design.’ He chases the changing light on pebbles, water, grasses and trees, his ‘core materials’, but also on the ornate façade of Burgos cathedral, where ‘the climax comes at sunset, at the hour of evensong’ in a pyrotechnic tribute to the power and the glory of God. He allows the importance of people, sketching the evening  crowds which transform the ‘unremarkable’ market square of Marrakech into an ‘extraordinary theatre of colours, smoke, smells and sound — creating a hypnotic, dreamlike vision’.

Armed with only a sketchbook and box of colours, Hutchison dances through his everyday and holiday places, sketching everything that catches his eye. The simplicity of the watercolours or line drawings is deceptive, for there are many layers to his observations: beneath the apparently frivolous is the determination of the designer with a deadline to fulfil. Gradually he changes the focus, from assessing atmosphere, the weather and the ‘people’ context of a place, to the elements of design — views, levels, pathways and planted areas. Eventually of course, the computer comes into play, and the book ends with overviews of completed designs for St John’s College, Cambridge and the Coventry Peace Garden.

Hutchison admits that ‘total engagement with a particular site sometimes verges on an act of meditation’, and this would seem to describes his commitment to the Coventry Peace Garden. The ancient streets around the cathedral, destroyed in the 1940 bombing, are recalled to life, marked with sheets of russet Corten steel, cut with the names that have belonged here for centuries. Healing landscapes: that is what it is all about in our battered world.

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