Avant Gardeners: 50 visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape by Tim Richardson

October 3, 2009

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson

Reviewed by Bridget Rosewell

Conceptual: “Most artists aren’t that philosophical or conceptual. They’re just artists who work within a certain style and if you took their so-called concept into a 6th form debating society, it would be ripped to shreds.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal, Autumn 2008.

Reading Tim Richardson’s book about conceptual gardens is rather like reading a Who’s Who of modern gardens. But seeing all these gardens and designers in one book raised in my mind a worry about what the concept of conceptual actually is.  This is not to criticise the book, since any book that makes you think is good. Perhaps the difficulty in part arises because it is quite rare to think about what a garden is for, its significance or how it fits into a more general framework.

Richardson himself suggests in his introduction that the term groups together designers who used ‘the harnessing of an idea, or a set of related ideas, as the starting point for work that was characterised by the use of colour, artificial materials and witty commentary on a site’s history and culture’.  Scattered through the book’s illustrations of fifty designers’ work are essays on how conceptual gardeners respond to history and a sense of place (some do, some don’t); nature (all gardens alter nature); plants (conceptualists are not just about plastic); and finally psychotopia.  This is Richardson’s next new word and expresses how places may be experienced in life, rather than assessed in abstract.  This essay is about the philosophy of how we interact with place and concludes that ‘garden and landscape design is the aesthetic correlative of our meaningful relationship with the universe’.  By the time you get to this quite difficult topic, almost at the end of the book, it is hard to keep going.  Moreover, it is not obvious how these ideas relate to conceptual gardens, though they would certainly give apoplexy to those who believe that gardens are about nice plants.  It is a pity that this essay is not given more prominence – or perhaps it should be in a different book? (It is – in ‘Vista’. Ed.)

I found it hard to relate all of his themes to concepts or the gardens.  One obvious one however, was the use of hard landscaping in unusual palettes or materials. Bright plastic cubes or tubes in large quantities seemed to dominate many of these gardens. It can be tremendously effective. Two particular examples that come to mind are the Lullaby garden from Cao Perrot and Claude Cormier’s Blue Stick Garden.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 1On the other hand his Grand Pergola in Le Havre simply looks like bright colour has to be used regardless.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 2Some of Suzanne Burger’s work looks as if it is working effectively with the space, and yet some of it is simply sweeps of coloured hard landscaping.  Turning the pages you start to wonder about the ubiquity of orange.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 3

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 4Of course unusual materials or usual materials managed in an unusual way can attract attention. Attention is at the heart of observation and prevents the garden being just background.  For example, a chair and television in a wood (the Veddw) provides a stopping point to think about what a woodland walk is for.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 5A very good garden needs to create accents that warrant attention. I do not really see that unusual materials or bright colours are an essential part of this. If there is a concept here it is the childish one of shouting ‘Look at me!’. Such childish attention seeking is not at all the same thing as the adult who warrants attention.  Some of these gardens are adult and interesting.  Some however are not.  It is not at all clear from this book whether Richardson thinks they are all of equal merit.  Did he select the designers and ask them to propose their own best gardens?

It is also striking that many of the gardens included here are either installations for garden festivals or for public spaces.  Both the Lullaby and the Blue Sticks were designed and built for garden festivals.  They must certainly engage the public, but don’t address anything about a sense of place since they are by definition temporary.

The public spaces lend themselves to the kind of shapes and hard landscaping that run alongside these new conceptualists. Perhaps this is one way of reading conceptual as modern in the sense of responding to the themes of political correctness. These are very much about access and diversity. These concepts often mean simple and easy to read – finding the lowest common denominator. One of the doyennes of the conceptual garden, Martha Schwartz, has recently written that Britons need to pay more attention to public gardens and that their focus on private gardens gets in the way of this. This seems to lead in the direction of the centrally planned garden for all. After all, individual taste is often quite inadequate. A similar conflict emerged in a television competition to redesign and improve neglected public spaces. One of these was redesigned by Schwartz’s practice. The locals felt disengaged and disliked it and a year later the crisp lines of the design were obscured by poor maintenance.

Some of the gardens illustrated here and that I have visited are ‘a good use of space’, attractive and comfortable but the concept does not drive the eye or challenge the imagination.  The Potters Field Park (Gross.Max) is apparently based on much historical research about the area, but looks like many other new public gardens to me.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 6The Treasury courtyards (Kathryn Gustafson) are said to take the city pinstripe as an inspiration, but again this is hardly visible in what is largely treated as a corridor by the denizens.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson - Image 7Tim Richardson’s Avant Gardeners seem to me to encapsulate the modern of the late 20th century. This was a world in which new and simple and easy have been watchwords. I suspect that this period is coming to an end. In many of the debates about society, the benefits of teaching difficult subjects and working hard to understand difficult things, is re-emerging. A re-engagement with history is also apparent.

In fact, of course all great gardens have concepts on which they are based.  Richardson points out that this was true about the great English landscape gardens against which some of the modern conceptualists react.  Great gardens, like all great art, will have subtleties which will tend to be lost in the categorisation of the type.

But if all great gardens are based around some concepts, not all concepts produce great gardens.  In the end, this mixed bag makes it hard to see whether these latest conceptualists are really bringing anything new to the garden party.  Perhaps fewer gardens and more criticism and discussion of the concepts would have made this a more successful and ultimately a less frustrating book.

Bridget Rosewell

Bridget Rosewell’s website

Thames and Hudson
Tim Richardson
ISBN 9780500288269

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