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Landscape Portrait

The reciprocal and sometimes antagonistic relationship between architecture and landscape forms the unifying topic of this otherwise uneven collection of essays

Savour the colour photograph on the cover of this book − it is the last one you will see. Savour too the detail, as it is the only image of sufficient size to show it (all others are small and grey), and truly to illustrate that evocative term ‘architecturallandscape’: the interplay of built form with land form, plant form and space. The cover image shows a section of Le Corbusier’s Capitol complex in Chandigarh with the portico of the Assembly, the reflecting pool in front of it, one corner of the Tour des Ombres, and the sculpted terrain in which they sit. Chandigarh is the subject of one chapter, where it receives a distinguished analysis first published in the AR in 1987. It is also one of the best illustrated, as Le Corbusier was first and foremost a visual artist and left plenty of material. But this is primarily a ‘word’ book, from an academic environment (the author is Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan), and almost presumes the reader to have access to supplementary illustrative material.

It is a collection of papers that have appeared in a variety of publications over the last 25 years, with two new sections and an introduction added, so there is no argument that runs consistently through it. It is a rich quarry to mine rather than a text to read from beginning to end in one go, and the full reference notes will make it an invaluable source for anyone wishing to extend their study of the topics covered. But there is one theme that appears regularly, which contrasts American attitudes to land, society and land ownership with what the author perceives to be more communitarian European ideas, and what happens when the two meet.

So this is a book concerned as much with larger issues of society and planning as with the details of landscape design. A chapter entitled ‘Social Idealism and Urban Landscape’ contrasts Clarence Stein’s Sunnyside Gardens in New York with Ernst May’s Römerstadt housing development in Frankfurt, ‘Hilberseimer and Caldwell’ contrasts their ‘Intersecting Ideologies in Lafayette Park’ where they worked with Mies van der Rohe, and ‘Collaborative Fruits’ interestingly chronicles the attempted collaboration between landscape designer Garrett Eckbo, planner Simon Eisner and ‘fellow-travelling’ architect Gregory Ain to build Community Homes for unionised Hollywood film industry workers in the 1940s.

The analysis of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion seen as landscape, on the other hand, perhaps seems contrived and the comparison of it with Pope’s grotto at Twickenham a bit far-fetched, but many interesting observations are thrown up along the way. At either end of the time scale, the studies of Plečnik’s interventions at Prague Castle and Tschumi’s and Koolhaas’s respective designs for the Parc de la Villette arguably strain the category ‘Modern’.It is indeed apt that Corb’s work is on the front cover. We tend to assume that the aspiration to a green environment was intrinsic to the Modern Movement, but in fact it was one that Le Corbusier very largely brought with him. There is a whole strand in ‘Modernism’ (a term which Caroline Constant is content to use) beginning perhaps with Sant’Elia and Futurism, and continuing with the Constructivists, which was preoccupied with the ‘Groszstadt’, the Metropolis conceived as a hard environment, and with the imagery of technology − a tradition that effectively Stirling and Gowan much later were to take on board with their attempts to make university departments resemble power stations.

Even in Germany the early ‘glass skyscraper’ imagery of Mies and the notorious ‘Highrise City’ project of Hilberseimer of 1924 (which, as Constant records, he himself later disowned) show not a blade of grass. But from 1922 Le Corbusier’s City of Three Million, drawing on ideas from Perret and Garnier as well as from the Garden City movement, is conceived as green. He challenged the accepted notion that the city was hard, the country soft. One cannot help feeling that his ability to fuse or overlay geometry and nature as evidenced at Chandigarh, where the Capitol is a true architectural landscape, is something from which the London Olympic Park might have benefited, with a result less resembling a fairground.

The Modern Architectural Landscape

Author: Caroline Constant
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Price: $30 (paperback)

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