Published  14/02/2005

Moving Horizons: The Landscape Architecture of Kathryn Gustafson and Partners – book review

Moving Horizons: The Landscape Architecture of Kathryn Gustafson and Partners – book review

Jane Amidon. Birkhauser, 2005
ISBN 3764324252

Today, Kathryn Gustafson is one of the six or seven leading landscape designers in the world. She has made the culturally difficult translation from France to the United States commendably and seamlessly. This new monograph, the first about her work and that of her partners, has been published simultaneously in English, French, and German, and arrives with a degree of serendipity. It is well designed and yet compact. The 33 schemes shown here are clearly categorised into five sections: 'Visual Land', 'Encountering Land', 'Light and Water', 'Frame Space' and 'Places of Translation'. Jane Amidon, the author, did not perhaps need Aaron Betsky's additional 'Introduction', where one can sense the shadow of his book Landscrapers weighing down upon these lighter beings, with infrastructure shock (pace, the great, late and increasingly misrepresented Professor Ian McHarg). This was not, as Betsky claims, a 'sublime alternative'; yet, he is right at the same time to draw the reader's attention to a kind of nomadic shamanism, which still today givers a human coherence to wider landspaces in the proper expression of scale. Gustafson's own, inimitable strength lies in her ability to coax out the inherent narratives that exist within every context.

One can agree with Betsky in praising, and indeed singling out, the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Kensington Gardens: a superb and elemental commemoration and reflection of that love of children that so epitomised her life. The fact that bureaucracy and self-serving user litigation, or its propensity, has drawn a cloud temporarily over this beautiful and benignly poetic project simply demonstrates the need for the operators to anticipate, and resolve, previously unforeseen barriers. The water flows and sparkles gently round, playing with the light in this big space. Neil Porter, Gustafson's London partner, is to be praised here for his 'coolness under fire' and his inspirational management and support. Amidon singles out Gustafson's recent re-awareness of the once abandoned tradition of the Picturesque - always a natural concomitant of the Sublime - and an emphasis in her recent schemes of that horizontal continuity of form. It is 'Sense of Nature' that pervades Kathryn Gustafson's work in its broadest sense. The current idea of 'feminine minimalism' seems to underline much of Kathryn Gustafson's work and that of her partners in Europe, Britain, and the USA; 'Sense of Nature' in the traditional meaning is, therefore, equated with a rational intuition, a key characteristic of the work upon Jane Amidon focuses.

The Swiss Cottage Open Space project, now under way in London, provides a subtle, compelling oasis of trees and water, mediating the noise and fumes of a notorious traffic node of North London, By contrast, Gustafson Porter's proposal for a Crystal Palace Park on that other site in London evokes a lost world, a 'past dream'. Working here with architect John Lyall, they have offered a prolonged, sustainable process of natural rehabilitation that duly restores the original narrative of its creator, Sir Joseph Paxton. A current, challenging scheme for the multilayered classical and mediaeval core of the city of Beirut, Lebanon, allows the vernacular of an avowedly regional landscape to be revealed, embracing the true history of all the forces and communities that have left traces, while pointing to the future.

The growing range of work by Kathryn Gustafson and her partnerships today displays, over two continents, a remarkable homogeneity in terms of both design philosophy and intention. Given a spread of one-third of schemes in the USA, seven with her UK partner Neil Porter, and 15 schemes (including several in France) in which she has been sole lead designer, this shows a remarkable consistency. Indeed, as the author of this book reveals, in all of the work there is a mysterious, magical touch fusing varied design intentions together, but in the least forceful and demanding manner from the point of view of client and community.

Michael Spens

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