by Christophe Girot. Thames & Hudson, May 2016. 352 p. ill. ISBN 978500342978 (cl.), $75.00.
Reviewed September 2016
Written by the chair of landscape architecture at the ETH Zurich, this is a well-constructed text which brings together landscape, ecology, history, and geography to explain how and why our landscapes shape our world as they do. But this is not an ordinary history of landscape architecture; while the organization of the concepts follows a historical sequence, this book does not simply survey historic gardens or discuss the work of major figures in landscape architecture. As Philp Ursprung, also from the ETH, notes in the forward: "His book is not a survey of canonical landscape architecture. On the contrary it suggests that such a canon does not exist, or if it did then it ought to be revised. The book demonstrates that the scope of landscape architecture is broader in space than the scope of architecture..."
Girot makes his case by introducing a series of archetypes and using vivid illustrations to elucidate the ideas he presents. He begins with the forest clearing to describe how strategic sites controlled communication and led to social advancement and power. The next archetype presented is the walled garden, first found in arid regions of the world. Aerial views, color photographs of specific elements, and maps are employed here and elsewhere in the book to explain each archetype and to link it to the course of history.
Girot emphasizes topography and water resources, beginning with what he labels as hydraulic civilizations, often developed by despotic governments. He also introduces the idea of the sacred in his analysis of ancient landscapes. Using concepts already introduced, Girot shows their evolution and how civilizations transitioned from one archetype to another, building on the past and bowing to internal pressures like democratic change, as well as external forces like climate. This is a real strength of the book and helps the reader to better understand the concepts as well as the landscapes themselves.
Girot believes that landscape architecture was better able to express changes in the understanding of nature than architecture. Nineteenth-century industrialization led to the creation of public parks, and nature was viewed as salvation. Girot views the twentieth century as a time of utopian dreams and contrasting ideologies. He moves beyond deconstruction to discuss terrain vague. The relationship between landscape and ecology is being explored by many of today's practitioners and examples abound in the text from earth art to storm water management.
Girot concludes that the purpose of his book is to show how our relationship to nature has changed. He has certainly done that through engaging text, well presented examples, extensive notes and a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, making the book an important addition to the literature of landscape architecture.