The Afterlife Of Gardens

By John Dixon Hunt. London: Reaktion Books. 2005. £25

Are designed gardens and landscapes experienced by the visitor as the designer intended? What is the difference between his/her intent and the 'received' experience and does it matter? Why does the designer's view tend to prevail in narratives of gardens? What culturally determines the design and how different would the perception of a visitor from a different culture or time be (each visitor's experience constitutes an 'afterlife' of the garden)? In this dense academic book, garden historian John Dixon Hunt develops his theory of 'reception' through literary analogy, although literary theory is obviously more limiting than the 'reading' of a landscape - which involves existential experiences involving all the senses - demands. He hypothesises on the above questions through lengthy, intricate analyses of ancient historic treatises and assorted writings on gardens.

Mutability reigns throughout. From the visitor's viewpoint, after all, there is no one fixed experience. To each 'afterlife' each individual brings his/her own time, culture, and personal history, and each period brings its own design fashion and viewpoint. For instance, Versailles is used and 'received' differently today than it would be in its own period.

These illustrated essays, in some ways reminiscent of those of J. B. Jackson, present a probing wide-ranging discourse about the experiential components of gardens. Embracing the present and the past, extant historical gardens and those of more contemporary pivotal designers (such as Lawrence Halprin, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Paolo Burgi and Bernard Lassus) become part of the conversation. Themes debated include cultural triggers, distinctiveness of place, symbolism, drama, imagination and construction of meaning, the word and the visual in the landscape, and movement - both from the viewpoint of the walker and the moving freeway vehicle. Imaginative and innovative contemporary designers' new approaches, including issues of time, ecology and historical conservation are particularly noteworthy. ELSA LEVISEUR

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