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Not So Simple

The New Classical Landscape

"Minimalist Gardens," by Peter Walker, Spacemaker Press, Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, MA, 1997, distributed by Watson-Guptil Publications and Hearst Books International, pp. 207, $35.

By Carter B. Horsley

Peter Walker is one of the great design poets of the 20th Century as the more than 280 color illustrations and photographs in this large and handsome paperback testify. More than 30 of Walker's projects are presented in considerable detail.

Both his own essay and an accompanying essay and project notes by Leah Levy illuminate much of the artistic, philosophic and intellectual foundations of his designs, but the illustrations really need little exposition. Walker's projects are brilliant integrations of the natural and man-made environments that are distinctly modern and abstract, at times mysterious and sometimes awesome.

"Minimalist" is an inappropriate adjective to describe this work for it is far too rich in beauty and power to be less than grand.

But one must respect the artist's own interpretation and here Walker is wonderfully incisive, not only about his own oeuvre, but about much of modern architecture and, in particular, the "Minimalist" era/school.

While none of the projects are in New York, almost all offer exciting clues to the thrilling potential cityscapes that can and should be wrought.

Any intelligent mayor should appoint Walker as the city's "Master Designer," with powers over all development and planning.

Walker, of course, is not the only great environmental designer. Others are Martha Schwartz and Michael Heizer.

In her essay on Walker's work, Levy finds traces of the Nazca Lines in Peru and Stonehenge in England in some of his work "an awareness of and quest for connection with earthly and celestial mysteries": "There are many instances when the work focuses on the enigmatic qualities of nature represented by the sound of water, the stasis and weight of stone, rustling changes by the wind, blocks and patterns of shifting color, shimmering and magical mists, and elusive light."

She also finds that "the classical order of seventeenth century French gardens, especially those of Andre Le Notre, serves as strong precedent to individual elements of Walker's approach," adding that "His intuitive as well as intellectual affinity with patterns, rhythms , and order, and a to a kind of Cartesian synthesis, is apparent throughout his work."

Not surprisingly, also she finds the influence of Zen gardens: "An underlying philosophical distillation of the complex to achieve the simple is evidence in both distinct components and the unifying wholeness of many of his gardens…The work of garden makers of the mid-twentieth century, especially Thomas Church and Isamu Noguchi, was particularly inspiring to Walker in his formative years."

Her brief but pithy essay tries to place Walker in his proper and self-proclaimed "minimalist" niche: "Since its most crucial years in the 1960's, minimalism, arguably the first truly American art, has become a loosely used catchall term absorbed into the culture to refer to styles that are non-figurative, non-referential, geometric, or merely of few and simple parts. But the term minimal art was coined to refer to and identify a very specific point in time, approximately 1963-1968, and a small collection of individual artists working primarily in New York City…"

Levy proceeds to relate some of Walker's work to that of such artists as Gordon Matta-Clark, Christo, Richard Serra, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, Maya Lin, Siah Armanjani and others.

Walker's own essay is much more rewarding for its provocative insights into Modern architecture and the Minimalist temperament.

"As a late second-generation modernist trained in the 1950's. I was denied, along with a generation of my peers in the design disciplines, an integrated view of architectural history because our professors, including Gropius and Giedion and their followers, did not present the full historic information that they themselves had been given by their teachers, and thus did not grant us the opportunity to make our own ideological choices. I have, therefore, not had the historic perspective that the educated professional of a hundred years ago might reasonably expect….Until recently little debate or theoretical refinement had occurred in modernism, leaving the legitimate ideas of modernism unseparated from those that perhaps should have been discarded. Most criticism related to modernism has come in the form of denunciation from postmodernists. Abstraction had removed most of the expressive content and narrative from modernists design, and references to nature were generally missing from 'internationalist' thinking. Social, democratic, or economic purpose had largely replaced metaphor, though how a dialogue with the users would be achieved was not clear. Without this dialogue, or even an agreed-upon language, what 'democratic design' might mean is a question whose answer still escapes me."

Explaining that his primary interests have been exploring "the extension of the building form to create a setting (read pedestal) for the precious object, the building, and the transition from this setting to the surrounding existing landscape, Walker maintains that the 1960''s work of the artists, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and other seemed to me to analytically reaffirm and revive the simplicity, formal strength, and clarity that had been the best part of my educational entrance intro modernism."

However, Walker continues, "Modernism has yet to develop an articulate body of landscape theory, though one can see in the few masterworks explorations of various formal approaches dawn from the several artistic styles or combinations of them, such as constructivism or surrealism…[and de Stijl, Bauhaus and CIAM] viewed open space and nature as quantitative and 'empty' space in which to set buildings, rather than objects qualitative design acts [and its function was considered to be] a neutral environment."

For Walker, minimalism in the landscape "continues to imply an approach that rejects any attempt to intellectually, technically, or industrially overcome the forces of nature." "It suggests," Walker insists, "a conceptual order and the reality of changing natural systems with geometry narrative, rhythm, gesture, and other devices that can imbue space with a sense of unique place that lives in memory."

Minimalism in landscape architecture, Walker continues, "opens a line of inquiry that can illuminate and guide us through some of the difficult transitions of our time": "the simplification or loss of craft, transitions from traditional natural materials to synthetics, and extensions of human scale to the large scale, in both space and time, of our mechanically aided modern life. And minimalism in this context suggests an artistically successful approach to dealing with two of the most critical environmental problems we currently face: mounting waste and dwindling resources."

"Fragmentation, marginalization, and discontinuity" prevail in the modern landscape, but Walker wishes to apply "reduction and focus" with the ultimate goal of achieving "mystery rather than irony."

"Open space is equally important, or perhaps even more crucial to civic, cultural, and modern social life than interior space. The designed landscape can be as capable of commemorative expression or mystery as any facade or other architectural form or dimension. It is the public open space formed for function only, filled with purposeful but artistically bereft roads, parking, and service spaces, for instance, that carries the message of indifferent ugliness, thereby tarnishing the hopes of modernism to the degree that modernism is felt to have in fact failed. A large part of that failure lies in site planning and open space areas, the public realm of cities and towns.

"Open space us a very complex medium to influence, subject as it is to the constant multiple changes of daily, seasonal, and maturing cycles and complicated by sound, odor, temperature, and precipitation. Of all the arts, it most nearly compares with the complexity of human life.

Is the landscape too wild for man to conquer, or cope with? Walker believes it is not and points to the work of Luis Barragan, Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Burle Marx, Dan Kiley and Lawrence Halprin as significant landscape artists.

Walker has collaborated with many major architects such as Frank Gehry at the Herman Miller Inc. facility in Rockland, Calif., Cesar Pelli at the Plaza Tower and Town Center in Costa Mesa, Calif., Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Leandro V. Locsin at the Ayala Triangle in the Makati District in Manila, The Philippines, Murphy/Jahn at the Hotel Kempinksi at the Munich Airport Center, Moshe Safdie at the Cambridge (Mass.) Center Roof Garden, Ricardo Legorreta and Mitchell/Giurgola at IBM Solana at Westlake and Southlake, Texas, and Arata Isozaki at the Center for the Advanced Science and Technology in the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan.

His design for a mist generating monument at IBM Solana is one of his finest, a broad yellow mound of layered flagstone that looks like half of a large onion on which some god has begun chopping, expertly, of course.

His stainless steel circular fountain at the Plaza Tower and Town Center in Costa Mesa in 1991, shown below, is supremely elegant and cool and the interrupted ripple treatment of the pavement is echoed somewhat in his handsome design of the expanded quarters of the Principal Mutual Life Insurance Company in Des Moines, Iowa, one of several projects with Murphy/Jahn Inc., Architects.

Indeed, perhaps his finest design, shown below, is for the Sony Center Berlin, a boldly patterned and colored multi-level scheme that is very, very strong, another Murphy/Jahn collaboration.

Walker appears not to have a "signature" style. Some works merely are beautiful but slightly ajar, while others are simple, but very subtle. What is consistent, however, is the graceful harmony and the authoritative liberties.

When Walker's designs are off-kilter and askew, they are so lyrically. One senses happenstance.

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