COAST. COUNTRY. NEIGHBOURHOOD. CITY.
Book Review – Dr Diane Menzies
How frequently do we visit new places, cities and regions, to find that we have discovered and explored more interesting and ‘unknown’ places than long-term residents? One reason is that local residents often perceive a place as they remember it, without discovering the new. Enabling local people, as well as visitors, to find new, elegant, exciting and compelling places in New Zealand was one of the drivers for a project offered by a volunteer to the Landscape Foundation Trustees last year. The project was intended to map and briefly describe these particular places: landscape gems that may not be well-known, and to enter the information progressively on the LF website. The Trustees enthused over the value of such a useful idea, but the project has yet to commence, perhaps because the volunteer was daunted by the instant success of her advocacy.
The new Isthmus book Coast. Country. Neighbourhood. City. is now a good place to start identifying those interesting and elegant places. In each of the four main sections of the book, a selection of well-illustrated projects is outlined with descriptions of the driving design philosophy, the materials used, as well as the opportunities created. There is sufficient information to locate the projects, identify the context and maybe rediscover the place.
The 25 projects selected (and it seems more than 25) from some 28 years of practice as a group, have a lasting quality. Techniques adopted through the book include quotations from clients and users, editorial comment, wrap around images from one page to the next, large-font highlighted text, and a diversity of illustrations. Some projects might have included more detailed explanation. However, client confidentiality is likely to have been a restraint and approval to texts may have been a challenge for some of those projects. The writers take care to acknowledge collaborations in design, such as with Cicada Works for play equipment as well as the participation of community groups such as schools and skaters, and to provide references.
Don’t be deterred by the chunky appearance and 450 page content. The Isthmus book is an engaging, enjoyable and easy read. That does not mean though that it is facile. From the beautifully crafted essay by Jacky Bowring, to the well-chosen range of projects, the publication invites reading every page rather than skipping to the topic of particular interest, as is often the approach to non-fiction publications. The two senior Isthmus designers, Gavin Lister and David Irwin emphasise the traits their group practice has been guided by in their work including love of place and integration of their work across disciplines, particularly in the urban context. The publication works hard (and succeeds) to be accessible to the lay reader through diversity of font and illustration-type (sketches, elevations, details, digital perspectives and photos, some from quirky locations) although design-speak permeates.
The Country section is at the planning end of landscape architecture practice, sitting firmly in the New Zealand legal context of the Resource Management Act. While the practice rejects a formulaic approach to landscape assessment, they accept a reductionist approach as a stage in their assessment. I commend this section in particular to those studying practice: including students and decision makers, as informative and useful reading. Isthmus recognises the cultural context of landscape perception and includes Māori history in their consideration of landscapes. In addition they indicate careful thought in developing their methodologies which they argue must be based on context. I agree with them. However, at least in their writing, it seems they have yet to recognise that their assessments inevitably privilege western values.
All sections of the publication offer aspects of interest to readers: their staff, other design studios, local government and those who wish to learn. In a market where publications on landscape architecture practice are few as the market is small and the task one of dedication, Isthmus group deserve a round of applause for their contribution to their practice as well as to what I hope will be a wide readership.