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Sam Hall Kaplan

An Armchair Architectural Tour

September 25, 1988|SAM HALL KAPLAN

I took some marvelous architectural and landscape tours recently, even though I didn't wander much farther than the beach and the back yard. When awaiting a newborn--and there already is an active 3-year-old in the house--you don't travel very far.

Guiding my mind and spirit was a wealth of books exploring small villages in Europe, a variety of botanical and formal gardens there and everywhere, the fanciful glass structures covering some of them, and a few personal views of landscapes and architecture.

Setting the mood for the trip was Villages of France (Rizzoli: $25), an evocative collection of color photographs by Charlie Waite of rural enclaves surrounded by vineyards, edging bays, basking on hillsides, hidden in valleys, and crowning mountains.

Putting the village into a historical context is a foreword by John Ardagh and an introduction by Joanna Sullam. The extended captions by Sullam also offer a little history, as well as comments concerning the architecture and personalities that distinguish particular villages.

But it is the photographs that are the soul of the book. I do have a reservation. I think it is proper to make a village look like a pristine object from afar, but in the closer views of the streets and squares I wonder where all the residents have gone. Still, the villages beckon.

Also in the same in spirit and format is The Cotswolds (Rizzoli: $25) with a text by Robin Whiteman and photographs by Rob Talbot. This rolling English countryside west of London, with its quaint architecture and villages fashioned out of the native limestone, is an officially designated British Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There is a timelessness in the Cotswolds that makes for a delightful tour, and a book.

A broader, less romantic and more academic and studied view of these rural settlements is presented in The Village in England by Graham Nicholson and Jane Fawcett (Rizzoli: $25). The book is divided into two sections; the first, by Nicholson, relates the history of the village, and the second, by Fawcett, profiles the setting and architecture of about 120 villages. The total is a useful companion to a map for those who enjoy wandering across the English countryside.

For those focused on plants rather than villages, the Collins Guide to Botanical Gardens of Britain by Michael Young (Salem House: $24.95) should be helpful. Included is a description and history of 28 gardens, from the more well known, such as at Kew and in Glasgow, to those tucked away in Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews. And not just a pretty book, it also notes the interesting features of each garden and the days and times they are open.

More design-oriented and richer in history is A Tour of Italian Gardens by Judith Chatfield, with photographs by Liberto Perugi (Rizzoli: $25). Focusing on 50 varied landscapes, most of which are open to the public, art historian Chatfield offers engaging, informed critiques of the designs, flavored with the personalities and politics that shaped them. It is a diverting tour that is aided by the photographs, dated engravings, plans and an occasional poem, captures the spirit of the gardens, and the country. Brava.

Because many of the plants and trees European explorers and scientists brought back from foreign lands in the Age of Enlightenment were exotics that could not be grown in cold or even temperate climates, a unique architecture was developed to protect them. This architecture is the subject of Glass Houses by May Woods and Arete Warren (Rizzoli: $45).

Subtitled "A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories," the book actually is engagingly more, including in the well-paced and well-illustrated narrative of the botanical interests and social forces that prompted the construction of the elegant buildings. The result is an architectural history that transcends cataloguing styles and explains the why and wherefores of design.

Considerably less successful, indeed unfortunately confusing, is the obviously ambitious personal view of the history and development of select landscape styles by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, entitled Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden (Rizzoli: $45 hardcover, $25 paperback.).

Not helping is the strained, self-conscious design of the book by Solomon, which seems to focus more on white space than green space. There are some excellent illustrations by her, but not much else in this obtuse effort.

The Architecture of Exile by Stanley Tigerman (Rizzoli: $40) also was discursive and disappointing, but not because of the idea. Tigerman seeks to synthesize architecture, Jewish thought and theological theory, sprinkled with literature. But this heavily woven philosophical, psychological and historical robe just does not fit Tigerman particularly well.

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