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Tracing the History Of Landscape Design

GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: MAJOR GARDENS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY By William Howard Adams Bulfinch Press, 216 pp., $60.

A BOTANICAL TOUCH: DECORATION, GARDENS, PARTIES By Cynthia Gibson Viking Studio, 288 pp., $45.

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EDITH HENDERSON'S HOME LANDSCAPE COMPANION By Edith Henderson Peachtree Publishers 160 pp., $19.95

LANDSCAPE design as an art form has always taken a back seat to architecture. Because of architecture's durability, both in its medium and in the fame of its practitioners, it has provided more for critics and social theorists to chew on. The changing nature of landscape materials - and the difficulty of preserving them for study - makes landscape history hard to trace.

William Howard Adams takes a big step toward remedying this neglect in ``Grounds for Change: Major Gardens of the Twentieth Century.'' In it, Adams places landscape design in context, beginning with the debate that raged early in this century between landscape designers of formalist and naturalist philosophies.

The formalists came down firmly on the side of symmetry modeled on Roman and Greek classicism, which was considered to be more in keeping with religious notions and less anarchic than the free-form English-style gardens. Parterres and clipped hedgerows, like those at Versailles, were thought to represent ``sound Roman Catholic doctrine and civil order.'' To the formalists, rambling trails and clumps of clustered flowers growing in a natural setting were considered products of humanist ideals and were dangerous.

Adams explains that there were landscape designers who mixed the two styles successfully, such as Beatrix Farrand (designer of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington) and Frederick Law Olmsted (who created New York's Central Park). The best designers allowed the site to determine a classical or naturalistic setting, or a combination.

The book's scholarly tone may put off some readers, but others with a strong interest in landscape studies will find it fascinating. For the first 68 pages, Adams weaves a broad history of ideas and influences, keeping his scope international but returning to American landscapes. He follows designers as they switch from American estate-planning in the 1920s to urban design in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. He discusses the rise of the ``City Beautiful'' movement and the modernist embrace of geometric rather than natural forms in both architecture and landscaping.

For the latter two-thirds of his book, Adams explores important 20th-century gardens in more detail. This is where the armchair gardener will find the book most enjoyable. From Hidcote in Gloucestershire, England (Lawrence Johnston), to the Governor's Palace at Williamsburg, Va. (Arthur A. Shurcliff), to the Museum of Modern Art's Sculpture Garden in New York (Philip Johnson),these landscapes became personal signatures of their designers.

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In another book dealing with vernal spaces, artist and horticulturalist Cynthia Gibson offers grand inspiration for bringing landscape details indoors through the use of flower arrangements, wallpapers, and furnishings. In ``A Botanical Touch: Decoration, Gardens, Parties,'' she provides lavish photographs and beautiful settings that incorporate the delicate and calming effect of nature. Gibson is influenced by traditional English gardens, but she too admires more formal configurations. The book's photography is a feast for the eyes.

For readers who live in warm southeastern climates, in Texas, or the lower Midwest, another book offers homey and chatty advice on plant choices. Edith Henderson, a former columnist for the Atlanta Journal, builds a diary-like format into her ``Home Landscape Companion.'' Breaking the seasons into their lists of ``chores,'' she offers tips on the best times to plant, prune, and separate. After a while, her nonscientific approach wears thin, and readers not familiar with the local names for certain plants may be frustrated.

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