Nature, heroically contrived

THE AMERICAN LAWN Edited by Georges Teyssot Princeton Architectural Press, 203 pp., $34.95

What you soon discover in this book of essays is that the American front lawn is far from a mere patch of grass, weedy or weed-free. It is almost as sacrosanct as the flag. A national icon. A symbol of home. Its predictable color and texture may blanket the suburbs with visual monotony, but it is a restful monotony, green and soft.

Front lawns are public space. They are the visible evidence that everything in the house behind them is ordered and proper. They are shared, competitive, their condition a thing of civic concern and manly duty. They can be the objects of fanatical care, the obsession of "lawnoholics." Only rarely do lawn dissidents dare neglect their front lawn, or freak individualists transform it into something more horticulturally adventurous.

The American front lawn is an idea, a dream, a fantasy, an image. It is an outdoor carpet in an outdoor room. It is "artificial nature." It is "electric." It is "virtual."

"The American Lawn" was published this year in belated conjunction with an exhibition staged last year at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Essays look at the social and aesthetic history of lawns. They offer a glimpse of the significance of the "lawn at war" - when in World War II, for instance, it stood for everything domestic, cozy, and stable at home that the boys overseas were fighting to return to. And the final essay explores the mingling of fact and fantasy in the lawn's increasing role as the tool or toy of electronic and computer technology. (Did you know you can mow your lawn by modem?)

The book is full of illustrations, many showing how the lawn has been exploited in advertising and featured in film. One of the paradoxes of the American lawn, we are told, is that it is both "the ultimate form of the natural" and "the most perfect expression of the artificial." So much artifice is involved in it that one might have expected its universal replacement by alternatives like Astroturf or even green gravel.

But there lies another paradox. If the American lawn only answered a need for unvaryingly ideal surfaces of greenness, then convenience alone would long ago have demanded less-demanding substitutes. But the American lawn is not that simple. It is part of Eden, of nature brought under man's intimate, heroic control. The wilderness, house-trained.

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