Urban (notes from the SGD Autumn 2014 conference)

If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:

Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.

Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.

A glossy, sleek, landscape of steel and glass. Actually, I think that many people’s idea of Urban is grittier, more individual; maybe even a little threatening. Something more like this:

An Urban explorer

An Urban explorer

The truth is more interesting. Landscape and Urbanism are intimately linked. If you ask almost anyone what is the earliest example of garden design they can think of, they will probably say (other than Eden) the hanging Gardens of Babylon.

new-old-7-wonders-hanging-gardens-babylon-iraq_18308_600x450

This is the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to have no known historical location, although it is almost certain to have been in what is now Iraq. The important point is that the very concept of gardens emerged at the same time as Urbanism. Cities only became possible because people moved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. The idea of making gardens emerged at the same time – gardens and buildings are inextricably linked; so one could argue thatwithout cities there would have been no gardens.

Dense medieval Bologna

Dense medieval Bologna

Medieval cities were pretty dense – look at southern European examples that still survive. The same was true in a more haphazard way in Northern Europe, where wealth came later. Significant green urban spaces only began to emerge here with the Agrarian and then Industrial Revolutions, and the explosion of learning that came with them. Buildings began to be taller, partly because of new building methods. Larger scale developments began to emerge, along with ideas of urban design and town planning. These higher densities created value which effectively funded green spaces between the buildings: much of central London with its squares was built in this way. I love this image of Belgrave Square, a chunk of woodland surrounded by a dense urban grain:

Belgrave Square from the air

Belgrave Square from the air

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Look at this wonderful example of Urban design from Darbourne and Darke in Lillington Street, Pimlico. This was the project that inspired me to go into Landscape Architecture in the 1970s. Once again, the buildings justify (or perhaps are justified by) the landscape spaces between. Is this buildings in a landscape or landscape between buildings?

Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC

Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC

We have tried to follow this route with our own work. Look at this example of dense Urban development in St Johns Wood, below. It is easy to grasp the scale of the space and the way it is shoe-horned (over an underground car park) into a sliver of land between new houses and the back of the adjacent C19th houses.

The COllection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.

The Collection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.

And finally, Singapore. Some of you might remember from James Wong’s barnstorming presentation at the ‘Exotic’ conference in spring 2014 his fantastic images of ‘greened’ urban development in Singapore:architetcure-parkroyal-sky-garden-hotel

Here, they seem to have the daring to achieve the sort of things that British Cities achieved in the Victorian era. In our own way, we are still making daring statements in London, such as this huge living wall on the Rubens Hotel designed by Gary Grant.

London's largest living wall

London’s largest living wall

This tied in very neatly with one of the co-sponsors of the conference, Treebox, whose system for living walls has the lowest water and nutrient usage of just about any on the market.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Northern Europe though is how to deal with the post-industrial age. Nature has its own way of doing this of course. Look at this picture of a deserted, derelict Aldgate East tube station:
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Duisberg in Germany (by Latz and Partners) is the best known of these post industrial landscapes. Here the gutsy nature of the industrial structures was retained rather than being sanitised, and a series of contemporary uses was found for the former steelworks.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Partick Cullina explored this more fully in his fascinating presentation on the New York Hi-Line Park. This landmark project came about through the intervention of residents when the structure was threatened by demolition, and a design competition was staged. It was won by a Briton, James Corner, a graduate of Manchester Poly like me. There is no doubt though, that the real success of the project is Piet Oudolf and Patrick Cullina’s subtle herbaceous planting.Herbaceous planting on the Hi-Line

‘Grand Projets’ have their place here too, and there is room for both these and the post-industrial renovations like the Hi-Line. Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick’s Green Bridge project in London promises not only to be a fantastic structure and addition to London’s skyline, but also a major regenerative engine in its own right.

The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick

The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick

Mudchute FarmHowever, cities are as much about anarchy and the individual as government (perhaps more so?). So within the city grain there is room for outbreaks of individualism. I love London’s city farms such as Mudchute. Who could ask for a better picture than this:

There are also hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of tiny back gardens, each crammed with plants and artefacts in an orgy of individualism and biodiversity. James Fraser’s anarchic gardens perfectly represent the importance of small interventions. These are perhaps more important for the ‘green life’ of a city and together make up the mosaic that is its true character. Here we can all play a part, and particularly the garden design community. Sue Illman talked passionately about the way water (as an issue) links all landscape spaces. How we manage water resources and how that influences the design decisions we make, thus becomes very important. She mentioned CIRIA and its C697 paper (downloadable for free) as a particular resource in this respect, and although some of the thinking has expanded a little since then, it is still a useful source of information.

The true nature of cities therefore begins to emerge; far from being sterile hard environments, they are as much made up of a network of vegetated spaces running through and between the buildings. In fact, more than 50% of London’s area is either ‘green’ or ‘blue’ (water). If we go back to aerial photographs, look first at this picture of Central London, and then one of the whole of London.

Aerial photograph of Central London

Aerial photograph of Central London

 

London from the air

London from the air

It is noticeable from these just how green the London is; it is not just the capital however, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Glasgow and many others are just as green. The world’s largest urban horticultural survey (iTree) was undertaken in London this summer in an attempt to quantify cost and other benefits accruing from trees in the city. And there are many; look at the map below of the density of street trees in the London boroughs from the GLA website. What comes through is not only some of the surprising boroughs (like Southwark, with 50 trees per km of street) but also how haphazard the pattern is: it does not follow the ‘green doughnut’ that one would expect. Investment makes a real difference here.street trees per km London

 

I think what was remarkable about this conference was that at a day devoted to ‘Urban’ we spent the whole time talking about plants and nature. Our most important actions are to create the framework; nature will do most of the work thereafter. Indeed, one of the most interesting threads to emerge from the day was the way in which all the speakers worked with rather than against nature. Sue Illman’s rain gardens, Patrick Cullina’s planting on the Hi-line, James Fraser’s forest gardens and Dan Pearson’s carefully poised plant communities all had the underlying principles of permaculture in common. As Patrick Cullina pointed out, our interventions are important but they need to be finely balanced.

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The SGD owes a particular vote of thanks to both Treebox and Griffin Nurseries for their generous sponsorship of this conference. We shouldn’t forget that planting can’t happen without nurseries!

Speakers details:

  1. Chairman: John Wyer CMLI FSGD, Bowles & Wyer: www.bowleswyer.co.uk
  2. Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illman-young.com
  3. Patrick Cullina, former director of horticulture at both Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Hi-Line. Patrick Cullina Horticultural Design & Consulting 894 Sixth Avenue, 5th floor New York, NY 10001 pjcullina@me.com
  4. James Fraser, The Avant Gardener, www.avantgardener.co.uk
  5. Dan Pearson FSGD, www.danpearsonstudio.com

What makes a good chair?

 

Court 2 Seater from aboveA little over twenty years ago, I was wandering around Landscape Professional show in Olympia, Kensington. It had been a long morning and I was feeling tired both physically and of being ‘talked at’ by well meaning people telling me how wonderful their product was. At the end of one of the aisles was a small stand with nothing more than a couple of benches on it and a man wearing a panama hat. The benches had a slightly seductive curved shape, and were just asking to be sat on. Sitting down never felt so good – it was really comfortable. Of course, I was tired – you know how good the most ordinary food can taste when you are hungry? But years later I can confirm that this bench is the most comfortable I have ever sat on – and I have sat on a lot of benches (in fact, I now have one of these in my garden). I was sold. The man in the hat (Simon Burvill) started to explain that the furniture was handmade in the UK from English-grown oak, with a steam bent back giving it those seductive curves. The name of the firm was Gaze Burvill.

Over the years I have specified this furniture many times. The range has expanded hugely to encompass more benches, chairs, tables, loungers and now outdoor kitchens. Recently I revisited the workshop where it is all made – no longer exclusively from English oak, but still all sustainably sourced European oak (French, English and German). It is still craftsman built, although these days helped along by some very sophisticated machinery. The steam bending however, is still admirably Heath-Robinson like.  Steam bending only works on cool temperate timbers which have the right balance of cellulose and lignite. The cellulose softens when heated (most easily done by steam to prevent over-heating and ‘cooking’ the sugars in the timber). This is a fascinating process to watch – see the photos – almost magical to see the solid pieces of timber bend before your eyes.

Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical...

Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical…

May throne detailSimon Burvill is still committed to the founding aims of the company – craft-built, beautiful, comfortable furniture from sustainably sourced local timber. The company actively promotes good woodland management and planting of new hardwood forests. Somehow I think they will still be around in a hundred years to see the results! Its the details that really make this furniture though. The junctions, the way lines and planes come together; the simple but elegant fixings and joints. When you first come across the furniture, you can’t help but reach out to touch it.

So what should a good chair be? Comfortable? – tick; Beautiful? – tick; Sustainably/ethically sourced? – tick; Affordable? – well, good furniture is never cheap, but for something that is going to give you twenty-five years or so of pleasure, I think it is great value.

I am just off for a lie-down on my bench.

Court seat

Seville’s big Mushroom.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers for the long break since my last post. After a two week holiday in southern Spain, I contracted Pneumonia and after a brief spell in hospital spent most of the last three weeks in bed.

While in Spain, we spent a few days each in Granada (more of that in a later post), Cordoba and Seville. We were staying in the northern part of Seville, a kilometre or two’s walk from the historic quarter. There was a large square near our apartment call ‘Plaza de la Encarnación’. It is host to an extraordinary structure, known in Seville as ‘Las Setas’ (The Mushrooms). It is difficult to adequately describe this huge edifice. First, a bit of background: for many years Plaza de la Encarnación had been the site of Seville’s main food market, housed in a nondescript industrial building. Half of it was pulled down in 1948 and the remainder in the 1970s, after which the square was mostly used as a car park. There were many schemes to redevelop the space, a situation which was further complicated by the discovery of extensive ancient Andalusian and Roman remains beneath the square. Eventually an international competition was won in 2004 by the German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann. Construction began in 2005 and after many technical and financial problems was completed in 2011. Of course in the intervening years, Spain fell off the edge of a financial cliff. Signature urban statements were out, or as Rowan Moore put it in his review of the building in 2011 ‘Oh my God, it’s an icon. How very last decade. Did the city of Seville not get the memo? Big, flashy buildings are out; hair shirts are in.’ (link to original article here). as Moore points out in his article, the ‘building’ (if one can call it that) has several flaws, although I think these can almost all be attributed to the financial strictures which the project went through as it progressed. Three different architects worked on the scheme: Mayer (with Arup) on the main structure, a second (local architect) worked on the Market space on the ground floor, and the museum housing the ruins in the basement by Felipe Palomino. The three are not ‘in sync’. Although Palomino’s museum is in its own way quiet and subtle, it has little relationship to the organic structure above. The market space is about as uninspiring as it could be. Moore again: ‘It is, seen from some angles, a wonderful thing, daring, inventive, determined and impressively consistent. It is also wonderful in its content, this stacking up of past, present and future, of ruins, market, performance space and sky deck. But it has a problem, which is that these two forms of wonderfulness do not connect, with each other or with their surroundings.’ On his last point, I beg to differ. I think part of the success of the structure is that it deliberately doesn’t connect (architecturally at least) with its surroundings. It does nonetheless have a relationship, but it is one of contrast.

Despite all this, the structure is quite extraordinary. It unifies the two sides of the square, it provides shade, and a public podium (albeit finished to a standard that my father would have described as ‘with every expense spared’). More than all of this of course it is arresting, daring, soaring, exciting – one could go on with these adjectives but you get the idea. It has completely re-invigorated this part of Seville. I particularly like its presence at night – flashy (but effective) lighting emphasises the alien nature of the structure.

It remains open to the public until one in the morning, free to Sevillians and a few euros to others, which includes a free drink in the rooftop restaurant. On the top of the structure is a remarkable undulating walkway through which one can take in the roof tops of the city. A great way to finish an evening out.

To my mind, the structure is a huge success, despite its flaws. It could of course have been much better, but ’twas ever thus with publicly funded projects, especially during a recession. What I find amazing is that is not better known, and barely mentioned in any of the Seville guidebooks. If you are in this part of Spain, it is definitely worth a visit.

Please excuse the slightly dodgy quality of one or two of the night photos!

Could landscape architects’ skillsets be more widely applied?

The ‘conservatory’ on the fourth floor of the Barbican is an unusual place for the Landscape Institute to hold a party, but last night it was rammed with Landscape Architects from all ends of the profession. Was it was an inspired choice? The brutalist architecture countered by the Tetrastigma, Ficus benjamina and other seventies throwbacks gave a neat if somewhat outdated reminder of the relevance of landscape and an interesting contrast to one of the themes of the evening – the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown. Some might argue that the 1970’s was not landscape architecture at its finest.

What interested me though was a second theme that emerged from the evening. In his ‘acceptance’ speech Noel Farrer (the incoming president) spoke of the great work done by Sue Illman (the outgoing president). As most people know, Sue’s area of expertise is water – SUDS, water sensitive urban design and the like. Noel mused on the way that Sue’s use of a single theme – water – was able to illustrate potential weakness in almost any issue, whether it is urban design, agriculture, global warming or transport.

Water of course connects all issues, especially those around biological (including human) activity. It is the connectivity and life force carrier of all biological systems.

Afterwards I was speaking to Jason Prior, a friend from college days. Jason trained as a landscape architect, but these days runs the built and external services section of Aecom, an international services company. He has around 10,000 people working for him – structural and services engineers, architects planners and of course some landscape architects. I asked him what he thought his training as a landscape architect brought to the job that others would not have. His answer was – “An understanding of systems”. An interesting answer. I thought about this: structural engineers are principally problem-solvers; services engineers design systems, architects (whilst doing a bit of both of those) design objects. Landscape architects on the other hand design frameworks which are then populated by systems and biological components. Although we also have our share of object design and problem-solving, it is this ability (or necessity?) to see the wider picture that makes landscape architects unique amongst design professionals. Not only do we design with time in a way which no other professions do, our projects are actually designed to change and develop as time passes. My guess is that the bigger the scheme, the truer this is.

So the question remains, are these skills under-utilised? Does landscape architecture provide a training – or state of mind – for more widely applicable skill-set? If so, how can the profession market itself to be taken more seriously, more widely. Perhaps we should leave it to Noel Farrer to answer that one.

I don’t want to go to Chelsea

This of course, is not entirely true. However, with Chelsea Flower Show just around the corner, now seems a good time for me to have a good moan. Chelsea’s hegemony of the horticultural and garden design world seems just about complete. The scale of this is quite extraordinary. The number of visitors is limited (principally by the 11 acre site) to 157,000; but this belies the hours of TV coverage (audiences for the BBC alone are 2.2m), acres of press coverage and tens of millions of pounds in revenue. A show garden on Main Avenue costs around £250,000 to design and construct, although some are rumoured to have cost as much as £1 million. Not bad for a five day show.

Many designers have launched their careers on the back of Chelsea. It is a bit like a number one chart hit– for some people it is their launch pad, others sink without trace following their moment in the sun. The received thinking is that if you want to hit the ‘big time’ then this is the way to do it; but is that right, is it the only route?

In any conversation about designers, their record at RHS shows inevitably comes up fairly early on. Hampton Court, Tatton and the like tend to be seen as mere staging posts in the road to the Holy Grail that is Chelsea Main Avenue. What is more; most years, many of the gardens on Main Avenue look a little – well, samey? You know: an arrangement of something down one or both sides in a sort of formal procession, the end piece, the water feature, the pavilion – have I forgotten something? I am not for an instant suggesting that I would do better – I have never designed a garden at Chelsea and would jump at the chance. Nor am I sneering; it’s just that if you have the same sized plots on roughly the same date year after year, then inevitably many of the solutions offered by designers will be very similar. Especially if the garden is only going to be there for five days and cost as much as a small house – many sponsors will want to play it safe.

Christopher Bradley-Hole's Latin Garden at the 1997 Chelsea Flower Show.

This is not to say that good (even great) garden design is not in evidence at Chelsea. Nearly all the designs are good and some are great. I have been walking around during the build-up this year and there is some subtle design. What is more, over the years there have been some really ground breaking pieces of work done there. Everybody is agreed that Christopher Bradley-Hole’s 1997 garden was a game-changer.

Tom Stuart-Smith's Garden subtle exploration of green at Chelsea

Some of Andy Sturgeon and Tom Stuart Smith’s best work has also been at Chelsea, free of the restraints of clients.

However, despite all the TV coverage, column inches, analysing and chatter, Chelsea is in the end no more than a catwalk. It has all the excess, brilliance, crass bad taste, recycling of ideas and yet ground-breaking thinking that one sees in London Fashion Week. It also has a much inflated opinion of itself.

Would we have it any other way? Yes! But of course like everyone else, I will still feel irresistibly drawn to go there next week….

Obsession – do all garden designers obsess, or is it just me?

 

We all have obsessions. I like to line up all the light switches – I hate to see just one off or on with a multi switch. And don’t get me started on breakfast.

I admit that I am also slightly obsessive when it comes to design, but then, aren’t all designers? Clients have their obsessions too though. I worked with a man once who absolutely insisted that no more than three materials should be seen ‘together’ at any time. Actually, this turned out to be rather an interesting obsession, and led to a very stripped back roof terrace using only timber, zinc and stone. Luckily, he did not include plants in the equation, although these were also very restrained – mostly just Buxus and Olives. The results were great.

Clients are often obsessed about particular colours – “NO ORANGE” (spoken in CAPITALS) – is a common stipulation. I have had people say to me before that they don’t like – say – yellow, only to say in the next breath that they love daffodils and isn’t the Laburnum walk at Bodnant just fantastic? Then there are those that are obsessive in different ways. Lawn obsessions are common amongst a particular type of client – often those who are also fond of serried topiary and hedges – a control fetish perhaps? These clients tend to feel really at home in gardens with almost no plants other than topiary, hedges and pleached trees. Nature beaten to submission.

Strong geometry at the pavilion apartments

Strong geometry at the Pavilion Apartments

 

So, back to my obsession? Geometry. I don’t mean the trigonometric kind (although I do secretly quite like that – don’t tell anyone). I am very particular about the ways planes and lines interact. For years I had very tightly controlled geometric schemes. Don’t get me wrong; this wasn’t always orthographic geometry – all right angles and straight lines. It wasquite predictable, but often (like the Pavilion apartments in St Johns Wood, 2001) used tight curves and arcs. Even though some of these were irregular arcs, I still couldn’t stop myself hanging the rest of the design around the radii that shot off from the arcs. This same interaction of arcs and radii cropped up again and again.

The slightly anarchic parterre of the Lancasters, London

It wasn’t really until the slightly anarchic anti-geometry of the design for the Lancasters that I started to shake a bit looser. Here, low hedges rippled and swirled in a slightly out-of-control way down the length of the garden. Perhaps the final shake-loose was our project near the Rockies (see a post from October 2013 – ‘Northern Exposure’).

Spokane (copyright Allan Pollok Morris)

Loose geometry in the Rockies

That garden appears to have almost no structure, although there is a framework of obtuse and seemingly unpredictable lines that holds it together. Even though that got quite a lot of it out of my system, I still can’t stop myself getting very hung up the way lines and planes come together. And if I am honest, I still line up the odd light switch. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing…

Receiving an Award can be a mixed blessing

You might remember my post from November 2012 (Awards – What are they good for?). Here Vicky Wyer picks up the theme and explores some of the issues further.

What do you do when you’re nominated for an award but you’re the only one shortlisted?

This has happened to me several times and once recently to John. I helped to found and still help to run a community garden in Hitchin, which for many years was the only one in the local area. Rather embarrassing then to be awarded the local In Bloom award for Best Community Project several years running, with no competition!

A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden

A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden

Having said that there were a number of criteria we had to meet to qualify for an award including high levels of community participation, environmental responsibility and horticultural excellence (In Bloom is no longer all about bedding displays). Despite being the only entry in our category, it was a great boost to all involved in the Triangle Garden, to have their vision, hard work and dedication recognised in this way and helped to raise awareness locally of the widespread benefits of such initiatives.

The Collection in St Johns Wood, London

The Collection in St Johns Wood, London

By contrast John’s project ‘The Collection’ was one of a number of entries in the Best Public or Communal Outdoor Space category of the 2013 Society of Garden Designers’ Awards, but the only one of sufficient calibre to be shortlisted, although you wouldn’t have guessed that from James Alexander Sinclair’s presentation banter on the night!

It is a shame that winning an award in this sort of circumstance can be such a bittersweet experience. It’s almost worse to win from a one-horse shortlist, than to be short-listed and not win!

The Collection, a design created in response to an extremely challenging set of technical and spatial issues, was chosen by the judges for its ‘… interesting layout and clever use of a narrow space, which jointly serves to screen the ugliness and clutter of surrounding buildings, and to unify the space into a single composition…’

Although this and the Spokane project (SGD International Award joint winner 2012: see blog post about this project here - separate window), were very much John’s designs from start to finish, much of the work we do at Bowles & Wyer is collaborative. As an office we often work in teams on projects, with John giving overall direction but leaving scope for our designers to express themselves freely and for graduates to grow and innovate.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris)

At Bowles & Wyer we try to cultivate confidence and independent thinking in our designers, while satisfying a series of sometimes very technically exacting briefs.  It is a difficult balance for a busy practice but I think it helps that we don’t have a house style and that every design we do is focussed on what’s right for the site and the client.

While many garden designers are one-man-bands, there is a growing number of high profile studios employing several designers who work collaboratively on designs – Andy Sturgeon, Tom Hoblyn, Arabella Lennox Boyd, Christopher Bradley Hole, to name but a few. And although the SGD recognises individuals as members, it does not recognise studios. In every garden design studio there are unsung heroes working on many and varied projects, making their mark in terms of design excellence but going unrecognised in the wider world. The SGD would argue that they should all register as individual members, and I wouldn’t dispute that as a sound idea in itself, but even if they did this, there is still no recognition in the SGD Awards for collaborative work. And let’s face it a lot of the best work is collaborative. Something for the SGD to ponder on perhaps…

Triangle Garden Trustees with the RHS 'It's your neighbourhood' awardFinally I have to let you in on a little secret… last year the Triangle Community Garden finally achieved an accolade of which its members and supporters could be properly proud: we were anonymously nominated for the RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood Awards and achieved the rating ‘Thriving’ – the equivalent of a Silver Gilt. Woo hoo! Next year we’ll be going for gold!

Vicky Wyer

Senior landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, and cycling widow to John. For more info on the Triangle Garden see www.trianglegarden.org

 

Cycling my way to good design

As I am sure some (if not most of you) know I am a keen cyclist. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on this through the pieces I did on the Three Peaks Extreme event that I took part in September 2013. (Find them here)

When I was on that trip, I began to muse on the parallels between cycling and design. I trained hard for that mad caper, which involved a lot of cycling through tough countryside on my own, often after a hard day’s work. I am a fairly heavy guy, so hills have always been my Achilles heel. I used to get despondent on climbs, slowing down and feeling that the hill was getting the better of me. The task became huge and started to sap all the pleasure out of the cycling (this despite having cycled up a few mountains in my time.) And although I would be the first to admit that I am a bit of a speed junkie when it comes to cycling, especially down hills (when a larger frame really comes into its own!) my attitude to cycling is sort of summed up by ‘You don’t have to go fast, you just have to go’. I suppose what I mean is that in a sport obsessed by time and speed, actually the greatest pleasure comes from just doing it. I have never won a cycle race. Most garden designers have (like me) never done Chelsea, never been on TV (for garden design at any rate!) and are rarely in the magazines. But we do this because we love it; and there is a lot to love, not least the intense sense of promise at the start of a project (or a bike ride). The travel writer William Least Heat-Moon said that “The open road is a beckoning, a place where a man can lose himself”. You might as well say “a blank sheet of white paper is a beckoning…”. When I sit down, marker pen in hand, in front of a blank pad of layout paper, with its luminous depth of whiteness, I feel as though I stand on the edge of a lake about to dive in.

All too often though, I start to suffer ‘design constipation’ – the longer the timeslot available to do the design, the worse it gets. I have written about this before (Where do ideas come from?) but there is another parallel with hills and cycling here – to be successful, you have to get in the ‘zone’. Quite often, when I am cycling on my own, I get in an almost ‘Zen’ like state (bear with me here!); the swish of the wheels, the whirr of the pedals and cranks, and the wind whistling past is hypnotic, especially given one’s own body rhythm. Cycling when in this state is much easier – the miles fly by. Even when I am not in my own little world, when I get to an incline, I often deliberately think of something else: some all-consuming train of thought and before I know it I am at the top of the hill. Design is a bit like that, don’t you find? It often creeps up on you sideways and when you try and think of it directly, it skittles away.

Garden design in particular can be a lonely existence. Many garden designers work from home on their own. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting but in both cases no-one to share it with. During the summer I cycle a lot on my own, but I also go out once a week with friends for a ride. Cycling in a group (particularly a tight formation) is 30% more efficient than on one’s own. You can cover much greater distances and it is one of the few exercises where one can easily talk at the same time. Company and shared experience are essential to make the most of solitary pursuit.

To finish, one more quote, this time from John F Kennedy: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Except perhaps a well-executed design?

Northern Exposure*

Five years ago, I received this email from my cousin:

“We are in desperate need of landscaping advice…when can you  “pop over” for a visit??!! How’s things on your end of the globe?  We are loving our life in Spokane, WA…nice to be back in the mountain west.  House is VERY near completion, should be moved in early July, and great guest digs, so come check it out!! Seriously, landscaping is overwhelming blank slate…HELP!!!  Love to all!”

So began a great project.

The site was a garden designers dream – and nightmare. With an inspired and trusting client, a ten acre site in the middle of some fantastic scenery and a great palette of hard materials locally available, this job seemed to have everything. Except that the ten acres was 5000 miles away, nothing much seemed to grow there except ponderosa pine and the climate was pretty harsh – summer highs of 350C and winter lows of around -200C . It was pretty dry too, enjoying a meagre 30cm or so of rain each year, much of it as snow during the winter months.

I arrived in late one evening, mid-September 2010 after a long flight. As a result, I woke up at about 5am the next morning, with sunlight streaming in. My hosts were asleep (not unreasonably) so I spent the next two hours until breakfast wandering around the site, drinking in the essence of the place. And this was a truly remarkable place.

Great outcrops of granite pushed obstinately through the landscape everywhere, often amongst precarious but picturesque pines. It was so dry that almost nothing rotted, or not very fast anyway. Timber from clearances (sometimes decades before) lay stacked around, bleached dry.

 

Over the next four days, I cycled, climbed and hiked my way around the local mountains, hills and valleys. I visited gardens, nurseries, stoneyards and parks. By the end of it ideas had begun to gel in my mind.

The house itself was uncompromising, made up of a series of different panel-clad planes running at obtuse angles, with colours inspired by the setting. Ideas began to half form in my head of a design which drew on the asymmetry of the house but also captured the essence of the landscape. I sat my hosts down and sketched a few ideas out on paper, showing banks of gabions – wire baskets filled with stone – running at asymmetric angles and emerging from the ground in a similar way to the granite outcrops. These were punctuated by the aspens that I had seen in the valleys around and anchored by a few large boulders and a sprinkling of dwarf pines. Flowing through the whole were drifts of herbaceous planting and grasses. The route to the front door was to be made up of huge irregular four-sided slabs of concrete, with trickles of thyme running between them. The reaction could perhaps be described as ‘cautious’, or perhaps ‘cautiously enthusiastic’. The planting was an intrinsic part of the design. With what limited water there was coming from a 335m (1100′) deep well, the choice of the plants was critical. The designs were developed on Xeriscape principles, first developed in Colorado USA, which uses plants well adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Grasses, penstemons, and other herbaceous species formed the backbone of the scheme.

Work started almost as soon as I left – or at least as soon as I could get the drawings together! The clients were keen to make a start; much of the donkey work was to be done on a self-build basis and work had to get well underway before the bad weather closed in. Watching the design emerge from 5000 miles away was a tantalising process. I received photo updates on an almost daily basis, and questions almost as frequently!

My ideas for the areas to the rear of the building came together more slowly. Here I envisaged broad sweeps of herbaceous planting which integrated with the naturally occurring spring flowers occurring abundantly on the site. There was to be a focus at a natural clearing and place where two axes met. I had originally envisaged a small building for this spot. However, some other ideas came together fortuitously. I had long been keen to incorporate some sculptural elements into the scheme; indeed I had been trying in vain to get a local fine art course involved. The client needed no more of a prompt – within a few weeks they were coming up with their own ideas for how a sculpture might work and a couple of months later it was finished and installed. Sadly, the ideas for the broader landscape although partly implemented went on hold. The owners had to relocate to Tennessee, so the house was sold much earlier than had originally been expected, although of course the up side of this was the possibility of a new project.

I thought that would be it, but was able to make contact with the new owners and return to the site to photograph it this autumn. Many of the pictures below in this blogpost are from that final trip by Allan Pollok-Morris, and his photos are not only a great record of the work but also a stunning piece of art in their own right.

*thanks to Andrew Wilson and Gardens Illustrated for the title – from a piece in GI written by AW.

Bunhill Fields

Smooth, sweeping paths through the remembrance garden

About a week ago, I was in London for a day of appointments. With about 45mins to spare between meetings I took a stroll through Bunhill Fields. For those of you that don’t know it, this ancient Graveyard just outside the old City of London walls has been a burial site for at least a thousand years. Amongst the 123,000 people known to have been buried there before it was closed for interment in 1854 were many famous literary and non-conformist figures from the nineteenth century including Daniel Defoe, William Blake and Susanna Wesley.

A plan of Bunhill Fields including Peter Shepheard's improvements

Anyway, so much for history. I had scurried though this space on a number of occasions before – indeed our office used to be located close by when we first started up. This time however, I tarried a little and discovered something that fascinated me. After the Second World War, Bridgewater and Shepheard were engaged to carry out improvements to the graveyard. Peter Shepheard, who was one of the leading young landscape architects of his generation, re-planned the memorial gardens to the north part of the site.  The work is unmistakeably English and of the post war modern movement. Peter Shepheard’s great strength was the effortless simplicity of his designs. Like many of his peers, he was completely comfortable with the Edwardian arts and crafts heritage, and did not see it as a millstone in the way that later generations did. The smooth lines of the Yorkstone path, edged with brick sweeps confidently through the grass beneath the huge plane trees that define the space.  In contrast the [relatively] small orthogonal beds with evergreen shrubs, Liriope, Vinca and other plants typical of the period are a pleasantly restrained contrast. The use of fallen gravestones is both practical and I would argue reverential whilst giving a nod to the history of the site.

Perennial planting edged with gravestones.

I have fond memories of Peter (as he liked to be known) or Professor Sir Peter Shepheard PPRIBA, PPILA, as he was when I knew him (there were probably a few other letters that I have forgotten.) He was an modest man, full of stories of his colourful career. I was lucky enough (with Chris Bowles) to work on the restoration of Charlston Farmhouse. We also worked on Winfield House (in Regents Park) and a few smaller projects. I particularly remember Peter’s wonderful pencil sketches and his plans, all in pencil and filling the sheet completely to the very edge with a sort of evenness of texture and graphic. As well as having a keen understanding of space, he was also a master of herbaceous planting  (unusual for someone who had trained initially as an architect).

Peter Shepheard’s confident use of materials demonstrates an understanding of past and present.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the gentle and unselfconcious blending of style shown here. Have we really learnt so much in 65 years?