Category Archives: Urban Design

Urban Bad: Rural Good? Notes from my presentation at the European Landscape Conference

Hongkong_central_kowloon-fullIf you play the word association game, and ask someone to come up with the first word that enters their head when you say ‘Urban’, surprisingly enough, the answer is not ‘Ecology’ in much the same way as if you say to someone ‘European’, they do not say ‘Landscape Conference’. If you put ‘Urban’ into Google, this is the image that comes up as number one.

 

In fact the first two hundred or so images are nearly all either glossy (shiny glass, steel, night shots) or gritty (traffic, graffiti, urban decay). People make brief appearances here and there. Urban parks make their first entrance – actually the first representation of a tree – at image number 46. At around number 240, a subtle shift occurs and ecology, water resources, and urban agriculture not only all make appearances but then feature strongly in the following returns. It is almost as if when you ask people to think of urban, they first think of the non-human aspects, then the human – side and finally natural features. So clearly, we tend to think of cities as dense, built environments, with people coming second and the natural world coming in somewhere way down the field. And yet despite this, as recent studies have shown – iTree amongst them – London is 52% green or blue with most other UK cities doing at least as well if not better.

aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
an aerial view of London
an aerial view of London

The left hand photo of Central London show as much green as grey; this of course shows some of the more affluent parts of the city. Indeed the word ‘Leafy’ is synonymous with affluent. In fact, as the right hand picture shows, the green/grey ratio holds up pretty well across the urban grain.

street trees per km LondonLook at this map of London – it shows the density of street trees. The interesting thing about this is that apart from the obvious – fewer trees in the city of London for example – there is no clearly predictable pattern, which suggests it is more about policy than topography or other factors.

 

In fact, the relationship between gardens, ecology and landscape is not only very old; it is intrinsic. What is the oldest garden you can name, other than the Garden of Eden? The answer is of course the hanging gardens of Babylon. Cities came about with the development of organised agriculture, on a scale which allowed specialisation. This in turn led to spare time and resources for elites. Gardens, both public and private, were a natural and inevitable development. These are well documented in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cities, but also in China and South/Central America. Although medieval cities were often very dense, during the C18th and C19th, cities began to develop a more intentionally porous character. Garden squares, church yards and left over market gardens all became absorbed into the urban grain.

Everyone's dream house?
Everyone’s dream house?

During the C20th, the emergence of the Garden City movement in Hertfordshire, Merseyside, Birmingham and London added a new dimension to these public spaces.  For the first time, private gardens en masse became a feature of cities and laid the pattern for modern suburbia. It was everyone’s dream to have their own house, with their own front door and their own garden.  Of course, private gardens can be rich and diverse ecosystems.

The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.
The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.

Gardens are per se good, but the more diverse the environment, the richer the ecosystem. The less we intervene, the better: untidy is good. So, in many ways this suburban movement has brought advantages for ecosystems, but as the density of development has increased, all too frequently what we end up with is this: *. Tiny patches of grass and slabs with no shrubs or trees, and a sterile ecosystem. There is a strong argument in favour of creating even higher densities, and combining them semi-public communal spaces. This allows the creating of meaningful chunks of dense landscape for everyone to enjoy. Look at these examples from Darbourne and Darke’s work in the 1960s that I took on a recent visit to the Pimlico estate.

Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke
Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke

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And yet recently, in city centres we seem to have lost the plot completely. When it comes to public space, we frequently end up with Sterile spaces. An endless recreated pastiche of about four elements that you will all be familiar with: box hedging, black granite or basalt, plane trees, sterilised water features. In London, a city driven by money and commercial power, the primary goals of restoration are twin (and linked) aesthetic, and return on investment.

I think this (From Niemann & Schadler; ‘Post Industrial Urban Strategies’, 2012) neatly sums it up: “It might be that the deficits in frequently criticized modern urban design practices are less related to the quality of individual buildings but rather in the neglect of gaps and the spaces in between them.” There is an interesting unintended double meaning from the word ‘neglect’ there, for it is indeed when we neglect spaces that the best results sometimes happen: just as we create better ecosystems in our gardens by intervening less, I am fascinated by what happens when we do nothing. Left to its own devices nature does a pretty good job. Transport corridors for example, left virtually untended have been shown to have a much higher value for wildlife (particularly pollinators) than surrounding land, even where that land is low intervention agriculture. Often, the most interesting urban landscapes have occurred spontaneously in post-industrial environments, and some of the best approaches celebrate this rather than seeking to wipe it out and replace it with sleek granite and water features. Perhaps the most celebrated in recent years has been the Hi-line, because the way that it threads through communities catches the imagination. But for me, the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord by Pieter and Tilman Latz is really interesting.

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Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord - Garten im Bunker
Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

 

Tim Collins (interventions in the rust belt: the art and ecology of post-industrial space, 2000 ) suggested some good guiding principles:

Post-industrial public space should:

  • Reveal the legacy of industrialism, not eradicate it or cloak it in nostalgia; create images and stories, which reveal both the effect and the cause of the legacy;
  • Unveil social conflicts in the city, not repress them; create works that illuminate and explicate conflict and points of dynamic change;
  • Reveal ecological processes at work in the city, not eradicate them; build infrastructure which embraces ecosystem processes and a philosophy of sustainability;
  • Enable an equitable community dialogue, which envisions a future; produce new forms of critical discourse, which provide access, voice and a context in which to speak.

permaculture-wordleWhich brings me on to permaculture. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking. One of the interesting things about permaculture is its understanding of the importance of edges. Edge is king – the rougher the edge, the better. It is also worth looking at some of the more celebrated examples of brownfield site use along permaculture principles – Cuba.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba went through an almost complete socio-economic collapse in the early 1990s when the subsidised oil for sugar deals came to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union. It lost 34% of its GDP over a fairly short period. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers were unavailable. All land was pressed into [organic] agricultural production, particularly in urban areas. Although many of these Organoponicas no longer survive, some still occupy the derelict spaces between buildings in meanwhile use. The benefits are huge. Apart from the obvious ecological and environmental ones, there are also community, education, food production, as well as health and well-being (you can read more about some of these Cuban Gardens in another post on this blog here). These principles can and are being applied throughout Europe and America. Anarchism and Community action have led to some exciting developments. Allotment 2014-10-23-14_30_10I am a trustee of a community Garden in my home town of Hitchin, near London. We simply took over a forgotten nettle-bound corner of the park: *, and after some initial suspicion from the local authority they are now enthusiastically behind the project. Fifteen years later, it now runs a community garden, two allotments and a resource building, employs several people, grows vegetables in several different projects with people with learning difficulties and runs sessions on wildlife, growing produce and other subjects. Community action should not be underestimated as a way of producing sustainable results. You can read much more about the Triangle community garden in another post on this blog here, or by visiting www.TriangleGarden.org)

IMG_5618So what of other edges? How can we ‘roughen up’ the edges of built structures? Well’ clearly ‘green cloaks’ are one option. Living walls, green roofs, etc. are all important and have a role to play. They cool buildings in the summer and insulate them in the winter. They reduce runoff, decrease CO2 both actually and in terms of emissions, have been shown to lower pollution levels, they provide food sources and increase biodiversity. A recent project at the south bank centre combines both – retrofitted ‘green roof’ on concrete terraces, run by a community garden and used by the public.

 

I was on Waterloo Bridge recently; as I walked across my pace slowed and I drew to a halt and gazed around. Of course it is virtually impossible to walk across that bridge without looking at the view, but what really struck me was not the undeniable grandeur and panorama of the city, or the sense of history laid out before me. It was instead the sense that the river is the forgotten part of all this. It is a truly wild thing flowing through the heart of a civilised city, which the bridges do no more than span. Jens Haendeler, a student working for me has come up with a novel solution for boosting diversity in river environments. Basically it is a system of crates containing a filling which can be populated (either directly or indirectly) with aquatic plants and fauna. This is the sort of creative thinking which we need to apply.

Picture-1-Living-Wall-Sketch Picture-1-Intertidal-Zones Picture-1-Graphic_Greened-River-Wall

 

Concluding, I have included some shots (taken on my mobile phone, so forgive the quality) on a 15 minute walk along a canal through NE London last week. In a short stretch, many of the principles that I have talked about are demonstrated.

It will require action by all of us as professionals not only to design the positive responses to urban situations, but to consciously create spaces in which spontaneous reaction by either nature or community can occur.

These are opportunities, not problems to be solved.

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Why do developers think that garden designers are sexier than landscape architects?

There have been a number of high profile projects in London recently where developers have employed garden designers. This is nothing unusual, you might think. But in actual fact it is a departure from traditional practice, and quite an interesting one.

Firstly, the projects are not ‘gardens’ as such (see my post on ‘When is a Garden Designer a Landscape Designer’ for more details on this and for definitions of what a garden actually is). Most of them are in the semi-public or public realm – parks, squares, pedestrian spaces between buildings, etc.

Secondly, this is traditional territory for landscape architects. In the past, the likes of Gillespies, Capita Lovejoy, Townsend and the like would generally have undertaken these sorts of projects. However, if the client wanted someone high profile, they would have perhaps engaged a ‘rock-star’ landscape architect such as Martha Schwartz, Kathryn Gustafson or perhaps even Eelco Hooftman of Gross Max – all from outside the UK, you will note (although many practice here).

The large (non ‘rock-star’) practices are still very much engaged in the public realm – more so than ever. One doesn’t hear much about them however. And perhaps therein lies the key to what is going on here. To use developer-speak, they are not ‘sexy’. Dan Pearson, on the other hand, is sexy (forgive me please Dan!); as are Andy Sturgeon, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Tom Stuart-Smith. All are gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower Show, which receives more TV coverage than any annual event except Wimbledon and all are therefore household names, to a greater or lesser extent.

Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk
Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross; designed by Dan Pearson. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk

So is it that developers simply want some of this ‘brand’, some of the glamour of Chelsea to be associated with their developments? That probably accounts for a lot of it. Branded ‘products’ are appearing more and more with developments. Interiors by so-and-so, architecture by practice X (although often only the concept) and so on. But if that is so, then perhaps a more interesting question is why are there no ‘sexy brands’ in landscape architecture. Why is it “Gardens by Dan Pearson” and not “Landscape by Townsend”. I would argue that it is a systemic problem with landscape architecture in the UK. Ever since landscape architecture emerged as a self-made idea, it has hitched itself to architecture. In the UK this meant mimicking the RIBA – copying its structure, professional values, procurement strategies – although inevitably always a step or two behind. However, as a result the public has failed to distinguish landscape architecture as a separate profession. It is almost as if the landscape profession puts on its dustiest jacket to go to the professional party. Even the name is confusing. the two individual words are perfectly understandable to people, but together they don’t really make a sensible meaning – is it really the architecture of landscape? Or perhaps it is just the landscapey bits of architecture (there we go again…). Now garden design, on the other hand, what could be clearer? To make it worse (or perhaps illustrating my point) many landscape architects really look down their noses at garden designers.

So what is it that distinguishes the landscape professions from all the others? The answer is that we work with plants. Paving, levels, external space, all of these things can be and often are done by other professions; though often less successfully in my view. Those Latin names though – that always gets them! Planting design is a specialism in itself, and one that most landscape architects don’t do often enough to excel at. Garden designers on the other hand often come into the profession through the planting door. Sometimes I think that this is exactly why landscape architects look down on them. To be fair, many garden designers are not very good at all the other stuff.

Of course the ultimate irony is that most of the garden designers who are taking on public realm work employ landscape architects in their practices to help them implement the projects – because they have a better technical knowledge. Sad then, that landscape architects are basically seen as good technicians, but not as creatives.

One question that remains hanging is that of aftercare. Perhaps you have already read my other articles about maintenance of public landscapes (‘The whole life cost of a Citroën‘ and ‘The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?’), but if not, then my point here is that there is no point in designing something without making sure that the resources and skills are there to care for it. Dan Pearson is famously careful about this, as are Argent Estates, his ultimate client at Handyside. But it is a point to consider: garden designs need gardeners to look after them. So is it the case that if developers employ landscape architects, they get something boring, but if they employ garden designers, they get something exciting? Maybe, but it’s a moot point. However, the truth is that in most cases, what garden designers deliver is still garden design, which may be unsuitable for the public realm resources. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in years to come.

 

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.

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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.illmanyoung.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

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!