Category Archives: Landscape Architecture

Where do ideas come from?

As landscape architects or garden designers, many of us spend a good deal of our time designing (though perhaps not as much as we would like).  This is probably the most important and distinctive part of our work.  Yet try to get designers to talk about how they go about this and one is confronted with blank looks of misunderstanding.  During interviews I almost always ask prospective staff – how do they design?  Blank.  What processes do they go through?  Blank.  What do they actually do?  Few people can even put one sentence together about the design process let alone come up with any coherent analysis.

At college most of us were taught the ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ method, which grew from and is linked to the modernist mantra of “form follows function”.  This principle is so deeply rooted as to have become almost unassailable.  At its core is the idea that an object is inherently beautiful if it fulfils the use for which it was designed.  In other words by satisfying the first two Vitruvian principles of commodity and firmness, the third (delight) is automatically satisfied.  Whilst in many cases this is true (Mies van der Rohe’s buildings for instance) it is also flawed.  Do you suppose that the beauty in Calatrava’s work is purely an expression of form follows function?  I think not.

Photo credit Jonathan Choe
Calatrava’s stunning work in Milwaukee. Photo credit: Jonathan Choe (http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyegg95)

 The essential inconsistency in ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ (SAD) is the implication that it is made up of three equal and similar partners.  On both counts this is untrue.  Survey is a process of gathering information and although there is a subjective element in the filtering and recording of information, it is essentially a quantitive process.  Analysis on the other hand is essentially a qualitative process.  Nonetheless, both elements have established methodologies and rely on ordered and rational procedures.  At this point we are expected to make what Tom Turner calls “the creative leap”1.  The SAD method is taught as though the design grows naturally and organically from the first two stages.  If this were true, we would all (like first year college students) come up with the same solutions to design challenges.  In fact the creative process is quite different in its nature.  It relies on ‘ideas’ that are filtered and modified against a rational framework to make them work in the real world.  Thus the SAD method is a way of modifying ideas rather than originating them.

So where do these ideas come from?  To most of us it is a mystery.  As Mattias Konradsson puts it: “..ask a friend to think up something creative on the spot and he’ll look like he ate a bowl of ice cream in a hurry.  It’s indeed an elusive process.  Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”2.  Much of the writing on the subject of design theory intellectualises this process.  Methodologies, systems and theories have been put forward, but most post-rationalise what is essentially an intuitive process. 

Instead of trying to dissect and categorise the process of idea origination, it probably makes more sense to try and examine how the brain works.  Most designers are exposed to myriad cultural, spiritual and other influences that are clearly inspirational.  Nonetheless, most people still talk about ideas coming ‘out of the blue’ and we are all familiar with the way in which they can be triggered by unexpected sources.  One theory that looks at this in more detail is that of brain hemispheres.  The “left brain – right brain” hypothesis was initially put forward by Roger Sperry who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1981.  In simple terms, he postulated that the left part of the brain controls the rational, analytical, objective, and detailed parts of our thinking; generally in a conscious fashion.  The right part of the brain is responsible for the intuitive, random parts of our thinking.  It works on a subconscious level and focuses on aesthetics, emotions, creativity and subjectivity.  It is certainly true that the subconscious plays a critical part in the generation of ideas.

Perhaps it is impossible to successfully analyse creativity.  Some people are naturally creative designers, and others will never be.  For most of us in the middle, the ability to create and develop ideas that are the seeds of designs is something that can be fostered and refined.  This partly happens through practice, and partly by the adoption of specific strategies.

In my experience the most successful design strategies work by giving the subconscious parts of the brain more free rein to work.  The most effective of these is the deadline.  If I have all day or all week to work on something, most of it is spent in a state of constipated frustration.  Instead of producing something better I produce something worse.  The other strategy I use is to do something else.  Absorb the details of the site and then work on other things for a week or so before coming back and working ideas up quite quickly. Often just when I think I have things right, the client changes some parameter.  I reluctantly rework the scheme only to discover that I have come up with a better solution than the original.  All of these indicate that if we constrain our thought processes with too much methodology, we limit our ability to generate ideas.  Of course, these ideas are loose fluffy masses which must be clipped and beaten into shape against a framework of principles.  These may be site specific or more general and are part of the signature of individual designers as well as determining how practical their schemes are.

So where does this leave us.  Survey-Analysis-Design is not really a method at all.  The best ideas come while you’re in the bath.  And if you try to design things by a method you can’t do it at all.  Best not to think about it I say.  Now, about that deadline…..

John Wyer

This article first appeared in Landscape Magazine under the title ‘Finding the form’.

What are your favourite ways of stimulating the design process? Leave a comment.

  1. Tom Turner. Garden Design Journal Autumn 1999: ‘Timeless with delight’
  2. Mattias Konradsson. ‘The Creative Process’ A List Apart ISSN: 1534-0295. 12 March 1999 – Issue No. 8

That plant is so……..

Cotinus Grace

A conversation in the office the other day between John and Jeff went something like this…. JohnI met up with Mr A.nonymous designer last nightJeff in replyCotinus Grace!’.  Jeff is a passionate horticulturalist but he has a broad vocabulary and frequently uses words that are not plant names to communicate a point.  So why the reply … well this was the plant that Jeff associated with the Mr A.nonymous when he used to plant his schemes back in the 1990’s.  Thereafter the conversation spread and the question.…what plant do you associate with schemes of a certain age became the topic of the day!

Do certain plants really identify a planting scheme, can a Cotinus Grace be used as dating evidence like a pottery shard on an archaeological dig?  Well no, Cotinus Grace still provides a lovely splash of purple today and we have planted it in several schemes without fear of being branded passé.  There is however definitely something to this, I have certainly visited a landscape in need of a refresh without a precast slab or shoulder padded client in site and still with a swoosh declared it so 1980’s!

So plants are probably associated with a time or fashion in the same way that a mini skirt is associated with the 60’s but still finds its way back into fashion and certain high streets on a Saturday night.  Some fashions and plants are probably best left in the era they are associated with such as Houttuynia cordata Chameleon and super glue spiked hair – the Bowles & Wyer publicity shot of 1977 should definitely not be repeated…..

Best left in the archive…..

A bit of a B&W office poll and the following plants were listed:-

  • 1950’s  Roses, esp hybrid teas Ena Harkness, Prunus Kanzan, privet, monkey puzzle, fruit trees as Britain started to try and feed its self again after the war
  • 1960’s  Heathers, dwarf conifers (esp Elwoodii), Mahonia aquifolia, variegated plants in general, ‘Japonica’ (Chaenomeles), pampas grass, bare root roses (in the post)
  • 1970’s  Rosa rugosa, Berberis candidula, Berberis wilsonae, Mahonia japonica, Vinca major, Lonicera Baggessens Gold, Hedera Goldheart, Hedera hibernica, Juniperus pfitzeriana, rubber plant, dwarf conifers
  • 1980’s  Photinia Red Robin, Hedera Gloire de Marengo, Hedera Montgomery, Ilex JC Van Thol, Cotinus ‘Grace’, Osmunda regalis, Amelanchier, Camellia, Rhododendron, Houttuynia cordata
  • 1990’s  Phormium tenax Purpureum/Bronze baby etc., Hedera Pittsburgh, County series groundcover roses (also late 80’s), Clematis armandii, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, purple sage, box – topiary, annual bedding plants, Leylandii, Acers, Bonsai
  • Noughties  Buxus balls, Astelia ‘Silver Sword’,  grasses esp Pennisetum, Stipa tenuissima, Echinaceas, Rudbeckias
Dwarf conifer and heathers

What plants do you associate with the different decades?  Are you using a plant that is so 1980’s?  Answers on a blog comment!

Stuart

When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?

To define garden design, first we have to decide what a garden is. Personally, I love the idea that for something to be considered a garden there has to be a gardener: there is a poetic circularity in the definition. Some would argue that garden design is a branch of landscape design. It is not less of a skill for that, if anything the reverse. There is ‘nowhere to hide’ in garden design. Every element is important and there is no chance of fudging the design.

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The money drought – but is rain on the way?

Sources of funding are drying up - but might there be oases on the horizon?

In these straitened times, all spending decisions are understandably tightly controlled. Councils and voluntary organisations have seen their sources of funding dwindle. For landscape projects, this funding drought is actually much more serious than the literal drought we see developing week by week in the south of England. But as traditional sources of money dry up, are there new springs that we can seek out?

The UK planning system is going through a major upheaval at present. There have been a number of pieces of legislation culminating in the Localism Act (enacted in November 2011) and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which was published the Government today. This document has reduced 1200 pages of planning guidance to about 50. Some may argue (and I would be amongst them) that this is an over-simplification and that although 1200 pages is a bit much (‘growed like Topsy’) most of the guidance and policies are there for a good reason. However, let’s set that aside for the moment (or alternatively read my blog post ‘We all like to make plans’). Lurking back in the Planning Act 2008 was a section on something called ‘The Community Infrastructure Levy’ (CIL). This has only really come into force in the last year or so*. In simple terms, it is a charge that a local planning authority can set for all new developments in the Borough, to be paid by the developer to the Council.  The collected money will be put into a central pot and will be spent on improving infrastructure in the Borough. This process has been reformed and simplified in the Localism Act of 2011. “The changes would require local authorities to pass a meaningful proportion of receipts to the neighbourhoods where the development that gave rise to them took place, clarifies that receipts may be spent on the ongoing costs of providing infrastructure to support the development of the area and provides more local choice over how to implement a charge.” (from Dept for CLG; link to document here). The real points here are twofold. Firstly that the CIL must be spent on infrastructure which in simple terms means something that requires construction of some sort. The second point is that the levy (or most of it) should be used to benefit the neighborhood in which it was raised. Now what is really interesting about this is that all local authorities are required to provide proposals for a green infrastructure. Do you see where I am going with this?  One last piece in the jigsaw: Neighbourhood Plans. The point here is that under the Localism Bill, these are legally binding on Local Planning Authorities. Effectively local communities can force their local planning authorities to include aspects from the neighbourhood plans in the Local Development Framework (‘The Core Strategy’).

www.trianglegarden.org
Parks and Community Gardens can be defined as green infrastructure under the Localism Act

So, let’s put these pieces together: a mechanism for channelling funds from developers into infrastructure that will benefit local communities; a mechanism for neighbourhoods to to demand certain facilities from their local planning authorities, and a requirement on local authorities to provide proposals for ‘green infrastructure’ (which by the way is fairly explicitly defined – for once**). This represents a significant opportunity for community and other groups to gain access to funding that is otherwise disappearing fast. The Government has already said that priority will be given to projects that would not normally receive funding under local authority spending. Under the current squeeze this is an chance that most communities should recognise and pursue vigorously.

John Wyer

*The Community Infrastructure Levy regulations 2010 made the first use of these powers and came into effect in April 2010.

** An explanantion of how CIL works (in Havant DC) can be found here, there is a good list of what is defined as ‘green infrastructure’ on page 7.

To Meet or Not To Meet?

It’s  6am and my old friend the snooze button (god bless him) can’t rescue me anymore!  I shower, change, wake the kids, dress the little zombies, stuff them with a good dose of strangely coloured cereal (fortified with vitamins so they say!), trip over school bags and run around like a Basil Fawlty for 20 minutes before finally ambling out of the door.  I can’t be late for my meeting in London I protest, I must catch that train or I am doomed! 

After dropping off the kids and racing like ‘The Stig’ to the station I find I have no parking money, and surprise, surprise the only parking spaces are miles from the station office!  After more expletives, rushing about and waiting behind the longest person in the world (I mean who buys their season ticket at 7.30am?) I finally get my ticket and place on the London Midland express!   This meeting better be worth it!

Much to my dismay the meeting turns out to be a complete time waster and not the ‘important’ one the project manager had built it up to be.  Landscape was of course the last item on the agenda with only minor queries, which could have been dealt with all to easily via email or over the telephone.  Still, at least there was coffee this time!

The problem with meetings, especially in a large design team environment is other consultants often don’t appreciate how much of our time is wasted when we are asked to attend those that don’t really concern us.  Involvement is different for architects, structural engineers and M&E consultants as they usually cover broad areas both internally and externally on projects.   As Landscape/garden designers we are generally only concerned with the exterior spaces (with some exceptions).  Whilst knowing how much duct work can be run through the ceiling voids is interesting for some, it is not usually our favourite topic of conversation nor does it benefit our work!   

This is where the art of meeting selection plays an important part of our armoury as landscape designers.  Learning to pick the right meetings to attend and those to avoid is vital if you are to maximise productivity and most importantly profit on a project.  Judging the number of meetings you will attend in fee quotes can be an extremely difficult task but a very important one none the less, especially if you hope to recoup fees for additional meetings at later date. 

Increasingly on larger projects we try to bottom out with project managers, clients and architects if they really do need us at all the meetings scheduled.  By simply asking the question you can end up saving a huge amount of time for both yourself and your clients which can only be a good thing in the long run, not to mention allowing you to get reacquainted again with the faithful Mr Snooze!

James Smith

Stop, Collaborate & Listen!

 As designers there are times when we become fully absorbed in our own work, and rightly so.  This happens frequently when projects are running at full tilt and we barely have time to sip that treasured early morning coffee, let alone pause for contemplation.

Ummm!

Whether you work in a small studio or large office it is important to take a step back to review work when the opportunities arise.  More often than not constructive criticism from our office colleagues encourages us to look again and consider alternatives available.  This often leads to better design development and the results are often more successful.   

Can we rely on our colleagues too much though?  There can be a danger that the criticism we receive becomes diluted or even too friendly if we are not careful.  This is where collaboration with other external professionals can be useful from time to time to refresh creativity. 

Elephant & Castle

Recently at Bowles & Wyer we were involved in a public realm design tender for an exciting regeneration project around the St Mary’s site at Elephant & Castle.  Lend Lease and Southwark council are working in partnership to transform this site as part of an overall £1.5bn, 55 acre development programme.  We were shortlisted down to the final two designers but sadly we were not awarded the final contract despite our best efforts.  The experience however proved beneficial.  

Jeremy Rye Studio were initially invited to tender by Lend Lease and approached us to work in collaboration with them.  Jeremy Rye worked previously for Kim Wilkie, recently setting up his own practice in 2011.  His key strengths lie in masterplanning and sustainable design and he felt this would complement  our own experience in detailed design of urban spaces, roof gardens and high quality residential developments. 

Brooks Drive Extension Concept

It quickly became apparent from our first meeting that we had similar ideas and values, helping us form a strong bond.  We made sure we communicated regularly and most importantly gave un-bias ‘outsider’ criticism of each other’s ideas.  The result was a robust response to the design brief and we were left convinced our ideas had the potential to be successful. 

Concept Masterplan

Criticism from fellow landscape practitioners is not something we all have the luxury of during design stages of projects but something that can prove useful with the right team of people.   Results can be surprising with exciting outcomes often different to those produced in isolation.  Maybe we should all consider the benefits of collaboration once and a while to challenge our thinking?  Certainly in tough economic times it is no bad thing to have allies closer to home.

James Smith

Where have all the trees gone?

This is from a developer’s sale details – not a tree in sight!

Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? This question lurked behind (and occasionally in the foreground) of many of the recent discussions in the Landscape Institute lecture series staged at the excellent Garden Museum in Lambeth, London (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk). Historically, those schemes that have incorporated a high quality integrated landscape have become highly valued, both in market terms but also in wider social terms. Many of these were in their day landmarks in the way in which housing was built on mass – The Garden City movement, Span Developments, Wates housing estates from the 1960s to name but a few.

Span Houses at Cedar Chase – designed by Eric Lyons

One of the common threads in all of these was their incorporation of dense planting and trees into the structure of the developments. Often they were planned at relatively high housing densities, allowing higher returns for the developer.

As land prices have moved up and car ownership increased, developers tended to move more towards apartment block schemes in urban areas. The more imaginative operators (such as Urban Splash) and those working at the top end of the market would always incorporate landscape. Sadly, this was a minority. Our experience working in this market has clearly shown that fantastic results can be squeezed form the most difficult sites when Landscape Architects or Garden Designers are involved early enough. Bowles & Wyer recently picked up the ‘Landscape Architect of the Year’ and ‘Garden Designer of the Year’ awards at the New Homes Garden Awards (www.newhomesgardenawards.co.uk). This has been run by Denis Rawlings and David Hoppit for several years to try and drive forward the quality of landscape design in housing.

Squeeze those trees in! A scheme of ours in London.

One of our schemes won ‘Best Urban Landscape’ on a very tight site in London. It just shows that there is never an excuse not to plant trees. On this site, they are squeezed between the houses and the backs of the neighbouring shops, on top of an underground car park! you can see more of this scheme on our website in the project pages: The Collection, St Johns Wood. The interesting thing about it is that the cost of the soft landscape was only about £70,000, which represents just £5000 per house. I would hazard a guess that it added a lot more than that to the sale price of each unit.

John Wyer

Why are Landscape designers different?

Landscape and Garden design are different from other forms of design. Why? Well, there are two reasons; firstly because we design with living things. This means our designs change with time. They are not ephemeral in the usual sense of the word, tending instead to improve with time. However, the other reason we are different is that we are always site-specific. This is sometimes true for other professions (architecture for example), but always true for landscape design. Sometimes I think that we do not sufficiently realise what a rare opportunity this represents.

A few months ago, we looked at a site in the Gade Valley in Hertfordshire. We already have other projects in this valley, notably at a grade II* listed manorial house called Gaddesden Hall. The new plot we were looking at was different because it was a greenfield site where the client was planning an application under PPS7, which allows new houses to be built in the countryside if they are of exceptional architectural quality. 

This new site really got me thinking about what it meant to be site specific in terms of design, and also how that related to the client. I suppose what defined it was not so much the views (which were fantastic) or the approach through the tree-covered lane, which I also really liked, but the way the site connected to the broader landscape. One of the things that I learned from working at Gaddesden Hall is that the Gade Valley has a rich history going back at least a couple thousand years, and probably longer. That is why the approach through the little lane overhung with trees was so important, because the feeling one gets walking up the track is of stepping backwards to something forgotten.

In landscape terms this would mean that our approach would not be to create a ‘garden’ as such. Neither would it be to try and ‘hide’ the house. In any case, in order to succeed the architect’s design would have to strike chords with its surroundings. In the simplest terms we would be looking at integration, but this works at a more fundamental level than a cosmetic or visual approach.

When we were standing on the site, I remarked to the client that although we were surrounded by classic English ‘countryside’, everything that we could see around us was a ‘manmade’ landscape. In effect of course this means a balance between human activity and natural forces. Ultimately any landscape that we would create would be the same – it would seek equilibrium between human activity and nature. How this will look depends partly on the activity – lawn, vegetable gardens, orchards, pasture, hedgerows, woodland and reedbeds all occupy different positions in the tapestry of the broader landscape and represent varying inputs of activity.

 The skill would be to weave different elements (however few or many they may be) together into a whole that feels right, that feels as though it has always been there. It will be neither a pure expression of the site any more than it will be a pure distillation of who the client is (or the designer for that matter), but a manifestation of how we interact with the land, how we live in the place. In this way it will not only be unique but will change with time as our circumstances change and with every decision that we make.

John Wyer