Category Archives: Garden Design

Roof Garden Design: #1 – Exposure and screening

Buildings and landscape are inextricably linked, especially buildings and gardens. Most of our work is on, in, surrounded by or surrounding buildings of one form or another. Because of the centrality of this relationship, I wanted to explore the relationships between buildings and landscape more, starting with roof gardens, but also covering living walls, courtyards and other built landscapes. So… here is the first of a series of pieces, the first few of which are on roof gardens and terraces. Do leave a comment if you have any queries.

Introduction.

view3Over the years we have done many roof gardens. I have also been asked to speak on the subject on several occasions, include twice in the autumn last year. The popularity of roof gardens has grown in recent years. There are several factors behind this, but one of them is the increase in property prices and density of development, which has put a premium on outdoor spaces in the city. When I bought my first property (a maisonette near Elephant & Castle, London), the only outdoor space it had was a small roof terrace. The first thing we did was plant it out. It was a magical space, only a couple of floors up, but fantastic to have a garden up at rooftop level. This was very much in my mind when I wrote the section on Roof Gardens on our website, which begins: “A roof garden can be one of the most exciting and unusual outdoor spaces – or, if you don’t get it right, one of the most unpleasant! A well-designed roof garden makes great use of extra space and offers a secluded refuge, high above the city below. It has its own microclimate and special consideration of sun, shade, wind and exposure is required.” These spaces present tricky technical challenges, but also offer unique opportunities. I intend to break this series of blogs into sections on the various aspects of roof garden design – design of small and larger spaces, exposure and screening, drainage, irrigation and water proofing, plant selection etc.

Exposure and screening.

This scheme (below) was one of the first large roof terraces that we designed, for a building in London’s financial quarter overlooking the Thames. It was never built, but for me it encompasses many of the key issues and values of roof garden design. Roof terraces are extreme environments – sunny, windy, dry – generally very exposed. Not unlike a seaside microclimate. The inspiration for this roof terrace drew on that further, with bleached timber decking, weathered oak raised beds, beach pebbles and a planting palette that was based on foreshore and seaside species – kale, allium, thrift, grasses, cardoon and others. There was even a coin-operated telescope! The point here is that the planting worked with the environment rather than against it. There is no point in designing lush woodland planting to go on the top of a ten storey building. I will go more into plant selection in a later post, but it is a useful starting point.

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The extreme exposure of some spaces means that the design is necessarily limited, and this requires some careful footwork in terms of design and detailing. Maybe clients do not want a beach theme? One can hardly blame them! However there are other alternatives. Firstly, look at mitigation. 56860007

Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)
Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)

On this roof terrace we incorporated pergolas and screens to lessen the effect of wind. These were designed in early on so that the shoes for the pergola could be incorporated into the water-proofing for the roof terrace. Even if this is not possible, it is always possible to fix screens in one way or another – sometimes by using temporary fixings to balustrades (U-shaped clamp brackets – see left), or by having freestanding trellis panels that are held by the weight of containers, using a steel frame. This is a trick we often use. Perforated metal or timber screens are much more effective at dissipating wind than glass or solid screens. This seems counter-intuitive, but it is true. A solid screen creates more turbulence. In terms of shelter, it offers something like 1 x height in front of the screen and 2 x height to the rear of the screen, measured at floor level. Beyond this is turbulent air, often with quite a sharp boundary between the two. With a perforated screen of something like slatted trellis, this increases to 2 x height in front and 5 x height to the rear, with the optimal permeability about 40% ‘hole’ to 60% solid.

View from terraceIf screens are not an option, try and keep everything possible below the balustrade. There are things that will survive fairly radical exposure – olives for example, or tamarisk. Beware of the ‘windsail’ effect of trees and make sure the containers are of sufficient size to stop them blowing over. This roof terrace in London’s West End has a strictly limited palette of materials and planting, but perhaps the most striking thing when you look in a little more detail is that there is virtually nothing above the parapet level in the scheme. Even so, this hasn’t stopped the planting below parapet level being used effectively to sculpt the space.

Shade options for roof terraces
Shade options on a Mayfair roof terrace

Shade options for roof terraces Shade is an important consideration. Roof terraces can be exceptionally hot in the summer if the sun is out. Consider designing some sunny spaces for lounging/sunbathing and more shaded areas for dining. This can be done with parasols, although be warned – these blow around in high winds. Alternatively, you could consider more permanent screens fixed to pergolas, or even boom mounted shade sails which retract when the wind is too strong.

In the next two posts, I will consider roof loading, water-proofing, build-ups, drainage and irrigation. In the meantime, if you have any questions just pop them in below and I’ll get back to you.

John

Chelsea 2015

I know, I know – whatever happened to ‘I don’t want to go to Chelsea’ I hear you all shouting!

This year as well as building a garden for Brewin Dolphin, designed by Darren Hawkes (see www.bowleswyer-contracts.co.uk/news for updates on this, or look at the live camera during build-up: http://bit.ly/1GHYVl5), we are also designing and building a garden for our old friends Gaze Burvill. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of their furniture, even having written a blogpost about it last year. Produced from English and European Oak, craftsman-made in Hampshire, it is simply the best designed, most comfortable garden furniture on sale.

1996-P01revB-LOWQWhen Simon Burvill came to me last year, I was interested in getting under the skin of what they were trying to achieve at Chelsea. The design of the garden came as much from this as the core values of Gaze Burvill – sustainability, craftsmanship and quality (which are closely aligned to our own). The plot is split into two areas, one about a metre above the other. The upper space is designed as a roof terrace and paved with a dark, slate-grey porcelain paving. A dark grey timber pergola sits above the central area in the rear corner, wrapped around by green walls on either side. The focal point in the rear corner is a beautiful water feature, designed in conjunction with David Harber. This is hewn from flamed granite, with a fissure exposing a jewel-like handmade glass panel, running with water. At night this will be backlit. The left hand side of the roof terrace (facing Main Avenue) features a sky-scape backdrop – the photo was taken from an actual roof terrace we designed a couple of years ago – with some of Gaze Burvill’s fantastic outdoor kitchen units in front of it. So you can cook and look over the London skyline (or dream!) These kitchen units are beautifully made and equipped with the best Wolf and Sub-zero appliances.

The lower part of the garden is reminiscent of an English country garden, with Purbeck dry stone walling and paving. on the corner of the site is a large English Oak tree – nearly 8m tall – which is a reference to the source of all the timber from which Gaze Burvill’s furniture is made. There is a second kitchen set in this section, with gently undulating faces to the units in contrast to the crisp lines of the roof terrace units.

If you are coming to Chelsea this year, do drop in – I am around quite a lot of the week and Gaze Burvill would be delighted to see you. Or you can just try out the bench facing on to Main Avenue…

How do you deliver quality in a project?

A great question. The scheme always looks perfect in your head, or on your drawings. But sometimes on site, it doesn’t quite work out. What strategies can we use to ensure quality, and what does that even mean? On Tuesday last week, I delivered a talk (along with Pat Fox of Aralia and Mark Gregory of Landform) at one of the London College of Garden Design’s ‘Infoburst’ events. As always, it was an interesting evening; stimulating but with three quite different approaches to the subject.

I looked at case studies of three of our projects and how we went about delivering the required quality. Each of these presented very different challenges and suggested various solutions.

Pines with low sun
A dry site with a continental climate

The first of these was a garden we did in Spokane, Washington State, in the North West US. You can see more about the scheme here – Northern Exposure. The challenges were multiple. Firstly, it was nearly 5000 miles away, so any chance of popping to site to sort out a problem were out of the question. The environment was very unforgiving – little rainfall, a typical continental climate and very limited soil. What’s more, there was a low budget and partly because of this, the client intended to build the project themselves. Although they were enthusiastic and practical, they were possessed of few real landscape skills. Because of this, the normal framework of documentation and contract was largely irrelevant. However, they were open-minded in terms of design and eager to learn which made the whole process much more enjoyable.

First ideas for the frontThe starting point was a practical and achievable design – a simple

Gabion installation - a simple construction solution
Gabion installation – a simple construction solution

concept and simple drawings. In addition The materials were basic and local with the only exotic addition being wire gabion baskets. Engaging the client in the design process was a critical to the scheme’s success, so we took hikes together in the neighbourhood looking at local landscape formations and flora, as well as visiting stone yards and nurseries. One or two specialist areas were identified (such as the concrete path) and a local contractor was found for these elements. With a lot of emails and photos winging back and forth, the scheme was implemented. The result was a surprisingly beautiful landscape which trod lightly in its environment. The client was both delighted and amazed by their own achievement.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Early concepts for the Lancasters scheme
concepts…

The second project I chose was the Lancasters (more of this project here). This was about as different as it could have been – in scale, nature, location and design. The site was a long, thin garden for an upmarket development in Central London. The design was complex, with multiple hedges in intricate organic shapes and lots of specialist plant material. There were also demanding technical challenges to do with the underground car park. Finally, due to the size of the project the management structure was cumbersome and we had little control over the tender list.

The finished scheme looking east
The finished scheme

 

LowResCF018848The first stage was a really thorough design process, particularly at the technical stage of design. We worked closely with other consultants (such as engineers) and engaged specialist sub-consultant help where ever we needed it, such as irrigation and soil scientists. We arrived at a method of defining the organic shapes with pre-shaped steel edging. All the substrates and soils were painstakingly specified and test certificates were required form contractors. The specimen plant material was all pre-tagged and there was a shortlist of nurseries for other plants. Although there were problems with the construction, the rigorous process and documentation protected the design quality and the final result was an award winning scheme.

An early sketch of the scheme
An early sketch of the scheme

Construction drawingThe final project was a roof garden, also in central London. This was a minimalist design, so there was absolutely no room for error. Schemes like this are very unforgiving in terms of sloppy detailing, particularly at junctions of materials and planes. It was also on the 10th floor, with minimal working space. Every detail had to be thought about carefully – nothing was left to chance. As much as possible was pre-manufactured off-site. The design and construction method were drilled down to the last detail. The setting out information was precise, as was the programme. We were lucky enough to be using our own teams to build this, but the principle is the same for any site – find a good contractor you trust and can work with. Develop a partnership based on mutual trust and complementary skills. If you have done the rest – great quality will follow.

View from the finished roof terrace
View from the finished roof terrace

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As Pat Fox pointed out in her talk, there are many simple office procedures that can help standardise the delivery of quality:

  • Clear and legible drawings, with graphics and line-weights that contribute to the readability rather than get in the way. With working drawings the purpose is clear communication, not a pretty drawing.
  • Simple and concise specification. Pat argues for as much as possible on the drawings, and with small and medium sized jobs this is always a good idea. with larger projects a standalone specification will probably be called for, but clarity is still the key.
  • Good pre-construction process – contractor selection, pre-tender interview and a decent tender period.
  • Only have people on the list who you are sure can deliver a high quality project. And don’t always accept the lowest price!
  • During construction give clear written instructions where variations are required – and keep them to a minimum.
  • Keep good records of drawings issued – when, and for what purpose (information, tender, construction etc.)

Remember good quality is a stool with three legs: client, designer and contractor. It can only be achieved if all three are supporting the project.

Why are the gardens of the Alhambra so important?

IMG_8250In 1989 I was blown away by a visit to the Alhambra. The scale of the vision and achievement, the huge variety of spaces and the subtlety and grandeur of the design was almost overwhelming. For several years it had a pervasive effect on my design thinking, both overtly and in less obvious ways.

After twenty-five years, Vicky and I decided to make a return visit this summer, this time with three (almost) grown-up children in tow. The experience didn’t disappoint.

I am sure many of you have been to The Alhambra/Generalife complex; I also don’t wish to sound like a travelogue. This is a departure for this blogspace, but the gardens are so remarkable, I felt compelled to share at the very least some pictures and (for those who can be bothered to read) a few ramblings. The Alhambra has been a constant influence on garden design and thinking in the last century and a half.

The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens
The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens

Part of this is due to its scale – it is a vast complex of gardens and thus the achievement is that much more impressive. The gardens probably represented the pinnacle of Arabic garden design – they incorporated the earlier influences of Persia and the Mesopotamian gardens, but escaped the overblown grandeur of some of the later gardens. I guess this is partly because they were designed for private rather than public use. However, their pervasive influence is also a matter of historical timing. They were conceived and implemented at the height of Arabic expansion into southern Europe. After the 1500s, the Moors were driven back into north Africa, but much of their thinking and many of their craftsmen remained in Europe. The influence was particularly noticeable in garden design. Whereas renaissance architecture has a clear lineage from the ancient Greeks and Romans, Garden design from the period is more identifiably descended from Arabic and Middle Eastern design. This classical layout of rills, fountains, trees and parterres continued to be the dominant force in European garden design until the mould was broken by the English Landscape movement in the late C18th. The roots were later rediscovered through the writings of travellers through southern Europe, such as Washington Irving and the Spanish-Arabic style became very influential again in the early twentieth century in the UK (through the Edwardian garden designers such as Lutyens/Jekyll) and US (particularly on the newly moneyed West Coast).

The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human
The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human

For me though, they capture something of the essence of what a garden is. Firstly, they are an escape; built in a retreat from the sound and bustle of Granada and the heat of the streets, the complex occupies a strategic hilltop. In virtually all cultures Paradise is a garden, and these get about as close as any I have seen. The sense of escape and retreat from the bustle of life is palpable. Secondly, they maximise the site. They take advantage of the hilltop position, funnelling the cooler air through the gardens.

Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.
Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.

The spectacular views are carefully managed. Glimpses are given here and there, only occasionally opening up into broader panoramas. The designs are artful in how they manage serial spaces. courtyards, terraces and walkways link one to another in a delightful and often surprising way. One is never bored and unlike some of the great French classical gardens, the whole design is rarely revealed. The hilltop location dictates some complex geometry, so axes kink and turn in a way that makes the design less predictable than one expects. Perhaps the most important feature however is the way in which the gardens perfectly weave together the essence of what a garden is.

Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear
Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear

Although these are very sophisticated designs, the origins from kitchen gardens is clear, with fruit trees abounding and the parterres as constant reminders of herb and vegetable beds. All gardens need limits – it is one of the things that defines a garden (see my blog on the subject from a couple of years ago: When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?). Here the walls and boundaries are an integral part of the thinking: the enclosed nature of the spaces is the essence of the design. But the users of the garden are never allowed to forget the surrounding environs: the large trees echo the wooded hills and provide a pleasant balance to the symmetrical formality of the layout; the frequent glimpses of the surrounding hills and valleys means that one is constantly aware of the links with the broader landscape.

So for me, the gardens at the Alhambra capture that elusive idea of nature captured, of the reflections of a broader landscape. Woven into this are complex aesthetic references along with expressions of learning and cultural identity. Most importantly though, they are just a very pleasant and ever changing place to spend time, as all gardens should be.

If you haven’t already been there, make sure it is at the top of your bucket list this year!

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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.

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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

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

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

 

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.