Tag Archives: Concrete

Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box

Thinking outside the box
SketchUp is a powerful tool, but is it actually a brake on creativity?


Let’s for a moment envisage a beautifully designed garden; a modern garden for a young couple: white rendered walls, limestone paving in a crisply set out grid, a slick water feature, perhaps a fire pit or some chunky charcoal-coloured rattan furniture. We’ve all done it. Where would this garden be? London? LA? Cape Town? Tallinn? Beirut? The truth is it could be anywhere. Not only that, it could be for anyone. And it could be by anyone.

A decade or two ago Britain rubbed its eyes and awoke from the 75 year dream of Edwardian garden design, where every afternoon was sunny and everybody had a gardener. As other ideas began to be explored modernist design became more mainstream. In fact, the whole garden design industry became more mainstream, finding a new market in consumers accustomed to branded goods of reassuring uniformity. A side effect of this consumerist, lifestyle-led market was an expectation of ‘toys’ in the garden – hot-tubs, heaters, water features, speakers and even television screens. Over a period of ten years or so, urban gardens in particular began to move towards a standard style with which we have become familiar. Of course, this is not universal, but it is very prevalent.

A glance through previous years’ ‘Review of the Year’ published by the Garden Design Journal is enough to confirm this. The almost universal use of 3D design software such as ‘SketchUp’ has reinforced it, as schemes which rely on an orthogonal geometry of extruded planes and rectangles, tend to dominate. Curves and eccentric geometry are altogether trickier. The choice of plants has to fit the style – defined architectural shapes, clipped forms, bold foliage are common currency, their shapes emphasised at night by well-placed lighting.

We are in a privileged position as garden designers. First and foremost, we are able to design for an individual. The irony is that we often design as though it is for a mass market. And despite what I have said about their uniform expectations, every client is different. True, sometimes they might need a bit of coaxing to broaden their design horizons but the potential is there. Sometimes we just have to work a bit harder to break through pre-conceived ideas about what they want. And as designers we are all different too – we are all individuals with our own ideas. Perhaps we follow the pack a bit too closely but the real crux of this is that every site is unique. The genius loci, the sense of place, is as diverse as the location. Good design will reflect this, will celebrate it. I am not against modernism, far from it, but I am against uniformity. So come on, think outside the box!

This post first appeared in a slightly different form as an article in BALI news, the magazine of the British Association of Landscape Industries.

Should we give concrete another chance?

In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).

Exposed aggregate concrete paving used in Lauzerte, SW France in a historic square.

When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?

An in situ concrete path I designed in a garden near Mount Spokane, WA, USA.

Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.

In-situ and pre-cast concrete used together with great effect at Blackpool's Golden Mile.

In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.

Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.