The gates have closed on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, I thought that 2016 was quite a good year. True there were some ‘oddities’ – Diarmuid Gavin’s Great British Eccentrics Garden perhaps? Anyway, it was a pretty diverse bunch and a lot of really good gardens. One interesting theme which started in 2015 and gathered pace this year was the ‘reconstructed landscape versus designed garden’ debate. Last year’s best in show – Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden – was a clear example of the former. It was a brilliantly skilful piece of design and construction, but there were mutterings amongst the garden design ranks that it was ‘not really design, but just a piece of landscape re-creation’. I think this undermines the skill and dexterity of the designer. How much of this was sour-grapes at not winning best in show themselves was not clear; nonetheless, there is a serious point here. The implication was that all other things being equal, original design should be valued more than re-creation.
This year’s winner (Andy Sturgeon’s Jurassic garden for the Telegraph) was firmly in the ‘designed’ camp. It was a head and shoulders above the other serious contenders and was a supremely confident piece of design, down to the last detail. Interestingly, the other two clear contenders for the title (in my opinion) were Cleve West’s garden for M&G and James Basson’s recreation of a parched Provençal landscape for l’Occitaine. The three gardens together almost make up the spectrum from one end (James’) to the other (Andy’s), with Cleve’s garden occupying a deftly executed middle ground.
There is of course a great deal of precedent for this in English Garden Design. In the C17th, garden design in this country had been largely pale versions of continental renaissance creations. The English landscape movement swept much of that away in favour of what was essentially the modernism of its time – based on simple natural forms and recreation of paintings of landscapes. However, what is more relevant to today’s ‘re-created landscapes’ is the picturesque movement that followed. This was based on an essentially romanticised appreciation of the savage side of nature – wild rock formations, twisted trees and magical woodland dells. To me, Dan Pearson’s 2015 garden speaks directly from this tradition. This is not surprising, partly because the garden was based on a piece of historical landscape design, but also because Dan has always had a great affinity with and appreciation with nature. This is evident in much of his work, but never in a cloying way. By contrast, Andy Sturgeon’s designs whilst rooted in the natural world are much more conscious design statements.
My own designs are also conscious statements of form where geometry plays a strong part, even if it is sometime distorted (Spokane) or curved (Pavilion Apartments). Recreations of natural landscapes can be subtle, beautiful and clever, but I wonder whether Chelsea Show Gardens shouldn’t be more about pushing the boundaries of design? Most of the great gardens that stick in my mind certainly fall into this category.
Or perhaps the two ends of the spectrum are equally valid, just different – what do other readers think?
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.
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.
If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:
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:
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.
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 that without cities there would have been no gardens.
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:
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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
‘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.
However, 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.
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.
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.
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!
Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illman–young.com
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 email@example.com
I went to the Thomas Heatherwick exhibition at the V&A recently. I was deeply inspired (as I expected to be). Here was an uncompromising and driven designer. Actually, that is wrong – it is no more appropriate to call him a designer than to say Leonardo was just a painter. His work spreads amoeba like from ‘design’ across furniture and product design to engineering, architecture, sculpture, and urban design.
However, although his polymathic qualities are impressive and somewhat daunting, they were not what I pondered as I left the exhibition. Few of us can reach that level of achievement and versatility. What interested me was something quite different, but at the heart of Heatherwick’s ability is something much more basic – his thorough understanding of materials. Like many great designers he started making things as a child, and never really stopped. This constant experimentation led to a familiarity with the properties of what he was working with.
An example of this is an early piece made by Heatherwick while he was still at the RCA in the early 1990s. Three square pieces of sheet steel were each cut, comb like, from either side. The slots cut were the same width as the tines that remained allowing the sheets to be slotted together. However, the beauty of this was that because the rigidity of the sheet had been compromised by the cutting, it was possible to bend them. When they were bent into a gentle arc and slotted together as a triangular ‘vase-shape’, the tension kept the whole object locked into one. This was an idea that he explored further with his work at the Royal College in the piece ‘Gazebo’ and other furniture.
The other interesting thing was his obsession with process-based design. Many designers follow this mantra, but for most (particularly in architecture) it can lead to a sameness of output where the process seems to have moulded the design into a house style. Heatherwick’s ‘style’ (such as it is) is eclectic and diverse. This appeals to me, but I fear that such process driven design is relatively rare in landscape design and rarer still in garden design. The designer I know who has come closest to it is probably Dan Pearson (who has of course worked with Heatherwick). Heatherwick’s devotion to material and process also led to a relentless pursuit of trying to find the best version of any one idea. Here I felt that he definitely set himself apart from most designers. There were dozens of versions of a single object until he thought that he had reached the best form of the idea.
There are also lessons to be learned from his interest in the forms produced by instantaneous action. In his piece for the Wellcome Trust (‘Bleigiessen’) the whole project concept was built around forms produced by solidifying molten metal. As Heatherwick explains on his website (www.heatherwick.com/bleigiessen) “Following extensive experimentation, pouring molten metal into water was found to create extraordinary and complex forms in a fraction of a second. No two experiments produced the same result. Over four hundred of these were produced before a five centimetre piece was created and selected as it was felt it would work well with the building and is the basis of the final thirty metre project.”The final piece is breath-taking and the leap from inspiration to reality is huge, but recognisable.
What I think is most interesting about this is that these processes, although instantaneous, follow natural laws. The results are random, but follow recognisable patterns. Such pattern-making forms the basis of a lot of landscape thinking. Our designs sometimes reflect the natural patterns made by wind or water – ripples, waves etc. These patterns are themselves etched on the landscape in many ways and the more grounded our designs are in these, the more interesting and captivating they often become.