Tag Archives: Design

Cycling my way to good design

As I am sure some (if not most of you) know I am a keen cyclist. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on this through the pieces I did on the Three Peaks Extreme event that I took part in September 2013. (Find them here)

When I was on that trip, I began to muse on the parallels between cycling and design. I trained hard for that mad caper, which involved a lot of cycling through tough countryside on my own, often after a hard day’s work. I am a fairly heavy guy, so hills have always been my Achilles heel. I used to get despondent on climbs, slowing down and feeling that the hill was getting the better of me. The task became huge and started to sap all the pleasure out of the cycling (this despite having cycled up a few mountains in my time.) And although I would be the first to admit that I am a bit of a speed junkie when it comes to cycling, especially down hills (when a larger frame really comes into its own!) my attitude to cycling is sort of summed up by ‘You don’t have to go fast, you just have to go’. I suppose what I mean is that in a sport obsessed by time and speed, actually the greatest pleasure comes from just doing it. I have never won a cycle race. Most garden designers have (like me) never done Chelsea, never been on TV (for garden design at any rate!) and are rarely in the magazines. But we do this because we love it; and there is a lot to love, not least the intense sense of promise at the start of a project (or a bike ride). The travel writer William Least Heat-Moon said that “The open road is a beckoning, a place where a man can lose himself”. You might as well say “a blank sheet of white paper is a beckoning…”. When I sit down, marker pen in hand, in front of a blank pad of layout paper, with its luminous depth of whiteness, I feel as though I stand on the edge of a lake about to dive in.

All too often though, I start to suffer ‘design constipation’ – the longer the timeslot available to do the design, the worse it gets. I have written about this before (Where do ideas come from?) but there is another parallel with hills and cycling here – to be successful, you have to get in the ‘zone’. Quite often, when I am cycling on my own, I get in an almost ‘Zen’ like state (bear with me here!); the swish of the wheels, the whirr of the pedals and cranks, and the wind whistling past is hypnotic, especially given one’s own body rhythm. Cycling when in this state is much easier – the miles fly by. Even when I am not in my own little world, when I get to an incline, I often deliberately think of something else: some all-consuming train of thought and before I know it I am at the top of the hill. Design is a bit like that, don’t you find? It often creeps up on you sideways and when you try and think of it directly, it skittles away.

Garden design in particular can be a lonely existence. Many garden designers work from home on their own. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting but in both cases no-one to share it with. During the summer I cycle a lot on my own, but I also go out once a week with friends for a ride. Cycling in a group (particularly a tight formation) is 30% more efficient than on one’s own. You can cover much greater distances and it is one of the few exercises where one can easily talk at the same time. Company and shared experience are essential to make the most of solitary pursuit.

To finish, one more quote, this time from John F Kennedy: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Except perhaps a well-executed design?

Are Garden Cities the World’s End?

I recently went to see ‘Worlds End’, the final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. For those who don’t know it, the film is a science fiction comedy, the third in a short series of action films starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. I saw it in Letchworth, in the Broadway cinema. Why is this relevant? Well, Letchworth forms the backdrop to most of the movie; it was filmed there and indeed the Broadway Cinema was one of the locations in the film (‘The Mermaid’). 

The first Garden City has long been held up as the apex of good urban planning, including by the current government, so it was interesting to see it used a somewhat sarcastic comment on Britain today. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his review of the film for the Guardian: “It is different from the locations that usually show up in movies: London or the leafy countryside. This is New Town Britain, Visitor Centre Britain, the suburban commuterlands and hinterlands: bland and agreeable.” The film is multi-layered, but one of the underlying themes is that living in the suburbs turns you into a robot. Hardly a new message, but ironic that they chose to illustrate this by using the crucible of the garden city movement, whose principle aim was to counter the way that industrialisation had de-humanised people.

Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from last year – “Where have all the trees gone?” (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=132). In this, I began to explore why many developers don’t really plant trees and how this might be addressed. I followed it up with a lecture at a conference in Devon (staged by the excellent Barcham Trees) in which I postulated that the garden city movement was indeed a turning point in modern planning, but it was also where it all started to go wrong. I pondered on what it was that made particular housing estates ‘successful’. For the moment, let’s ignore esoteric or academic definitions of success and instead look at market or colloquial definitions. The most expensive, the most sought after areas of housing are dominated by something larger than the houses – trees. And not just any trees; large, mature, forest species – horse chestnuts, oaks, planes trees, limes, even sycamores. So clearly, green leafy suburbs are what we aspire to. In fact estate agents and the media frequently use the word ‘leafy’ as a synonym for affluent when they are talking about neighbourhoods.

Belgravia - typical leafy Victorian upmarket London

If we trace the roots of housing development back 100 years or so ago, we come to the genesis of large scale housing development the garden city movement. Before that, during the Victorian era, most development had been urban. At both ends of the social scale, mass housing as a concept had really only come into being at the beginning of the C19th, with developments such as Bath and the Nash terraces in London for the wealthy and mass terraced housing for the working class. But the rise of a middle class in late 19th century England meant that a different demand started to emerge. The landed gentry wanted their town houses to be elegant and urban – gardens were not a part of that. The working classes could only afford back to backs. Whilst the middle classes could pay more for housing, they could only afford one house. What they hankered after was mini version of the country estate. Both the architecture and the gardens point towards this – half-timbered houses evoking an idealised view of Elizabethan country houses; lawns, which had previously only been the reserve of the very wealthy, became available to all with the invention of the lawnmower in the C19th.

The dream...

The garden city movement pulled many of these threads together. It distilled elements from the arts and crafts movement (with which it was closely allied), social reform (particularly of the Quakers), town planning, and mixed all this with a heady dose of social idealism with which all great reform movements are imbued. For me this is

...the reality

where it all started to go wrong. The fork in the road where it all seemed so nice led us after sixty years ago from Letchworth – pleasant enough, to some of the more horrible modern housing estates. One of the reasons that the Garden City idea was so popular was that it plugged into the

English Dream. But continual watering down of that dream has made it into something of a nightmare.

Meaningful space in Alexandra Road

In city centres, one clear way forward is to go back to a landscape-dominated high density development model. There have always been versions of this around – look at Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Street for example (a social housing project for Westminster City Council c1961-62, and a beacon in early 60s architecture-landscape partnership), or Janet Jack’s landscape around the Alexandra Road development in Camden – one of the last great social housing schemes. I would argue that both these developments are relevant today, although Alexandra Road has suffered from poor maintenance. I first went to Lillington Street in 1977 – it was one of the things that caused me to choose to train as a landscape architect. I revisited the scheme more recently and it has fared

Lillington Gardens development by Darbourne and Darke

very well. It feels as fresh and relevant now as when it was first designed 50 years ago, although the trees are bigger! There is no vandalism, and although people do have small areas of defensible space, the overall quality of and scale of the landscaped spaces is such that the estate is really leafy (there it is again!) despite being very high density. The overall feel is (not by accident I am sure) similar to traditional London squares. These principles are applicable to smaller scale developments.

We have tried to use similar principles ourselves in design of dense urban housing developments. Admittedly, these were privately funded; I suspect that the days of well-funded grand (or even modest) social housing are over, at least for the moment.

The Collection, London NW8

Both the Collection and Tercelet Terrace developments adopt this approach of public landscape at the expense of private space. Actually, in both projects the cost of the landscape was a very small percentage of the total.

Tercelet Terrace London NW3. A development tightly stitched into the urban fabric.

What this shows is that the truth here is somewhat counter-intuitive: that in urban development at least, up to a point, higher density is actually a pre-requisite of good landscape and greater biodiversity, rather than acting as a restriction, as one might expect. It creates the opportunities for more meaningful spaces and often provides the funding to address those opportunities. The counter to this is that suburban development does not create good quality spaces, particularly at the densities mostly being built in recent years. Perhaps the government should apply more joined up thinking in this respect.

Rural development is another story – another post on that coming soon (or perhaps another movie?)

How to design in a material world

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.

Heatherwick's Gazebo - thanks the the RCA

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.

5cm high original object

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.

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

I’ve been using it increasingly, but I never touch it.

I am a great believer in starting the design process on a drawing board. For me, there is nothing like a large blunt pencil or a fat marker pen and a blank sheet of white paper. Perhaps it’s just my generation? I don’t think that’s all it is though; As Milton Glaser put it: ‘There’s not enough fuzziness in a computer solution, so you figure it out too early, and what you get is a very well executed ordinary idea.’ I like that.

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