Tag Archives: Landscape Architecture

Urban Bad: Rural Good? Notes from my presentation at the European Landscape Conference

Hongkong_central_kowloon-fullIf you play the word association game, and ask someone to come up with the first word that enters their head when you say ‘Urban’, surprisingly enough, the answer is not ‘Ecology’ in much the same way as if you say to someone ‘European’, they do not say ‘Landscape Conference’. If you put ‘Urban’ into Google, this is the image that comes up as number one.

 

In fact the first two hundred or so images are nearly all either glossy (shiny glass, steel, night shots) or gritty (traffic, graffiti, urban decay). People make brief appearances here and there. Urban parks make their first entrance – actually the first representation of a tree – at image number 46. At around number 240, a subtle shift occurs and ecology, water resources, and urban agriculture not only all make appearances but then feature strongly in the following returns. It is almost as if when you ask people to think of urban, they first think of the non-human aspects, then the human – side and finally natural features. So clearly, we tend to think of cities as dense, built environments, with people coming second and the natural world coming in somewhere way down the field. And yet despite this, as recent studies have shown – iTree amongst them – London is 52% green or blue with most other UK cities doing at least as well if not better.

aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
an aerial view of London
an aerial view of London

The left hand photo of Central London show as much green as grey; this of course shows some of the more affluent parts of the city. Indeed the word ‘Leafy’ is synonymous with affluent. In fact, as the right hand picture shows, the green/grey ratio holds up pretty well across the urban grain.

street trees per km LondonLook at this map of London – it shows the density of street trees. The interesting thing about this is that apart from the obvious – fewer trees in the city of London for example – there is no clearly predictable pattern, which suggests it is more about policy than topography or other factors.

 

In fact, the relationship between gardens, ecology and landscape is not only very old; it is intrinsic. What is the oldest garden you can name, other than the Garden of Eden? The answer is of course the hanging gardens of Babylon. Cities came about with the development of organised agriculture, on a scale which allowed specialisation. This in turn led to spare time and resources for elites. Gardens, both public and private, were a natural and inevitable development. These are well documented in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cities, but also in China and South/Central America. Although medieval cities were often very dense, during the C18th and C19th, cities began to develop a more intentionally porous character. Garden squares, church yards and left over market gardens all became absorbed into the urban grain.

Everyone's dream house?
Everyone’s dream house?

During the C20th, the emergence of the Garden City movement in Hertfordshire, Merseyside, Birmingham and London added a new dimension to these public spaces.  For the first time, private gardens en masse became a feature of cities and laid the pattern for modern suburbia. It was everyone’s dream to have their own house, with their own front door and their own garden.  Of course, private gardens can be rich and diverse ecosystems.

The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.
The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.

Gardens are per se good, but the more diverse the environment, the richer the ecosystem. The less we intervene, the better: untidy is good. So, in many ways this suburban movement has brought advantages for ecosystems, but as the density of development has increased, all too frequently what we end up with is this: *. Tiny patches of grass and slabs with no shrubs or trees, and a sterile ecosystem. There is a strong argument in favour of creating even higher densities, and combining them semi-public communal spaces. This allows the creating of meaningful chunks of dense landscape for everyone to enjoy. Look at these examples from Darbourne and Darke’s work in the 1960s that I took on a recent visit to the Pimlico estate.

Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke
Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke

IMG_5420 IMG_5422

 

And yet recently, in city centres we seem to have lost the plot completely. When it comes to public space, we frequently end up with Sterile spaces. An endless recreated pastiche of about four elements that you will all be familiar with: box hedging, black granite or basalt, plane trees, sterilised water features. In London, a city driven by money and commercial power, the primary goals of restoration are twin (and linked) aesthetic, and return on investment.

I think this (From Niemann & Schadler; ‘Post Industrial Urban Strategies’, 2012) neatly sums it up: “It might be that the deficits in frequently criticized modern urban design practices are less related to the quality of individual buildings but rather in the neglect of gaps and the spaces in between them.” There is an interesting unintended double meaning from the word ‘neglect’ there, for it is indeed when we neglect spaces that the best results sometimes happen: just as we create better ecosystems in our gardens by intervening less, I am fascinated by what happens when we do nothing. Left to its own devices nature does a pretty good job. Transport corridors for example, left virtually untended have been shown to have a much higher value for wildlife (particularly pollinators) than surrounding land, even where that land is low intervention agriculture. Often, the most interesting urban landscapes have occurred spontaneously in post-industrial environments, and some of the best approaches celebrate this rather than seeking to wipe it out and replace it with sleek granite and water features. Perhaps the most celebrated in recent years has been the Hi-line, because the way that it threads through communities catches the imagination. But for me, the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord by Pieter and Tilman Latz is really interesting.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord - Garten im Bunker
Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

 

Tim Collins (interventions in the rust belt: the art and ecology of post-industrial space, 2000 ) suggested some good guiding principles:

Post-industrial public space should:

  • Reveal the legacy of industrialism, not eradicate it or cloak it in nostalgia; create images and stories, which reveal both the effect and the cause of the legacy;
  • Unveil social conflicts in the city, not repress them; create works that illuminate and explicate conflict and points of dynamic change;
  • Reveal ecological processes at work in the city, not eradicate them; build infrastructure which embraces ecosystem processes and a philosophy of sustainability;
  • Enable an equitable community dialogue, which envisions a future; produce new forms of critical discourse, which provide access, voice and a context in which to speak.

permaculture-wordleWhich brings me on to permaculture. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking. One of the interesting things about permaculture is its understanding of the importance of edges. Edge is king – the rougher the edge, the better. It is also worth looking at some of the more celebrated examples of brownfield site use along permaculture principles – Cuba.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba went through an almost complete socio-economic collapse in the early 1990s when the subsidised oil for sugar deals came to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union. It lost 34% of its GDP over a fairly short period. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers were unavailable. All land was pressed into [organic] agricultural production, particularly in urban areas. Although many of these Organoponicas no longer survive, some still occupy the derelict spaces between buildings in meanwhile use. The benefits are huge. Apart from the obvious ecological and environmental ones, there are also community, education, food production, as well as health and well-being (you can read more about some of these Cuban Gardens in another post on this blog here). These principles can and are being applied throughout Europe and America. Anarchism and Community action have led to some exciting developments. Allotment 2014-10-23-14_30_10I am a trustee of a community Garden in my home town of Hitchin, near London. We simply took over a forgotten nettle-bound corner of the park: *, and after some initial suspicion from the local authority they are now enthusiastically behind the project. Fifteen years later, it now runs a community garden, two allotments and a resource building, employs several people, grows vegetables in several different projects with people with learning difficulties and runs sessions on wildlife, growing produce and other subjects. Community action should not be underestimated as a way of producing sustainable results. You can read much more about the Triangle community garden in another post on this blog here, or by visiting www.TriangleGarden.org)

IMG_5618So what of other edges? How can we ‘roughen up’ the edges of built structures? Well’ clearly ‘green cloaks’ are one option. Living walls, green roofs, etc. are all important and have a role to play. They cool buildings in the summer and insulate them in the winter. They reduce runoff, decrease CO2 both actually and in terms of emissions, have been shown to lower pollution levels, they provide food sources and increase biodiversity. A recent project at the south bank centre combines both – retrofitted ‘green roof’ on concrete terraces, run by a community garden and used by the public.

 

I was on Waterloo Bridge recently; as I walked across my pace slowed and I drew to a halt and gazed around. Of course it is virtually impossible to walk across that bridge without looking at the view, but what really struck me was not the undeniable grandeur and panorama of the city, or the sense of history laid out before me. It was instead the sense that the river is the forgotten part of all this. It is a truly wild thing flowing through the heart of a civilised city, which the bridges do no more than span. Jens Haendeler, a student working for me has come up with a novel solution for boosting diversity in river environments. Basically it is a system of crates containing a filling which can be populated (either directly or indirectly) with aquatic plants and fauna. This is the sort of creative thinking which we need to apply.

Picture-1-Living-Wall-Sketch Picture-1-Intertidal-Zones Picture-1-Graphic_Greened-River-Wall

 

Concluding, I have included some shots (taken on my mobile phone, so forgive the quality) on a 15 minute walk along a canal through NE London last week. In a short stretch, many of the principles that I have talked about are demonstrated.

It will require action by all of us as professionals not only to design the positive responses to urban situations, but to consciously create spaces in which spontaneous reaction by either nature or community can occur.

These are opportunities, not problems to be solved.

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Why do developers think that garden designers are sexier than landscape architects?

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.

Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk
Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross; designed by Dan Pearson. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk

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.

 

Shark-infested waters? (or how to survive in the top end of the residential development market – and enjoy it)

The development market has a reputation for being cut throat and being populated by swaggering macho developers who only care about the bottom line. Is it really as bad as that? In the thirty years or so that I have been involved in this market, that hasn’t entirely been my experience. Sure, it has it’s share of predators like any other market. But despite that, I have found most developers to be personable and intelligent.

The stakes are high though – these are often for properties valued in the high millions. Because of this, sites are densely developed, which in turn leads to all sorts of technical and logistical problems. So this is not a market for the timid, but there is plenty of opportunity.

Croc
Typical developer? Not in my experience…

The first step is to understand the client. What are developers about? Are they all greedy, short-sighted individuals who only care about the profit? Do they all have enormous egos? Will they always go for the cheapest option? Of course not. Instead they are (mostly) ordinary people trying to build something of value, although admittedly they are perhaps more comfortable with risk than most of us! My first rule of thumb is:

  • Give them what they need rather than what they want. Most developers may not understand what is available –they may know more about property than you, but you know far more about landscape than them. They will probably base their expectations/ideas on what someone else did on their last project. This can be very frustrating, particularly if they act as though they know everything. However: this is your chance to shine and show how much better than the opposition you are. Go beyond their expectations – surprise them!
Pavilion, St Johns Wood. A scheme that met the client's brief, but exceeded his expectations.
Pavilion, St Johns Wood. A scheme that met the client’s brief, but exceeded his expectations.

But to do this, you must have a least a basic understanding of how the development process works. Let’s look at some of the background. First, funding for development.

  • Funding – how does it work? Most people have the idea that it is all a developer’s own money behind a project. In fact, it has always been the case that developers have sought the majority of funding from banks and other institutions. In the (good/bad?) old days, it used to be possible for developers to get funding for about 80% of a project. Often, this would be calculated on the basis of final value. Given that the market would be rising and that a developer might expect to make a margin approaching 20%, this would mean that he (for it is mostly men) could get all the costs funded by loans and pick up the profit at the end. And then came the credit crunch!
    It's all about the money?
    It’s all about the money?

    These days, it is a lot tougher. A developer may have to find a much bigger chunk of the land purchase costs himself. After that, he is still likely to be looking at having to find about 45% or so out of his own pocket. This means that on most projects there are co-investors, which can make the client a somewhat multi-headed beast. The bank will also have monitors in place (generally surveyors) who look after the funder’s interests and make sure the project progresses smoothly and with minimal risk.

A typical scheme for planning with clear simple graphics and plenty of green on the plan or as much as the space between the buildings will allow!)
A typical scheme for planning with clear simple graphics and plenty of green on the plan or as much as the space between the buildings will allow!)

Funding is only part of the story though; planning also plays a critical role (as with any development).

  • The role of planning. No project can progress without local authority planning consent. Although this may seem like a fraught process and just another headache, it is actually a significant business opportunity. Few schemes can expect to get a smooth path through planning without at least some landscape input, especially on sensitive sites. This means that a commitment to a comprehensive landscape scheme can be built in to the project plan from the beginning. It’s also your opportunity to dazzle the client with your design skills and understanding of the market! The first stage is generally before the application. Initial discussions with the planners (‘Pre-app’) will often include some landscape material. The main application will almost always include a landscape plan an other drawings. It is important to make proposals that are affordable here, but not driven solely by budget. You have leverage over the client here as he will want to get planning, but push him too far and you will not be popular. there will generally be other consultants involved in this process as well, often guided by a planning consultant. Once planning is achieved, the next hurdle is ‘discharge of conditions’. Normally when a scheme is granted planning consent, certain conditions are imposed, one of which is usually landscape. Before that section of the work can be started on site, the planning condition needs to be discharged with detailed drawings, samples etc. There is quite often a gap between consent and discharge, with the scheme having moved on in the meantime. The planners will be looking to make sure that there is no watering down of the proposals, but some deviation form the detail of the original is normally accepted.
The Lancasters - a good example of how we achieved quality in a difficult contractual situation.
The Lancasters – a good example of how we achieved quality in a difficult contractual situation. Stock was all pre-tagged, testing certificates required for all the fill materials and followed up by a rigorous site inspection programme.

Although the production and release of information is generally driven by the planning process, there will be other times when detailed information needs to be produced, mainly as a case of integrating the landscape design with other parts of the development. Perhaps the most important thing however, is how to ensure that your designs are translated correctly into a polished landscape. For a lot more detail on how we achieve this, best to read my blog post ‘How do you deliver quality in a project’ posted in March 2015. However – here is a potted guide:

  • Control of process and quality. Clearly the most important tool to ensure quality is good documentation. The quality of the drawings and specifications are critical. They should be clear and concise, as detailed as they need to be – that is they should have enough information for someone to build the scheme without improvising, but not so much that they become snow-blind! Once you cede control of the decision-making to site staff, you cede control of the quality of your scheme. That is not to say you can’t draw on their experience and expertise, but make sure you define the things that are important. Poor drawings and spec are the biggest complaint from contractors. Planting material is often difficult to specify accurately to achieve really good quality. for this reason, we often persuade clients to spend a little extra and pre-tag key items. Nurseries will generally hold stock for a period between detailed design and installation. The client does not own this stock, so there are no contractual complications, but all the tenderers have to go to the same source. Beyond this, we also use a rigorous process of insisting on samples of materials and workmanship, testing certificates (especially for soils), certified sources and so forth. We are terrier like in this, because it sends a message about the level of quality we expect elsewhere and means that contractors do not try and take short cuts. Finally, make sure you have sufficient fees for inspection. The client will expect you to visit the site on a regular basis during the construction process – indeed you will need to for your own sake to ensure quality.

Which brings me on to the final point – pricing. You need to be realistic on this. bear in mind that stages may be widely spaced – it is not unusual to have a gap of 2-3 years between enquiry and completion on these sorts of projects, sometimes longer. Your fees will need to take account of this as well as the myriad meetings you will need to attend. But in any case, in this market it is much better to compete on the basis of quality, not price; so don’t be shy!

This was first delivered as a lecture at the Landscape Show in late September 2015.

Could landscape architects’ skillsets be more widely applied?

The ‘conservatory’ on the fourth floor of the Barbican is an unusual place for the Landscape Institute to hold a party, but last night it was rammed with Landscape Architects from all ends of the profession. Was it was an inspired choice? The brutalist architecture countered by the Tetrastigma, Ficus benjamina and other seventies throwbacks gave a neat if somewhat outdated reminder of the relevance of landscape and an interesting contrast to one of the themes of the evening – the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown. Some might argue that the 1970’s was not landscape architecture at its finest.

What interested me though was a second theme that emerged from the evening. In his ‘acceptance’ speech Noel Farrer (the incoming president) spoke of the great work done by Sue Illman (the outgoing president). As most people know, Sue’s area of expertise is water – SUDS, water sensitive urban design and the like. Noel mused on the way that Sue’s use of a single theme – water – was able to illustrate potential weakness in almost any issue, whether it is urban design, agriculture, global warming or transport.

Water of course connects all issues, especially those around biological (including human) activity. It is the connectivity and life force carrier of all biological systems.

Afterwards I was speaking to Jason Prior, a friend from college days. Jason trained as a landscape architect, but these days runs the built and external services section of Aecom, an international services company. He has around 10,000 people working for him – structural and services engineers, architects planners and of course some landscape architects. I asked him what he thought his training as a landscape architect brought to the job that others would not have. His answer was – “An understanding of systems”. An interesting answer. I thought about this: structural engineers are principally problem-solvers; services engineers design systems, architects (whilst doing a bit of both of those) design objects. Landscape architects on the other hand design frameworks which are then populated by systems and biological components. Although we also have our share of object design and problem-solving, it is this ability (or necessity?) to see the wider picture that makes landscape architects unique amongst design professionals. Not only do we design with time in a way which no other professions do, our projects are actually designed to change and develop as time passes. My guess is that the bigger the scheme, the truer this is.

So the question remains, are these skills under-utilised? Does landscape architecture provide a training – or state of mind – for more widely applicable skill-set? If so, how can the profession market itself to be taken more seriously, more widely. Perhaps we should leave it to Noel Farrer to answer that one.

Bunhill Fields

Smooth, sweeping paths through the remembrance garden

About a week ago, I was in London for a day of appointments. With about 45mins to spare between meetings I took a stroll through Bunhill Fields. For those of you that don’t know it, this ancient Graveyard just outside the old City of London walls has been a burial site for at least a thousand years. Amongst the 123,000 people known to have been buried there before it was closed for interment in 1854 were many famous literary and non-conformist figures from the nineteenth century including Daniel Defoe, William Blake and Susanna Wesley.

A plan of Bunhill Fields including Peter Shepheard's improvements

Anyway, so much for history. I had scurried though this space on a number of occasions before – indeed our office used to be located close by when we first started up. This time however, I tarried a little and discovered something that fascinated me. After the Second World War, Bridgewater and Shepheard were engaged to carry out improvements to the graveyard. Peter Shepheard, who was one of the leading young landscape architects of his generation, re-planned the memorial gardens to the north part of the site.  The work is unmistakeably English and of the post war modern movement. Peter Shepheard’s great strength was the effortless simplicity of his designs. Like many of his peers, he was completely comfortable with the Edwardian arts and crafts heritage, and did not see it as a millstone in the way that later generations did. The smooth lines of the Yorkstone path, edged with brick sweeps confidently through the grass beneath the huge plane trees that define the space.  In contrast the [relatively] small orthogonal beds with evergreen shrubs, Liriope, Vinca and other plants typical of the period are a pleasantly restrained contrast. The use of fallen gravestones is both practical and I would argue reverential whilst giving a nod to the history of the site.

Perennial planting edged with gravestones.

I have fond memories of Peter (as he liked to be known) or Professor Sir Peter Shepheard PPRIBA, PPILA, as he was when I knew him (there were probably a few other letters that I have forgotten.) He was an modest man, full of stories of his colourful career. I was lucky enough (with Chris Bowles) to work on the restoration of Charlston Farmhouse. We also worked on Winfield House (in Regents Park) and a few smaller projects. I particularly remember Peter’s wonderful pencil sketches and his plans, all in pencil and filling the sheet completely to the very edge with a sort of evenness of texture and graphic. As well as having a keen understanding of space, he was also a master of herbaceous planting  (unusual for someone who had trained initially as an architect).

Peter Shepheard’s confident use of materials demonstrates an understanding of past and present.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the gentle and unselfconcious blending of style shown here. Have we really learnt so much in 65 years?

 

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?)

Is landscape education in the UK in free fall?

Recently (as every year for the last three) I was at Greenwich University in my role as an external examiner.  I find this a stimulating and rewarding experience. The work on display is always interesting and I find it useful to see the presentation techniques being used by students. The two courses which I examine (which are both excellent) are degree courses, one in garden design and the other in landscape architecture. In previous years, I have been amazed by the percentage of students for which this is a second career. In some years the proportion has been as high as 85 or 90%, although this year, those coming straight from school or almost so made up the majority of the students.

I have long been fascinated by just why it is that landscape design and garden design should be such a popular choice for second careerists. I suspect that many people are drawn to (or fall into) more profitable lines of work early on their careers, but become bored and want to search for something more rewarding. Others come from related fields (architecture, interior design, landscape contracting, etc.) and have perhaps come across garden/landscape design in the course of their work. At Greenwich, the two degree courses run alongside each other and there seems to be a reasonable degree of porosity, with students choosing (or transferring to) the course that suits them better. Some of the garden design graduates go on to do a masters in landscape architecture, but many go straight into practice.

As is well known, the education system has been going through some major upheavals in recent years. The first has been the transference of funding from direct government funding of teaching to the universities, to funding via increased tuition fees from students. The net effect of this has been that most universities have increased fees to almost the maximum (£9,000 per year). This means that a degree course will now cost students at least £25,000 for a degree, or much more if living and accommodation costs have to be taken into account. This has had an almost immediate impact on the level of applications.  The second change is the extra visa restrictions that Central Government has introduced to combat the abuse by some bogus colleges of educational visas. This catch-all measure has involved many bona-fide institutions in a considerable amount of extra work. It coincides with a diminishing capacity amongst universities to commit fully to the overseas marketing needed to fill these places because of budget cuts, particularly the legwork and paperwork needed to follow-up the initial marketing campaigns with actual places filled. All this sends a message to overseas students that they are not particularly welcome. Australia introduced similar measures a few years ago and additionally restricted the number of hours that students could work. Following dwindling applications from abroad and an AUS$3bn dollar gap in the education budget as a result, the Australian Government effectively did a U-turn in March 2012 and has (anecdotally) seen applications rising again.

For landscape architecture courses in this country the situation is in free-fall. One member of staff told me that according to the Landscape Institute, there were only 580 applications to landscape architecture degree courses from UK students last year. As he pointed out, if one takes out the multiple applications by students to different courses, this drops to around 120 unique applicants. Hardly enough to sustain a design industry, let alone the degree courses to train them. When I trained 30 years or more ago, there were over 300 applicants for 30 places on the landscape architecture degree course at Manchester Poly (Manchester Met as it is now). We started with 30 and finished with 15. The course was one of about six in the UK at that time, with a much smaller profession than now. If the figures of 120 are right (and I have not checked them) then there is a real crisis brewing. The course at Greenwich is excellent, amongst the best. We can little afford to lose any of the courses in the UK, but I suspect that many will struggle over the next few years. 

The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

In a recent trip to Paris, I made a point of visiting Parc André Citroën to the western side of the city. Wikipedia describes this succinctly as “… a 14 hectares (35 acres) public park located on the left bank of the river Seine in the XVe arrondissement (district) of Paris.” It was designed and built in the early 1990s by Landscape Architect Giles Clément and Architect Alain Provost on the site of a former Citroën automobile manufacturing plant, and is named after company founder André Citroën.

The design is daring and the scale breath-taking. The central lawn alone is 275m long by 85m wide and refreshingly there are no restrictions on games (unlike most Paris parks). The design is a very strongly structured. Two vast pavilions overlook the park from the south east end. Between these is a paved terrace with a field of water spouts in which children splash around (similar to those at Somerset House and elsewhere). The central lawn is effectively sunk below the surrounding ground.

 

The upper level canal as it was when the park was first opened...

On the south-west side it is flanked at the higher level by a canal, punctuated by at regular intervals by monolithic stone pavilions, alternatively housing staircases and cascades. On the other are colossal blocks of pruned hornbeam backed by a raised walkway. It is cut beneath by routes through to a series of secret gardens and also by enormous water chutes echoing the cascades on the other side of the lawn. Or it would be. Because sadly, most of the water features no longer function. The monumental canal on

…And the canal as it is now.

 the south west side lies forlornly empty, with nothing but a ruckled butyl liner to remind you that it was a water feature, along with a slightly ironic sign in French saying ‘for your safety, please do not enter the basin’ fixed to the concrete upstand in place of a missing coping stone. None of the water chutes on the other side function either, although the field of water jets still delights the children. The basic maintenance – grass cutting, pruning etc. has been carried out carefully. However, there is little evidence of ‘gardening’ in the half dozen or so themed gardens and whenever something breaks or fails, there is either no will or resources to replace it. The net result is a gradual decline in the park.

This is hardly an unfamiliar story to English ears. We have countless public parks and open spaces that have suffered the same fate. What interests me about Parc Citroën though, is how much of a part the original design (and perhaps more interestingly the commissioning process) played in its eventual decline. An article in the Boston Herald had a very good line on this. It said that “Citroën — for better or for worse — represents high-concept triumphant over public participation.” The article postulated that a project such as this could never have happened in Boston (and by extension I would say in the UK). The combination of vision, funding and single-minded project management meant the French Government was able to drive this project through with great speed and force. The piece went on to point out that there were good and bad sides to this. Interestingly, it was written shortly after the park’s opening, but the central point becomes even more strongly reinforced as time passes.

The design relies heavily on vast water features for much of its impact and structure. As landscape professionals, we all know what the implications in maintenance terms are for such features. How could the designers be sure that the funds would always be there to maintain and refurbish these features? The running costs alone are significant, but when the annualised costs of pump replacement, relining, etc. are taken into account, the bill becomes pretty much unsustainable in the longer term. Parc Citroën remains a great achievement and an exciting space. It is a reminder of what can be achieved by single minded vision. But clearly there is another lesson here. Perhaps we should all take more care to consider both the cash and skill resources that are likely to be (realistically) available for the future maintenance and management of a project before we let our imaginations (or should that be our egos) run wild.

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

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

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

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