Tag Archives: Landscape Design

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?


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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Are we just making Pretty shapes?

Strong forms can be a good thing and geometry need not be all right angles – but do we sometimes let shapes drive the design rather than vice versa? I always think of a design for a site being based on a triangular set of influences – site, client and designer. You can tell the designers who exert a strong influence on their designs and ignore the other two – their schemes all look pretty similar – ‘a very strong house style’ is how it is often described. The one advantage to clients is at least they know what they are going to get…

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Where have all the trees gone?

This is from a developer’s sale details – not a tree in sight!

Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? This question lurked behind (and occasionally in the foreground) of many of the recent discussions in the Landscape Institute lecture series staged at the excellent Garden Museum in Lambeth, London (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk). Historically, those schemes that have incorporated a high quality integrated landscape have become highly valued, both in market terms but also in wider social terms. Many of these were in their day landmarks in the way in which housing was built on mass – The Garden City movement, Span Developments, Wates housing estates from the 1960s to name but a few.

Span Houses at Cedar Chase – designed by Eric Lyons

One of the common threads in all of these was their incorporation of dense planting and trees into the structure of the developments. Often they were planned at relatively high housing densities, allowing higher returns for the developer.

As land prices have moved up and car ownership increased, developers tended to move more towards apartment block schemes in urban areas. The more imaginative operators (such as Urban Splash) and those working at the top end of the market would always incorporate landscape. Sadly, this was a minority. Our experience working in this market has clearly shown that fantastic results can be squeezed form the most difficult sites when Landscape Architects or Garden Designers are involved early enough. Bowles & Wyer recently picked up the ‘Landscape Architect of the Year’ and ‘Garden Designer of the Year’ awards at the New Homes Garden Awards (www.newhomesgardenawards.co.uk). This has been run by Denis Rawlings and David Hoppit for several years to try and drive forward the quality of landscape design in housing.

Squeeze those trees in! A scheme of ours in London.

One of our schemes won ‘Best Urban Landscape’ on a very tight site in London. It just shows that there is never an excuse not to plant trees. On this site, they are squeezed between the houses and the backs of the neighbouring shops, on top of an underground car park! you can see more of this scheme on our website in the project pages: The Collection, St Johns Wood. The interesting thing about it is that the cost of the soft landscape was only about £70,000, which represents just £5000 per house. I would hazard a guess that it added a lot more than that to the sale price of each unit.

John Wyer

Why are Landscape designers different?

Landscape and Garden design are different from other forms of design. Why? Well, there are two reasons; firstly because we design with living things. This means our designs change with time. They are not ephemeral in the usual sense of the word, tending instead to improve with time. However, the other reason we are different is that we are always site-specific. This is sometimes true for other professions (architecture for example), but always true for landscape design. Sometimes I think that we do not sufficiently realise what a rare opportunity this represents.

A few months ago, we looked at a site in the Gade Valley in Hertfordshire. We already have other projects in this valley, notably at a grade II* listed manorial house called Gaddesden Hall. The new plot we were looking at was different because it was a greenfield site where the client was planning an application under PPS7, which allows new houses to be built in the countryside if they are of exceptional architectural quality. 

This new site really got me thinking about what it meant to be site specific in terms of design, and also how that related to the client. I suppose what defined it was not so much the views (which were fantastic) or the approach through the tree-covered lane, which I also really liked, but the way the site connected to the broader landscape. One of the things that I learned from working at Gaddesden Hall is that the Gade Valley has a rich history going back at least a couple thousand years, and probably longer. That is why the approach through the little lane overhung with trees was so important, because the feeling one gets walking up the track is of stepping backwards to something forgotten.

In landscape terms this would mean that our approach would not be to create a ‘garden’ as such. Neither would it be to try and ‘hide’ the house. In any case, in order to succeed the architect’s design would have to strike chords with its surroundings. In the simplest terms we would be looking at integration, but this works at a more fundamental level than a cosmetic or visual approach.

When we were standing on the site, I remarked to the client that although we were surrounded by classic English ‘countryside’, everything that we could see around us was a ‘manmade’ landscape. In effect of course this means a balance between human activity and natural forces. Ultimately any landscape that we would create would be the same – it would seek equilibrium between human activity and nature. How this will look depends partly on the activity – lawn, vegetable gardens, orchards, pasture, hedgerows, woodland and reedbeds all occupy different positions in the tapestry of the broader landscape and represent varying inputs of activity.

 The skill would be to weave different elements (however few or many they may be) together into a whole that feels right, that feels as though it has always been there. It will be neither a pure expression of the site any more than it will be a pure distillation of who the client is (or the designer for that matter), but a manifestation of how we interact with the land, how we live in the place. In this way it will not only be unique but will change with time as our circumstances change and with every decision that we make.

John Wyer

How to create a perfect garden

A week or two ago, we were really thrilled to receive a bunch of awards at the annual BALI awards ceremony at Grosvenor House. We were particularly pleased to get the grand award and the design build award for the same project, a garden in Surrey. The judges were glowing in their comments, describing the scheme as ‘an exercise in perfection’. This is of course very gratifying, and it is great when everything comes together on a project. People often describe it as ‘everyone pulling in the same direction’. This got me thinking about how quality is determined. There has of course been reams and reams written about how to promote and manage quality – TQM, QA, ISO and all the rest. It struck me though that it really has more to do with an organisation’s culture than anything else. We certainly don’t always get it right in this respect, but everyone at B+W has a commitment to high quality that borders on the obsessional. It is difficult to achieve a really good result without staff at all stages of the project being focussed on the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many forms are filled in, how many checks are done or how much snagging. In the end it will only happen because people want it to.

This may seem smug and even a bit facile. But it strikes me that communication, training, camraderie and a relentless focuss on quality are the only way to produce consistently good results in the long term. The bottom line follows – not the other way around.