Tag Archives: Society of Garden Designers

Urban (notes from the SGD Autumn 2014 conference)

If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:

Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.
Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.

A glossy, sleek, landscape of steel and glass. Actually, I think that many people’s idea of Urban is grittier, more individual; maybe even a little threatening. Something more like this:

An Urban explorer
An Urban explorer

The truth is more interesting. Landscape and Urbanism are intimately linked. If you ask almost anyone what is the earliest example of garden design they can think of, they will probably say (other than Eden) the hanging Gardens of Babylon.

new-old-7-wonders-hanging-gardens-babylon-iraq_18308_600x450

This is the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to have no known historical location, although it is almost certain to have been in what is now Iraq. The important point is that the very concept of gardens emerged at the same time as Urbanism. Cities only became possible because people moved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. The idea of making gardens emerged at the same time – gardens and buildings are inextricably linked; so one could argue thatwithout cities there would have been no gardens.

Dense medieval Bologna
Dense medieval Bologna

Medieval cities were pretty dense – look at southern European examples that still survive. The same was true in a more haphazard way in Northern Europe, where wealth came later. Significant green urban spaces only began to emerge here with the Agrarian and then Industrial Revolutions, and the explosion of learning that came with them. Buildings began to be taller, partly because of new building methods. Larger scale developments began to emerge, along with ideas of urban design and town planning. These higher densities created value which effectively funded green spaces between the buildings: much of central London with its squares was built in this way. I love this image of Belgrave Square, a chunk of woodland surrounded by a dense urban grain:

Belgrave Square from the air
Belgrave Square from the air

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Look at this wonderful example of Urban design from Darbourne and Darke in Lillington Street, Pimlico. This was the project that inspired me to go into Landscape Architecture in the 1970s. Once again, the buildings justify (or perhaps are justified by) the landscape spaces between. Is this buildings in a landscape or landscape between buildings?

Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC
Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC

We have tried to follow this route with our own work. Look at this example of dense Urban development in St Johns Wood, below. It is easy to grasp the scale of the space and the way it is shoe-horned (over an underground car park) into a sliver of land between new houses and the back of the adjacent C19th houses.

The COllection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.
The Collection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.

And finally, Singapore. Some of you might remember from James Wong’s barnstorming presentation at the ‘Exotic’ conference in spring 2014 his fantastic images of ‘greened’ urban development in Singapore:architetcure-parkroyal-sky-garden-hotel

Here, they seem to have the daring to achieve the sort of things that British Cities achieved in the Victorian era. In our own way, we are still making daring statements in London, such as this huge living wall on the Rubens Hotel designed by Gary Grant.

London's largest living wall
London’s largest living wall

This tied in very neatly with one of the co-sponsors of the conference, Treebox, whose system for living walls has the lowest water and nutrient usage of just about any on the market.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Northern Europe though is how to deal with the post-industrial age. Nature has its own way of doing this of course. Look at this picture of a deserted, derelict Aldgate East tube station:
_9876013_orig

Duisberg in Germany (by Latz and Partners) is the best known of these post industrial landscapes. Here the gutsy nature of the industrial structures was retained rather than being sanitised, and a series of contemporary uses was found for the former steelworks.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Partick Cullina explored this more fully in his fascinating presentation on the New York Hi-Line Park. This landmark project came about through the intervention of residents when the structure was threatened by demolition, and a design competition was staged. It was won by a Briton, James Corner, a graduate of Manchester Poly like me. There is no doubt though, that the real success of the project is Piet Oudolf and Patrick Cullina’s subtle herbaceous planting.Herbaceous planting on the Hi-Line

‘Grand Projets’ have their place here too, and there is room for both these and the post-industrial renovations like the Hi-Line. Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick’s Green Bridge project in London promises not only to be a fantastic structure and addition to London’s skyline, but also a major regenerative engine in its own right.

The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick
The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick

Mudchute FarmHowever, cities are as much about anarchy and the individual as government (perhaps more so?). So within the city grain there is room for outbreaks of individualism. I love London’s city farms such as Mudchute. Who could ask for a better picture than this:

There are also hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of tiny back gardens, each crammed with plants and artefacts in an orgy of individualism and biodiversity. James Fraser’s anarchic gardens perfectly represent the importance of small interventions. These are perhaps more important for the ‘green life’ of a city and together make up the mosaic that is its true character. Here we can all play a part, and particularly the garden design community. Sue Illman talked passionately about the way water (as an issue) links all landscape spaces. How we manage water resources and how that influences the design decisions we make, thus becomes very important. She mentioned CIRIA and its C697 paper (downloadable for free) as a particular resource in this respect, and although some of the thinking has expanded a little since then, it is still a useful source of information.

The true nature of cities therefore begins to emerge; far from being sterile hard environments, they are as much made up of a network of vegetated spaces running through and between the buildings. In fact, more than 50% of London’s area is either ‘green’ or ‘blue’ (water). If we go back to aerial photographs, look first at this picture of Central London, and then one of the whole of London.

Aerial photograph of Central London
Aerial photograph of Central London

 

London from the air
London from the air

It is noticeable from these just how green the London is; it is not just the capital however, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Glasgow and many others are just as green. The world’s largest urban horticultural survey (iTree) was undertaken in London this summer in an attempt to quantify cost and other benefits accruing from trees in the city. And there are many; look at the map below of the density of street trees in the London boroughs from the GLA website. What comes through is not only some of the surprising boroughs (like Southwark, with 50 trees per km of street) but also how haphazard the pattern is: it does not follow the ‘green doughnut’ that one would expect. Investment makes a real difference here.street trees per km London

 

I think what was remarkable about this conference was that at a day devoted to ‘Urban’ we spent the whole time talking about plants and nature. Our most important actions are to create the framework; nature will do most of the work thereafter. Indeed, one of the most interesting threads to emerge from the day was the way in which all the speakers worked with rather than against nature. Sue Illman’s rain gardens, Patrick Cullina’s planting on the Hi-line, James Fraser’s forest gardens and Dan Pearson’s carefully poised plant communities all had the underlying principles of permaculture in common. As Patrick Cullina pointed out, our interventions are important but they need to be finely balanced.

147909d1391704616-i-tree-eco-project-london-dsc01803

The SGD owes a particular vote of thanks to both Treebox and Griffin Nurseries for their generous sponsorship of this conference. We shouldn’t forget that planting can’t happen without nurseries!

Speakers details:

  1. Chairman: John Wyer CMLI FSGD, Bowles & Wyer: www.bowleswyer.co.uk
  2. Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illmanyoung.com
  3. Patrick Cullina, former director of horticulture at both Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Hi-Line. Patrick Cullina Horticultural Design & Consulting 894 Sixth Avenue, 5th floor New York, NY 10001 pjcullina@me.com
  4. James Fraser, The Avant Gardener, www.avantgardener.co.uk
  5. Dan Pearson FSGD, www.danpearsonstudio.com

Receiving an Award can be a mixed blessing

You might remember my post from November 2012 (Awards – What are they good for?). Here Vicky Wyer picks up the theme and explores some of the issues further.

What do you do when you’re nominated for an award but you’re the only one shortlisted?

This has happened to me several times and once recently to John. I helped to found and still help to run a community garden in Hitchin, which for many years was the only one in the local area. Rather embarrassing then to be awarded the local In Bloom award for Best Community Project several years running, with no competition!

A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden
A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden

Having said that there were a number of criteria we had to meet to qualify for an award including high levels of community participation, environmental responsibility and horticultural excellence (In Bloom is no longer all about bedding displays). Despite being the only entry in our category, it was a great boost to all involved in the Triangle Garden, to have their vision, hard work and dedication recognised in this way and helped to raise awareness locally of the widespread benefits of such initiatives.

The Collection in St Johns Wood, London
The Collection in St Johns Wood, London

By contrast John’s project ‘The Collection’ was one of a number of entries in the Best Public or Communal Outdoor Space category of the 2013 Society of Garden Designers’ Awards, but the only one of sufficient calibre to be shortlisted, although you wouldn’t have guessed that from James Alexander Sinclair’s presentation banter on the night!

It is a shame that winning an award in this sort of circumstance can be such a bittersweet experience. It’s almost worse to win from a one-horse shortlist, than to be short-listed and not win!

The Collection, a design created in response to an extremely challenging set of technical and spatial issues, was chosen by the judges for its ‘… interesting layout and clever use of a narrow space, which jointly serves to screen the ugliness and clutter of surrounding buildings, and to unify the space into a single composition…’

Although this and the Spokane project (SGD International Award joint winner 2012: see blog post about this project here – separate window), were very much John’s designs from start to finish, much of the work we do at Bowles & Wyer is collaborative. As an office we often work in teams on projects, with John giving overall direction but leaving scope for our designers to express themselves freely and for graduates to grow and innovate.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris)

At Bowles & Wyer we try to cultivate confidence and independent thinking in our designers, while satisfying a series of sometimes very technically exacting briefs.  It is a difficult balance for a busy practice but I think it helps that we don’t have a house style and that every design we do is focussed on what’s right for the site and the client.

While many garden designers are one-man-bands, there is a growing number of high profile studios employing several designers who work collaboratively on designs – Andy Sturgeon, Tom Hoblyn, Arabella Lennox Boyd, Christopher Bradley Hole, to name but a few. And although the SGD recognises individuals as members, it does not recognise studios. In every garden design studio there are unsung heroes working on many and varied projects, making their mark in terms of design excellence but going unrecognised in the wider world. The SGD would argue that they should all register as individual members, and I wouldn’t dispute that as a sound idea in itself, but even if they did this, there is still no recognition in the SGD Awards for collaborative work. And let’s face it a lot of the best work is collaborative. Something for the SGD to ponder on perhaps…

Triangle Garden Trustees with the RHS 'It's your neighbourhood' awardFinally I have to let you in on a little secret… last year the Triangle Community Garden finally achieved an accolade of which its members and supporters could be properly proud: we were anonymously nominated for the RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood Awards and achieved the rating ‘Thriving’ – the equivalent of a Silver Gilt. Woo hoo! Next year we’ll be going for gold!

Vicky Wyer

Senior landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, and cycling widow to John. For more info on the Triangle Garden see www.trianglegarden.org

 

Awards – what are they good for?

Well, the short answer is quite a lot (purely a personal opinion, you understand). After reading Tim Richardson’s column in the November issue of the Garden Design Journal, I gave this a lot of thought. I have won the odd award in my time, so one could say my stance is biased, but read to the end and you can make up your own mind up.

Firstly, I think it is a pity that Tim fired from the hip without first waiting to see what the SGD awards had to offer, but let’s set that to one side. I was interested by his opinion, but I take a different view. If one ignores the over-the-top rhetoric and posturing (‘the simpering saps who have to go up and be pathetically grateful on the stages of corporate rent-outs in front of baying drunks’), then it seems to me that Tim’s main points are as follows:

  1. Awards ceremonies are principally a way for organisations to maintain power and influence.
  2. Awards are mainly given to those who have ‘been in some way useful or obliging to the presiding organisation’

Let’s tackle the second one first. Bowles & Wyer (my company) has won many BALI awards over the last ten years – certainly well into double figures. I would like to think the projects won their respective awards on the basis of their quality. It is certainly not (as Tim postulates) because we have ‘been useful or obliging’ to BALI. We have never had any involvement in the organisation, either as individuals or corporately (other than paying our subs). I have never sat on any committees, boards or made any contribution to BALI. The main reason for this is that my time has been largely taken up with the Society of Garden Designers, where I seem to have been involved on just about every committee going at one time or another, including the one which set up the awards. Which brings us to Tim’s first point.

The main reason that the Society set up the awards was not to ‘maintain power and influence’, but because its members have frequently asked it to do so. There seemed to be a bit of a vacuum in terms of celebrating good design in real gardens. That the awards scheme is filling this void is underlined by the real interest from the press and also from two separate TV companies. That of course is neither a guarantee or stamp of quality. However, I think most people would agree that the design quality of the winning schemes was very high, certainly higher than I have seen evidenced in other awards ceremonies, some of which have different criteria.

I suspect that the judging panel of the SGD awards would be deeply offended by Tim’s assertion that the gongs are handed out on a largesse basis. The judges were almost all completely independent from the Society and instructed to take a completely independent view in their decisions. Tim is entitled to his views and I would support his right to express them freely (and frequently have done so in my role on the editorial panel of the Garden Design Journal). His opinions are almost always interesting often introduce fresh light on a subject. Sometimes however, (as in this case) the arc of his opinion neatly skips over the facts. Charles Jencks, who won the John Brookes (or lifetime achievement award) has never had anything to do with the Society. Dan Pearson, who won the Grand Award, is a member but has never (to my knowledge) served on any committees or on council, or even does anything behind the scenes. I suspect he is too busy with his practice most of the time. As such, the two central planks in Tim’s article seem to be unsupported by the facts.

So what are awards good for? I cannot deny that it is gratifying to receive an award. But, as Tim suggests, one should not trust these instincts; they serve little other than to puff oneself up. Nonetheless, I have found awards to be a useful marketing tool. Confronted with trying to find a garden designer, many clients find the panoply of practitioners on offer confusing, and find awards a useful way of filtering. They view a designer’s involvement in the Chelsea Flower Show (and other similar shows) in the same light. Whether this is sensible or not is arguable, but clients will tend to take account of such things. I also find that preparing the publicity material for awards is a useful discipline in getting marketing material ready for more general use. Finally, all the people involved with working on an award-winning scheme feel some sense of gratification and recognition, from the client and designers through to the contractors and suppliers. It would seem to me to be curmudgeonly to deny this as a good thing.

It is true that some awards schemes fall short of the standards one would like to see. There are those which hand out awards like sweets. There may even be some that operate on the back-slapping principles that Tim suggests, although I don’t know of any. However, the real point about awards schemes is that at their best, they are all about a celebration of excellence. They inspire and encourage individuals and companies to strive for better quality in design and execution. And that has to be worth supporting.

 John Wyer