It was a bright sunny day in April, and I was on a site visit to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where our fourth courtyard was underway. Once I’d finished on the site visit, I wandered around to take a look at one of our earlier projects at Addenbrooke’s – a courtyard for Outpatients. I was delighted to see fifteen or twenty people in the spring sunshine reading, eating sandwiches or just sitting quietly.
Two years before, this had been a dark and somewhat foreboding space – hardly an ideal environment to have outside a room where outpatients were waiting (sometimes nervously) to attend appointments. Now it was a pleasant airy space with flowers, raised beds and a bubbling water sculpture.
There is a mass of evidence to show that natural green spaces aid recovery. So it was with great pleasure that we started a few years ago helping Addenbrooke’s Hospital with refurbishing a number of their courtyards, beginning with the stroke recovery unit. The work was funded by donations channelled through the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust. The programme was driven by the relentless enthusiasm of Rachel Northfield, Head of Estates and Building at Cambridge University Hospitals. Her determination to see these spaces transformed has paid off hugely.
The hospital had been given a bronze sculpture of two entwined otters, which had been designed to have water flowing over it. This piece was incorporated into the second courtyard, along with Schellevis paving and raised CorTen steel beds.
Like most Garden designers, we often work for wealthy clients on private projects. This series of spaces has been a refreshing change. When the outpatients Courtyard was finished, I was standing with Rachel looking at the completed space when a woman came up to us and asked who had been responsible for this. When I said rather meekly that I was (not being sure what to expect), she stepped forward, threw her arms around me and gave me a hug! What better thank you could I have had!
The garden received an SGD award last night, which is a great honour.
(We have completed three further courtyards since then, one of which won a BALI award in December 2018. I will do separate posts on these in due course.)
I was reading WTF by Robert Peston this morning. ‘How on earth’ I asked myself ‘does a man with as many commitments as this find the time to write? And not just a paragraph now and then, but a whole book!’
I suppose that the answer is just a simple one of prioritising actions. I know that I want to write; it’s just that I don’t seem to be able to find the time to do it. The short answer is therefore to make the time. In the end, we do what we want to do. But… sometimes in retrospect we wish we had done things differently. Perhaps a little less time spent on my phone? Or looking at emails? I have (at least) three books in my head. Probably a dozen half-hatched ideas. So my failure in life isn’t failing to finish things (like some people); it’s not starting them in the first place!
Over the last two years, I also have come to realise the importance of ideas. And ideas start with thinking. The funny thing is though, ideas don’t always come along when you expect them, much like many other things in life. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that constant rumination of a problem or an issue is what drives the generation of ideas. Then before you know it, you are in the shower (my favourite place for ideas generation) or on your bike (second favourite) and – Bing! (lightbulb). Acting on and enabling these ideas is at least as important as having them in the first place.
So my New Year’s resolution is twofold: Think more and write more. I want to have at least one book finished by the end of the year and perhaps another half-done. Ambitious? Yes, definitely. Over-ambitious? Check in same time next year!
I have written before about Gaze Burvill’s furniture on this blog (What makes a good chair?), but after attending the unveiling of their new handmade bench at Kew Gardens a couple of weeks ago, I was moved to write again.
Over one hundred years ago, a soldier picked up some acorns and put them in his pocket. He was in France, about 30km from the Belgian border. The acorns were from the battlefield at Verdun, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with over 700,000 casualties. The soldier survived and returned with his acorns to the UK. They were handed over to Kew and in 1919, an oak tree was planted out in the grounds to commemorate the fallen.
In the St Jude storm in late October 2013, the tree was badly damaged, and the decision was taken to fell it. Simon Burvill takes up the story: “Four years ago in early 2014, I received a call from Tony Kirkham, Head of Arboretum at Kew, to tell me that he’d had an idea for a challenging yet inspiring project… …Tony asked me if we at Gaze Burvill could create a commemorative piece from the wood of the Oak tree in time for the centenary of the end of the War. Tony is one of the world’s leading tree experts, and responsible for all 14,000 of Kew’s trees. He knew of the difficulty of this project – this tree was young for an oak and grew in parkland, not forested and therefore unlikely to produce prime quality wood. We had only four years until the Centenary event, to mill and dry the wood, followed by the designing and building of the seat, meaning timing would be tight. However, I felt honoured to be part of such a unique project, so I said yes…”
I called in to Gaze Burvill’s HQ and workshops in late 2014, where Simon told me about the project. When they were milling the timber, the saw had snagged on some nails deep in the timber and broken the blade. The position of the nails dated them to about 1947-48. That was the end of the milling, although most of the timber had been planked. Simon showed me the remaining ‘wedge’ (with the nail stains) which was made into a simple bench to commemorate Verdun and unveiled at Kew 100 years to the day after the end of the battle.
The main bench was designed and beautifully made by Gaze Burvill and a site was chosen. It was to be curved, with the concave or more reflective and introverted side facing the war memorial at Kew. The more outward looking convex side was to face out over the gardens, looking over the water and trees.
Apart from being a very poignant story, this also has something else. Landscape projects work best when they have a clear link with the land on which they sit – when they are (quite literally in this case) – rooted into the landscape. But this has another dimension: the back story arches over history, from the battlefields of France to the peace of Kew, and embedded within it there is an idea of the healing power of nature and by extension, horticulture. This concept is already deeply rooted in our collective psyche through the icon of the poppy, which flourished in abundance on the battlefields in the summer following the war. Not all projects have such a fantastic story, but the combination of link to the site and some deeper story of the client is a powerful one. For more exploration of this idea of landscape design rooted in the site, read a post I did a few years ago, called: ‘Why are landscape designers different?‘
I recently was asked to give a talk at the landscape show on the subject of Master-planning country estates and large gardens – what do you do when confronted by several acres and an expectant client?
Estate master-planning is an area in which Bowles & Wyer have considerable experience, built up particularly over the last decade or so, in this country and internationally. So, question 1 –
What is master-planning? And how is it different from design?
There is often confusion about the differences between design and master-planning. Many inexperienced designers approach a master plan in the same way they would a garden design – they do some analysis, but often quite quickly get bogged down in shape making and fail to think radically about what is needed – they think in terms of features and style rather than areas and networks.
Masterplans establish a framework of land use spaces or zones, connected by a distribution network. It is within this framework that design occurs.
Which leads us naturally to question 2 –
What processes should you go through to masterplan a site?
There are three basic stages – Information gathering, Analysis and Design. Remember the S-A-D process you were taught at college? This applies doubly to landscape (or any) master-planning. There is a fourth process that overlays this, which is stakeholder engagement. In the public realm this is a continuous and multi-layered procedure. However, for private projects, although important, it is more straightforward.
1. Information gathering stage
Before you go to site, before you start on anything else, it is good to carry out a thorough desktop study into background information. Web-based sources like magic map are useful for this – look at designations, neighbouring land uses, local planning applications, planning history, etc.
The next step obviously is to Visit the site: spend as much time there as possible. Walk around the whole area and take lots of photos.
Talk to people who know the site well. Obviously, this may include the owner, but also site managers, gardeners, people who have had previous dealings there (other designers, tree surgeons, local authority officers etc.). This information can be invaluable.
Again this may seem obvious, but Aspect and topography are crucial – they have a major bearing on almost everything. Resist the temptation to start formulating design solutions until all the information is analysed and collated. In most cases, aspect and topography are likely to be bigger drivers of the final masterplan than the client brief.
Use aerial or satellitephotography
Look back at previous cached satellite/aerial pics to get an idea of history/change on the site. This is not always easy, but can be really useful.
Sometimes useful for looking at seasonal change – not all photographs are taken at the same time of year.
Combine overlays and aerial photography – we find this a really useful methodology and it makes sure that your design process is always pinned back to site.
Other Surveys may also be useful:
Commission a tree survey if possible, or in the case of a woodland a walking woodland health survey. Generally very useful, although sometimes you have to convince the client to spend the money.
Commission ecological survey information – especially if there is a lot of semi-wild (or wild) landscape.
Hydrological information – if Hydrology or drainage are an issue, then this is vital in formulating solutions.
If abroad, local climate
What is the house going to be used for?
Main residence – family use? Is it going to be a low-key home for the family?
Holiday or country home? If so what are the times of year of visits?
Entertaining (shooting, country house parties, etc)? How many guests and how often? Sometimes larger houses have to virtually function as hotels – if so, you need to consider this from the start.
2. Analysis stage
What are the overriding physical constraints that affect the site?
What further research is needed? Often a consideration of this stage throws up extra research that can be useful to undertake.
What is the nature of the constraints?How can they be mitigated to meet the client brief?
How are the client requirements going to impact on the site?
How might these change over time?
How might the various client uses have different impacts? Sometimes these can be in conflict – quiet family use and formal large-scale entertaining for example require a completely different approach.
What land use zones need to be near the house and which can afford to be further afield? Swimming pools for example generally need to be near the house. Ditto kitchen gardens. Games pitches or tennis courts can be a little further away, whilst woodland walks, lake etc. can be quite distant.
Budget and timescale
What are the client’s time horizons (and are they realistic)?
Are there overriding budget constraints? Although be warned, it is best not to get sucked into budgetary discussions too early.
What future management or maintenance resources are likely to be available? This needs to be one of the earliest questions you ask.
What bearing does the context of the site have on usage and design?
How might land use on neighbouring plots change in the foreseeable future change and what are the implications? It is not uncommon for example to find neighbouring farmland under threat of future development – this has happened to us during the master planning process at least three times that I can think of.
Analyse key views across the surrounding countryside, particularly from the house. These need to managed rather than just kept. Use clumps of trees or other objects to mask unwanted parts of a view.
3. Design Stage
Access and distribution are important
Look at the journey that visitors will make when approaching the house. Not all should be revealed at once – there should be a serial vision as to how the design unfolds.
Think of day-to-day use by the family; this may well be different from guests.
For larger houses in particular, think of servicing. Remember that a very large house with say 15-20 bedrooms acts like a hotel when full for a weekend or other event. There will need to be drop-off and parking for guests, parking for staff, but also separate access for food, drink laundry and other deliveries. This needs to work smoothly and as nearly as possible, invisibly.
Security may be an important factor for some clients. This has a significant bearing on communications and distribution networks
You will also need to think about how maintenance equipment (such as minitractors, mowers etc) move about the site.
The internal and external uses need to be aligned. For example, main reception room and spilling out space; pool room and sun terraces. We had one project where the architect completely reworked the internal layout when we pointed out the potential of the views and west facing façade.
Consider grouping uses together where feasible – entertaining or grander spaces, family use spaces, sports and outdoor activities (tennis, swimming, trampoline, play equipment etc.) There may be scope for spaces to have more than one use.
Think about practicalities for gardeners – composting, equipment storage etc, but also WC and break facilities.
Views and spaces
Look to ‘manage’ key views. It may be that removal of some trees (or groups) may open beautiful views. Alternatively, there may be other features (pylons, buildings etc) that can be hidden by tree planting. Consider using landform for this as well, preferably combined with tree planting.
Segues between spaces are crucial. This is particularly important where uses vary between spaces.
Finally, style – this should be quite a long way down the list. Land use and practicality are much more important.
As some of you are no doubtaware from my social media posts, I went to Croatia earlier this year. I say that because I had more comments than almost anything else I had put on Instagram in recent months. All the comments from people said the same things – ‘I had no idea that the national parks there were so beautiful!’ There were some who said things like ‘Another cocktail?!’, but we will gloss over those.
The national parks in question were the Krka National Park and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Of the two, the Krka is the smaller and more recent, but also much more accessible from the coast, which is the where main concentration of tourists travel from.
Both represent very good examples of typical Karst topography and Calc-sinter formations. These are relatively rare in river formations but similar features in lakes exist elsewhere in the world. This sort of topography is both breath-taking to see and rich in biodiversity. Eight hundred and sixty species and subspecies of plants have been identified within the territory of the Krka National Park. The Plitvice Park alone has 55 species of orchid.
Because of this, visitors are a problem. Over one million people visit Plitvice every year, which is incredible given that most of it is either water or inaccessible rock cliffs and slopes. For this reason, if you are intending to visit, I would stick to early in the season or leave it until autumn. If you must go in the summer – get there early!
These people are accommodated through a network (around 18kmin total at Plitvice) of timber boardwalks. These are cut from local timber sources and maintained on a rolling basis by a dedicated labour force. There are many advantages to this.
Firstly, it is a natural limit to the number of people that the Park can accommodate. There is only the walkway. If you step to one side or the other is it generally water or a towering rock face. At times this can be quite scary as you can see from the photos!
Secondly, it allows large numbers of visitors to be funnelled through the park with minimal physical impact on the landscape in the way of actual footfall.
The walkways themselves are relatively low impact. I say relatively because there are some issues with this. The original walkways (particularly in Plitvice) were put in place decades ago using wooden stakes driven into the substrate. This has caused some degradation of the tufa layers beneath and the Park Authority is now moving towards less invasive methods such as pontoons. Interestingly, the timber walkways are very similar in concept to those on Reed Hildebrand’s ‘Half-Mile Line’ project (link here opens in separate tab). There, RH used simple metal screw-piles into the soft substrates, but here I suspect that even those might cause damage. Either way, the timber walkways have a low environmental footprint – locally produced, sustainable and biodegradable.
They are also exceptionally beautiful. There is nothing quite like the curve of one of these walkways across a march or lake or nestled against a cliff. And some of those that swing almost rope-bridge style across the falls are genuinely awesome. These walkways allow you to get right in amongst the landscape and its flora/fauna. Somehow you are both a participant and observer at the same time. These parks left a deep and lasting impression on me.
The following is a blog from Max Harriman, one of the most recent (and talented!) additions to our design team at Bowles & Wyer. You can reach him on Max@BowlesWyer.co.uk. The garden is currently under construction and due to open next week – please visit!
‘Mental health’ is the buzzword of the moment, and for good reason. One in four people in the UK will suffer a diagnosable mental health problem each year . Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders increases by up to 20% for urban dwellers . Urban life is stressful; increased social stresses, high population densities, disturbed chrono-biological rhythms and increased pollution are all major contributors. However, a surge of recent research has also pointed to the link between poor mental health and the lack of contact with the natural world or ‘Green Space’.
On 2nd July I, and a team from Bowles & Wyer, began the build of a show garden of my own design selected to compete in the Young Garden Designer of the Year competition. The competition, run by the RHS, allows the opportunity for aspiring designers just starting their careers, to exhibit a show garden for a chance to win the coveted title. This year’s theme for the competition was to design a garden that highlights the benefits plants and gardening have on health and wellbeing. I decided to focus primarily on mental health, designing a garden to maximise the restorative benefits green space has on our mental fitness, particularly for those of us living in the urban context.
My garden ‘Calm in Chaos’ was inspired by scientific literature surrounding the subject as well the realisation of the importance of green space in the urban environment having moved to London two years ago. The stresses of urban life are pacified when in the garden, transporting the guest far from the hustle and bustle to a woodland-like setting. Design elements aim to distract and absorb the guest, to take their mind off the associated stresses of city life. The garden is also designed to prolong the time the visitor spends in the space, therefore maximising the effects of the associated restorative benefits.
I designed the garden around four main elements of the natural world that have been proven to have a positive impact on mental health in the urban environment . The first is the feeling of ‘being away’ or removal from the city hardscape, which goes hand in hand with the second, the notion of scale or the feeling of extent in a space. Overthinking or rumination is a common symptom of mental health problems, so the third element is fascination or captivation to distract the guest’s attention away from the stresses of urban life, if only for a moment. Finally, the last intended element of the design was accessibility. I wanted the green space to be useable and inviting to encourage entry and therefore exploitation of the positive effects the garden would generate.
Gardens have the power to transport us to another place, which is the one of the main concepts behind ‘Calm in Chaos’. By using visual cues, for example planting style, the guest is psychologically removed from the urban setting. The feeling of escape on sight of the garden, and then once crossing its threshold, hypothetically would increase the uptake of restorative benefits. The path in the garden is made of compacted gravel to convey an ‘off the beaten track’ aesthetic far removed from the concrete and tarmac constant of urban life. The naturalistic woodland style of the planting is adopted to give the visitor the impression of being as far removed as possible from city life. A woodland planting palette was also chosen as walking through woodland has been proven to be an effective preventative health care measure: lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormones and boosting the immune system.
Space in cities is scarce, and green spaces even more so, therefore ‘extent’ or an impression of scale was an important element of the garden to address. The winding path is essential to the design; snaking and meandering through the garden, it maximises the space and increases the sense of scale. The main feature of the garden is the series of timber posts that frame this winding path. The posts create a porous barrier through the space that only allows small glimpses through certain areas, adapting to the moving perspective of the guest as they walk along the path. The dynamic concealing and revealing of views in the garden is designed to give the impression of a larger expanse of space.
Taking your mind off something is not always an easy task, especially for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. The natural world, however, is full of ‘soft fascinations’- things that can hold your attention in an effortless fashion such as waves hitting a beach or rustling leaves. Therefore, ‘distracting’ elements were a significant consideration whilst designing the garden. Planting in the garden was designed to include a multitude of leaf forms, shapes and textures (much like a natural woodland) to visually stimulate guests. Increased fascination distracts guests from their urban stresses, makes them pause, slow down and ultimately increase the time spent in the garden. The posts, obscuring views whilst opening up new ones, are designed to entice and captivate visitors. The calming effects of water are also well documented, increasing creativity as well as possessing restorative qualities of its own. Water evokes a child-like fascination in all of us and people are generally attracted to it, so I have placed a reflective water dish central to the garden.
Compatibility of urban green spaces and its intended use is important. I often notice public green spaces that are not only unimaginative and repetitive, but also seem not to encourage exploration or spending time long enough to achieve any associated benefits. Sure, it can look great – but can you use it?Do you want to use it? The path in ‘Calm in Chaos’ plays an integral role in inviting the visitor into the garden, with the water bowl and bench providing an enticing destination point. This is the best place to enjoy the garden. It encourages entry into the space and will ultimately be the place where guests stop, sit down, whilst immersed in greenery and soak up the restorative effects of the design.
Research has shown that those living in urban areas close to green spaces are significantly less likely to suffer poor mental health . Interaction with nature and the integration of green spaces into our busy modern lives will undoubtedly become increasingly important in reducing the prevalence of mental health issues – a daunting but very exciting prospect!
‘Calm in Chaos’ will be exhibited at the RHS Tatton Park Flower show from the 18th-22nd of July. More notably the show garden will be relocated and transformed into a permanent feature garden at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge after the show to be used and enjoyed by patients and friends and families of patients alike.
Elements of ‘Calm in Chaos’ were kindly sponsored by Groundwork UK and UBS Wealth Management. I would also like to thank the following supporters of the garden.
For those of you that came to our 25th Anniversary party last Thursday, below are a selection of photos from the party – spot yourself! For those of you who couldn’t make it, we missed you!
I also include a transcript of my speech as quite a few people missed it and asked about it afterwards. I may have added one or two jokes on the night, but this is roughly what I said! John.
“It will surprise very few of you that when I first met Chris Bowles thirty-four years ago, I was riding a bike (although equally unsurprising is that he wasn’t). Chris was working for Clifton Nurseries at the time and I joined shortly afterwards. Five years later, Chris and I went out for dinner and came up with the idea of Bowles & Wyer, with my brother Nick. The plan was delayed for four years, partly due to the recession in the late eighties. Our business advisor in those day was Michael Johnson and looking through the job book the other day I saw that his garden was the second project we undertook – so he put his money where his mouth was!
I can’t quite believe it, but here we are, twenty-five years later. Nearly all of you in this room, friends, family, suppliers, clients (and some of you are in more than one category!) have played a part in that journey. The drawings on the invitation are part of that story. 19 Wilton Crescent was a project we undertook with Paul Davis and Partners in 1993 – and we are still working with them today on Kings Road and Regents Crescent. Klas Nilsson of Northacre gave us our first large commercial project at Observatory Gardens (and many others afterwards, including The Lancasters). Northacre are still a client today – we are working on Palace Street with them. We first worked with KSR twenty years ago on the Pavilion Apartments and they, BTP and Elliot Wood (also old friends) are all involved with 41 Frognal – another remarkable job, currently on site.
Those of you close to Bowles & Wyer know that we have being going through something of a quiet revolution in the last two years, helped by Alan Wick. The business has transformed and is re-inventing itself. Although a lot of people have been with us a long time, many new faces have joined us, and we have welcomed a few old friends back as well! We have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are for. We’re in this industry for the love of it. The closest we could come to why we do what we do is that we are here to ‘Enhance Lives and Landscapes’. We want people to be happier for having worked with us, either as an employee, a client, a supplier or on the same team. And enhancing landscapes is not just about creating beautiful spaces; we also want to leave theenvironment better than we found it.
Two and a half years ago sitting round a table we asked ourselves what we wanted from the future. The answer we came up with was ‘Better fit for our employees; better fit for our clients; just better.’
So, thanks to all of you who have played a part in this story over the last twenty-five years and will continue to do so.”
What stories do drawings tell us? Each site, each client is different and each drawing represents a snapshot in time. Some of you may have seen the invitation that we sent out for our 25th anniversary party. We wanted to choose some drawings to represent the last 25 years of Bowles and Wyer. This was not an easy task – there are thousands of them! Each of the drawings we chose tells a story.
IMAGE No1 – A garden in Parliament Hill. Project 100
At the beginning of 1992 I was lead designer at Clifton Nurseries. I left there in the May of that year, two months after the birth of our first child (the illustrator and graphic designer, Polly Wyer: http://pollywyer.co.uk). My first project under my own name (job number 100 – I didn’t want to start at 1!) was a garden in parliament Hill, Hampstead. This was an interesting project – a ground floor flat belonging to a fund manager. The garden had two awkward features. One was a large angled rectangular ‘bite’ out of the plot. the other was more fundamental. The apartment had been extended out over the previous patio so that only about 70cm of flat space remained. Beyond that all you saw from inside was a retaining wall over one metre high and a load of weeds at the upper level. To combat this, I designed a ‘scoop’ of space at the lower level, leading up a flight of steps to a landing at an intermediate level. My solution to the odd shaped plot was to divide the space along two radii; one to a small circular sitting area to the left and the other to a narrow vista to a sculpture or pot. I remember doing this drawing; it was drawn by hand at home, around 10pm the day before I was meeting the client! I still like the design now. It went on site almost immediately and was my first project to be finished. The profit from this was basically my seed capital for the business.
IMAGE No2 – A trellis feature in Wilton Crescent, Belgravia. Project 154
A spot of Classical trelliswork! This was for a very grand house in Belgravia. A year has passed since the last project. The brief was to provide a shelf for planting at first floor level opposite the dining room and ‘something to look at’. This drawing got us the rest of the project and formed the basis of a long working relationship with PDP, with whom we still work today (Regent’s Crescent and Kings Road). Looking back I am fascinated to see the detail I went into with the notes and the fact that I combined presentation and construction on one drawing! All looks a bit classical now as well, although I do like it!
IMAGE No3 – Thames Court Roof Garden. Project 460
Although never built, this was one of my favourite projects. We were approached by the developers to design a roof terrace for a speculative office development overlooking the Thames in Central London. For the first time, we looked at the space in a really different way – back to first principles. The environment on roof terraces is always extreme – sunnier, windier, colder, hotter than it is at ground level. This design was strongly driven by its context. In terms of its physical environment, this led us to look at other similar environments and their ecologies. Cliff-tops, foreshores, dry hillsides and the like. This in turn drove the plant selection. It also led us to specify thinner, less fertile soils which required low levels of irrigation and were lighter. The historical context also played a part. the swooping lines on the drawing represent the different shorelines of the Thames over previous 2000 years or so and are expressed as cuts running through the timber decking. The ‘view contours’ of the St Paul’s visibility corridor were also influential in the design. This scheme permanently changed the way in which we approached all projects, but roof terraces in particular. (Drawings by Stephen Richards)
IMAGE No4 – Seafield House. Project 1155
One of the more unusual projects we worked on – conversion of a former nuclear bunker into a luxury home. The building and site had lain empty and unused for years. This was a challenging scheme, but also a fascinating one. This was the first time we began to merge three different media to give a cohesive drawing style – hand drawing, 3D packages (in this case SketchUp) and Photoshop. This combination is still at the centre of how we render work thirteen years later. (drawing by Neil Percival)
IMAGE No5 – The Lancasters. Project 1115
This was one of the most unusual (and for us iconic) projects we have worked on. We were approached by Northacre, a client with whom we had worked for many years, on a new development overlooking Hyde Park. I was struck by the flamboyancy of the original façades – the way they overlooked the park reminded me of promenade buildings. Later I discovered the architect had been influenced by French design, particularly on the Riviera. Following a lot of research, we came up with a design based on ornate contemporary C19th motifs, cut and pasted – almost sprinkled – in a randomised pattern along the garden. The scheme was finished of with a row of 6-7m high fan palms in front of the façade. The client was so delighted with this that they adopted the palm tree and the idea of travel to the Riviera as a theme for all the marketing for the event. (drawing by Neil Percival)
IMAGE No6 – A Hampstead Garden. Project 2160
This sketch is for a project about to go on site. The style layering digital and hand drawing is typical of the way we present designs at the moment. You can read more about how we build these up to the finished drawing in a separate blog-post: ‘Anatomy of a sketch’
So there it is – 25 years in six drawings. From the first one drawn in my flat in London in the spare room to the final one worked on by three different people and across three different software packages and hand drawings. The fascinating thing is that hand drawings are a consistent thread from 1993 to 2018.
As a cyclist (of sorts), I often use an app called ‘Strava’. This not only tracks your route, speed, altitude etc., but also lets you know how you are doing against your previous efforts (as well as other people).
Out for a cycle a couple of evenings ago, I tackled one of my favourite hills. ‘Personal Record’ gushed Strava enthusiastically after my ascent – this was apparently the quickest I had climbed this particular hill in the twenty or so times I had cycled up it. My satisfaction was short-lived. After a little investigation, the app informed me that I was the 1188th fastest person up this hill in the last five years or so. That must include a few races of super fit young guys though, surely? Not only that but I was only the 23rd fastest up it today! I then found similarly depressing figures for my gender, age-group and weight, suggesting I suppose that quite a lot of other middle aged slightly overweight men had done better than me.
The lesson here is not to get sucked in to measuring yourself against other people. For most of us, for any task or achievement, there will always be someone who has done better. We are each our unique mix of talents and abilities. I don’t suppose many of those people who climbed the hill quicker than me could design gardens very well or probably cook an omelette as well as I can (I do mean scrambled eggs as well). Try your hardest and do better than you did last time.
Curiously enough, businesses do much the same. They often spend far too much time comparing themselves against their competitors. “How did they get that contract?” “Why are they able to sell that more cheaply than we can?” Instead, we should concentrate on what our clients want. In the end, they are what drive the business. if we get that right, the competitors cease to matter. As business leaders, we should concentrate on serving our clients’ needs as best we can, along with fine-tuning our internal processes to make improvements to our performance. We should also be looking for new ways to delight them, perhaps even identifying needs that they didn’t know they had.
And that is like finding a hill which no one else has cycled up yet.
Last summer I spent a few weeks in the United States, travelling round seeing friends and family. We visited Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Boston and the Berkshires, where we went to a delightful wedding. While we were there, we took in a couple of interesting gardens.
The first was Edith Wharton’s house from 1902-1911, ‘The Mount’ in Lenox, MA. Although delightful, this was in many ways what you would expect a New England garden to be: derivative of European Gardens, but with the scale and confidence of American sensibility. Wharton reputedly designed the garden (and the house) herself, living there for only about a decade, but ploughing much of her earnings from her books into it. However, what is interesting about the differences between this and European gardens is the use of plant material. It is distinctly North American – the use of rank upon rank of spruces and other conifers in particular. In fact, one of the distinguishing things about the garden is its sheer greenness – we went there in late June and it felt really fresh, despite the high summer temperatures.
I also like the arrangement of the formal elements, the way in which the main avenue cut through the design, masking sharp changes in level. The house sits on high ground and has a commanding view over the garden, as you might expect. Plenty of flowers here, surrounded by pleasant rolling park and woodlands. There is also a stone plaque, with a delightful inscription which almost serves as mantra for life: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.’
The second garden we visited was Naumkeag, in Stockbridge MA, just a few miles from The Mount. The name is of American Native origin, although it was originally the name of a people rather than a place. The house and garden have an interesting history. It was originally designed for a prominent New York lawyer, Joseph Choate and his family, although it was later much added to and changed by his daughter Mabel. Choate had a deep emotional involvement with the place, having picnicked as a child under a large oak tree whilst on summer vacation nearby with his parents. He later acquired the land and set to building a house and garden for his own family. Interestingly, the commission for the garden design was originally offered to Frederick Law Olmstead, but his designs were rejected after he suggested locating the house where the oak tree was situated – a lesson in ignoring a client’s brief perhaps! The tree still stands and forms a focal feature in the garden. Although the early gardens were laid out by Nathan Barrett in the 1880s, they were considerably expanded and altered after Choate’s death by Fletcher Steele over a 30-year period from 1925-1956 under the guidance of Choate’s daughter Mabel.
As with other New England gardens, Naumkeag draws deeply upon the European Well although there are also several very unusual features in the garden. The house sits high up on the lower shoulders of the hillside, with spectacular views over the valley. The ground falls away beneath it in a succession of levels down to the valley floor. Away to the left of the house (looking out) sits a curious eclectic garden a small parterre, and carved timber poles which could have come straight from Venice.
From this, beautiful riveted slate steps lead down from one side to a terrace, with the oak tree sitting away to one side on the ‘picnic lawn’. A rill runs from this level right the way down through the garden. It is an interesting feature – the water first begins to flow over several regularly spaced steps.
These set up a pulse in the water which is still evident several metres further down the rill. However, it is the feature beneath this that is Naumkeag’s (and arguably Fletcher Steele’s) most famous feature – the ‘Blue steps’.
A central rill runs through the feature, with a series of arched grotto-like spaces with landings above. One of the things that make this such a fascinating feature is the logarithmic steps which descend sideways from each landing to meet at a lower landing below each grotto; ‘blue’ because of the concrete used (itself an unusual feature).
The setting is admirably restrained with simple undergrowth and Aspen trees. It is in stark but playful contrast to the ebullient delphinium beds beneath.
Naumkeag’s other famous feature is Steele’s last piece of work at the property – the rose garden, although to my mind this does not quite work. Although the shapes are interesting, the roses seem at odds with the design – indeed all the various elements feel at odds with one another.
A much more pleasing feature is the formal garden below and to the right of the house. Here (as at The Mount) the interplay between European design and American plant material is at its most obvious. Steele plays skilfully with the serial views and perspective. Above it towers a ‘thunder house’ very reminiscent of the one at Hidcote, although if anything rather better – certainly grander. It was supposedly a place for ‘assignations’ which could be both observed from the house but private at the same time. Finally, a (for me) disappointing Chinese garden – a mish-mash of imported ideas and titbits from the Far East.
The curious thing about Naumkeag is that Steele was actually at his best when he wasn’t trying too hard. The picnic lawn, the formal gardens and the thunder house all have a comfortable elegance which is confident but accessible. The Chinese Garden, the Parterre and the Rose Garden on the other hand, all have a very self-conscious character which gets in the way of one enjoying them. The great exception to this is the blue steps, which is not only a masterpiece, but strikingly inventive and original.
If you are in Western Massachusetts at all, I would recommend a visit to both gardens, but particularly to Naumkeag.