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.
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.
(Written by Jeff Stephenson. Head of Horticulture and Aftercare at Bowles & Wyer)
A glimpse into my student days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew;
“As we made our way up the steep wooden ladders, which were perilously lashed (Heath Robinson fashion), to the gnarled root encased hillside, our t-shirts already clinging to our backs with sweat; we looked up through the morning gloom and dense canopy to make out the mottled buff-grey stone wall of Temple IV up ahead of us. We emerged around dawn onto the precarious stone terraces of the structure to sit and rest, drawing breath whilst we surveyed the dizzying panorama now displayed. The moisture laden air swirled below us like a low fog over the sea. As the sun rose higher in the sky the white blanket of mist slowly rolled back, revealing one of the most memorable and awe inspiring views I had ever witnessed. My heart was beating fast in my chest. There, set out in emerald green, was the Guatemalan rainforest.
Majestic Kapok trees, festooned with Spanish moss and orchids, shouldered their way above the uninterrupted canopy which, when viewed from way up here, looked like tufts of lichen attached to a diorama. A cacophony of shrills, melodic woodwind like whoops and deep baritone honks could be heard emanating from the impenetrable green below. The hollow reverberating primeval ‘chant’ of howler monkeys could be identified in the distance. A small flock of Scarlet Macaws in red, blue and yellow passed in spirit-like effortless flight over the tree tops , whilst a pair of toucans bobbed and cavorted through the bows of a nearby tree, turning their heads on their sides to inquisitively eye each other, seemingly unhindered by their oversized tangerine bills.
I couldn’t believe I was really here amidst such rich natural beauty; I was in the heart of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.”
Excerpt from my R.B.G. Kew Travel Scholarship Diaries; Tikal, Guatemala; 18th September 1992.
A client once said to me, only a few years ago and with much sincerity;
“When are you going to get a proper job, not just gardening?”
Unfortunately it is all too often that many people outside of our profession make assumptions about exactly who and what gardeners are and where they have come from. They have a very narrow perception of how large, interesting and diverse the horticultural industry is and how long good gardeners have spent in training (which never finishes), or indeed where it may have taken them.
I began the Kew Diploma in Horticulture back in 1989 with much trepidation, being surrounded by extremely bright students with amazing backgrounds. I’d already studied sciences but only spent one year learning horticulture and countryside management at Capel Manor College in Enfield whilst also volunteering with The Colne Valley Park Groundwork Trust; my peers had spent years at places such as R.H.S. Wisley, Hampton Court Palace and Singapore Botanic Gardens. I was woefully outmatched, so I set myself on a route of committed study to justify being amongst my classmates.
Kews’ intensive programme covers everything from systematics and genetics to surveying and landscape design. One day you are dissecting flowers under a microscope, another you are micro-propagating orchids in a test tube. With plant identification tests, every fortnight, covering wide agenda such as ‘The Palm House’, ‘The Pinetum’ or ‘The Order Beds’, you had to quickly build up your observation and recall abilities. We were privy to lectures from Kews’ own scientific and living collections staff (favourites included Mike Maunder and Tony Kirkham) and external lecturers with the likes of John Brookes, Peter Thoday, Sir Roy Strong and Brita von Schoenaich. Studies were both ‘in house’ and held at other centres such as West London Institute of Higher Education (now part of Brunel University), Otley College (Suffolk) and Writtle College (Chelmsford); we were influenced by wide ranging teaching styles and facilities.
There were study trips to Tuscany to see Medici Villas and Pistoia’s nurseries and field trips to Dorset and Sussex to survey coastal zonation and soil profiles respectively. I built a ‘Japanese garden’ for the NCCPG at the very first Hampton Court Flower Show and designed the interpretive Bee Garden which used to reside near Kew Palace. We worked in numerous living collection and administrative departments including ‘Planning’; one of my roles was liaising with film crews, book publishers, TV companies and celebrities (inc. David Bellamy), who wanted to use the gardens for filming and photo-shoots. A high point was winning two Travel Scholarship awards which allowed me to investigate ecosystems in Central America, both on land and around the coast via SCUBA; surveying mangrove swamps, seagrass lagoons and coral reefs with ‘Coral Cay Conservation’ (but that’s another story!).
After three years at R.B.G. Kew and a fourth intermediate industrial placement year with Clifton Nurseries’ landscape team (during 1990-1991, which incidentally is where I fortuitously first met Chris Bowles and John Wyer), I managed to graduate with Honours as the highest scoring student of each year; the focused study and sacrifices had paid off.
So the next time a gardener passes your way, have a thought for where they have been or where they could be headed. They may have rich stories to tell and extensive knowledge to call upon; your garden could greatly benefit from their experiences.
We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.
Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).
We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.
As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!
So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.
As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.
In 1989 I was blown away by a visit to the Alhambra. The scale of the vision and achievement, the huge variety of spaces and the subtlety and grandeur of the design was almost overwhelming. For several years it had a pervasive effect on my design thinking, both overtly and in less obvious ways.
After twenty-five years, Vicky and I decided to make a return visit this summer, this time with three (almost) grown-up children in tow. The experience didn’t disappoint.
I am sure many of you have been to The Alhambra/Generalife complex; I also don’t wish to sound like a travelogue. This is a departure for this blogspace, but the gardens are so remarkable, I felt compelled to share at the very least some pictures and (for those who can be bothered to read) a few ramblings. The Alhambra has been a constant influence on garden design and thinking in the last century and a half.
Part of this is due to its scale – it is a vast complex of gardens and thus the achievement is that much more impressive. The gardens probably represented the pinnacle of Arabic garden design – they incorporated the earlier influences of Persia and the Mesopotamian gardens, but escaped the overblown grandeur of some of the later gardens. I guess this is partly because they were designed for private rather than public use. However, their pervasive influence is also a matter of historical timing. They were conceived and implemented at the height of Arabic expansion into southern Europe. After the 1500s, the Moors were driven back into north Africa, but much of their thinking and many of their craftsmen remained in Europe. The influence was particularly noticeable in garden design. Whereas renaissance architecture has a clear lineage from the ancient Greeks and Romans, Garden design from the period is more identifiably descended from Arabic and Middle Eastern design. This classical layout of rills, fountains, trees and parterres continued to be the dominant force in European garden design until the mould was broken by the English Landscape movement in the late C18th. The roots were later rediscovered through the writings of travellers through southern Europe, such as Washington Irving and the Spanish-Arabic style became very influential again in the early twentieth century in the UK (through the Edwardian garden designers such as Lutyens/Jekyll) and US (particularly on the newly moneyed West Coast).
For me though, they capture something of the essence of what a garden is. Firstly, they are an escape; built in a retreat from the sound and bustle of Granada and the heat of the streets, the complex occupies a strategic hilltop. In virtually all cultures Paradise is a garden, and these get about as close as any I have seen. The sense of escape and retreat from the bustle of life is palpable. Secondly, they maximise the site. They take advantage of the hilltop position, funnelling the cooler air through the gardens.
The spectacular views are carefully managed. Glimpses are given here and there, only occasionally opening up into broader panoramas. The designs are artful in how they manage serial spaces. courtyards, terraces and walkways link one to another in a delightful and often surprising way. One is never bored and unlike some of the great French classical gardens, the whole design is rarely revealed. The hilltop location dictates some complex geometry, so axes kink and turn in a way that makes the design less predictable than one expects. Perhaps the most important feature however is the way in which the gardens perfectly weave together the essence of what a garden is.
Although these are very sophisticated designs, the origins from kitchen gardens is clear, with fruit trees abounding and the parterres as constant reminders of herb and vegetable beds. All gardens need limits – it is one of the things that defines a garden (see my blog on the subject from a couple of years ago: When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?). Here the walls and boundaries are an integral part of the thinking: the enclosed nature of the spaces is the essence of the design. But the users of the garden are never allowed to forget the surrounding environs: the large trees echo the wooded hills and provide a pleasant balance to the symmetrical formality of the layout; the frequent glimpses of the surrounding hills and valleys means that one is constantly aware of the links with the broader landscape.
So for me, the gardens at the Alhambra capture that elusive idea of nature captured, of the reflections of a broader landscape. Woven into this are complex aesthetic references along with expressions of learning and cultural identity. Most importantly though, they are just a very pleasant and ever changing place to spend time, as all gardens should be.
If you haven’t already been there, make sure it is at the top of your bucket list this year!
Firstly, apologies to regular readers for the long break since my last post. After a two week holiday in southern Spain, I contracted Pneumonia and after a brief spell in hospital spent most of the last three weeks in bed.
While in Spain, we spent a few days each in Granada (more of that in a later post), Cordoba and Seville. We were staying in the northern part of Seville, a kilometre or two’s walk from the historic quarter. There was a large square near our apartment call ‘Plaza de la Encarnación’. It is host to an extraordinary structure, known in Seville as ‘Las Setas’ (The Mushrooms). It is difficult to adequately describe this huge edifice. First, a bit of background: for many years Plaza de la Encarnación had been the site of Seville’s main food market, housed in a nondescript industrial building. Half of it was pulled down in 1948 and the remainder in the 1970s, after which the square was mostly used as a car park. There were many schemes to redevelop the space, a situation which was further complicated by the discovery of extensive ancient Andalusian and Roman remains beneath the square. Eventually an international competition was won in 2004 by the German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann. Construction began in 2005 and after many technical and financial problems was completed in 2011. Of course in the intervening years, Spain fell off the edge of a financial cliff. Signature urban statements were out, or as Rowan Moore put it in his review of the building in 2011 ‘Oh my God, it’s an icon. How very last decade. Did the city of Seville not get the memo? Big, flashy buildings are out; hair shirts are in.’ (link to original article here). as Moore points out in his article, the ‘building’ (if one can call it that) has several flaws, although I think these can almost all be attributed to the financial strictures which the project went through as it progressed. Three different architects worked on the scheme: Mayer (with Arup) on the main structure, a second (local architect) worked on the Market space on the ground floor, and the museum housing the ruins in the basement by Felipe Palomino. The three are not ‘in sync’. Although Palomino’s museum is in its own way quiet and subtle, it has little relationship to the organic structure above. The market space is about as uninspiring as it could be. Moore again: ‘It is, seen from some angles, a wonderful thing, daring, inventive, determined and impressively consistent. It is also wonderful in its content, this stacking up of past, present and future, of ruins, market, performance space and sky deck. But it has a problem, which is that these two forms of wonderfulness do not connect, with each other or with their surroundings.’ On his last point, I beg to differ. I think part of the success of the structure is that it deliberately doesn’t connect (architecturally at least) with its surroundings. It does nonetheless have a relationship, but it is one of contrast.
Despite all this, the structure is quite extraordinary. It unifies the two sides of the square, it provides shade, and a public podium (albeit finished to a standard that my father would have described as ‘with every expense spared’). More than all of this of course it is arresting, daring, soaring, exciting – one could go on with these adjectives but you get the idea. It has completely re-invigorated this part of Seville. I particularly like its presence at night – flashy (but effective) lighting emphasises the alien nature of the structure.
It remains open to the public until one in the morning, free to Sevillians and a few euros to others, which includes a free drink in the rooftop restaurant. On the top of the structure is a remarkable undulating walkway through which one can take in the roof tops of the city. A great way to finish an evening out.
To my mind, the structure is a huge success, despite its flaws. It could of course have been much better, but ’twas ever thus with publicly funded projects, especially during a recession. What I find amazing is that is not better known, and barely mentioned in any of the Seville guidebooks. If you are in this part of Spain, it is definitely worth a visit.
Please excuse the slightly dodgy quality of one or two of the night photos!
Five years ago, I received this email from my cousin:
“We are in desperate need of landscaping advice…when can you “pop over” for a visit??!! How’s things on your end of the globe? We are loving our life in Spokane, WA…nice to be back in the mountain west. House is VERY near completion, should be moved in early July, and great guest digs, so come check it out!! Seriously, landscaping is overwhelming blank slate…HELP!!! Love to all!”
So began a great project.
The site was a garden designers dream – and nightmare. With an inspired and trusting client, a ten acre site in the middle of some fantastic scenery and a great palette of hard materials locally available, this job seemed to have everything. Except that the ten acres was 5000 miles away, nothing much seemed to grow there except ponderosa pine and the climate was pretty harsh – summer highs of 350C and winter lows of around -200C . It was pretty dry too, enjoying a meagre 30cm or so of rain each year, much of it as snow during the winter months.
I arrived in late one evening, mid-September 2010 after a long flight. As a result, I woke up at about 5am the next morning, with sunlight streaming in. My hosts were asleep (not unreasonably) so I spent the next two hours until breakfast wandering around the site, drinking in the essence of the place. And this was a truly remarkable place.
Great outcrops of granite pushed obstinately through the landscape everywhere, often amongst precarious but picturesque pines. It was so dry that almost nothing rotted, or not very fast anyway. Timber from clearances (sometimes decades before) lay stacked around, bleached dry.
Over the next four days, I cycled, climbed and hiked my way around the local mountains, hills and valleys. I visited gardens, nurseries, stoneyards and parks. By the end of it ideas had begun to gel in my mind.
The house itself was uncompromising, made up of a series of different panel-clad planes running at obtuse angles, with colours inspired by the setting. Ideas began to half form in my head of a design which drew on the asymmetry of the house but also captured the essence of the landscape. I sat my hosts down and sketched a few ideas out on paper, showing banks of gabions – wire baskets filled with stone – running at asymmetric angles and emerging from the ground in a similar way to the granite outcrops. These were punctuated by the aspens that I had seen in the valleys around and anchored by a few large boulders and a sprinkling of dwarf pines. Flowing through the whole were drifts of herbaceous planting and grasses. The route to the front door was to be made up of huge irregular four-sided slabs of concrete, with trickles of thyme running between them. The reaction could perhaps be described as ‘cautious’, or perhaps ‘cautiously enthusiastic’. The planting was an intrinsic part of the design. With what limited water there was coming from a 335m (1100′) deep well, the choice of the plants was critical. The designs were developed on Xeriscape principles, first developed in Colorado USA, which uses plants well adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Grasses, penstemons, and other herbaceous species formed the backbone of the scheme.
Work started almost as soon as I left – or at least as soon as I could get the drawings together! The clients were keen to make a start; much of the donkey work was to be done on a self-build basis and work had to get well underway before the bad weather closed in. Watching the design emerge from 5000 miles away was a tantalising process. I received photo updates on an almost daily basis, and questions almost as frequently!
My ideas for the areas to the rear of the building came together more slowly. Here I envisaged broad sweeps of herbaceous planting which integrated with the naturally occurring spring flowers occurring abundantly on the site. There was to be a focus at a natural clearing and place where two axes met. I had originally envisaged a small building for this spot. However, some other ideas came together fortuitously. I had long been keen to incorporate some sculptural elements into the scheme; indeed I had been trying in vain to get a local fine art course involved. The client needed no more of a prompt – within a few weeks they were coming up with their own ideas for how a sculpture might work and a couple of months later it was finished and installed. Sadly, the ideas for the broader landscape although partly implemented went on hold. The owners had to relocate to Tennessee, so the house was sold much earlier than had originally been expected, although of course the up side of this was the possibility of a new project.
I thought that would be it, but was able to make contact with the new owners and return to the site to photograph it this autumn. Many of the pictures below in this blogpost are from that final trip by Allan Pollok-Morris, and his photos are not only a great record of the work but also a stunning piece of art in their own right.
*thanks to Andrew Wilson and Gardens Illustrated for the title – from a piece in GI written by AW.
In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).
When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?
Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.
In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.
Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.
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.
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.