Category Archives: Garden Design

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

There have been a number of high profile projects in London recently where developers have employed garden designers. This is nothing unusual, you might think. But in actual fact it is a departure from traditional practice, and quite an interesting one.

Firstly, the projects are not ‘gardens’ as such (see my post on ‘When is a Garden Designer a Landscape Designer’ for more details on this and for definitions of what a garden actually is). Most of them are in the semi-public or public realm – parks, squares, pedestrian spaces between buildings, etc.

Secondly, this is traditional territory for landscape architects. In the past, the likes of Gillespies, Capita Lovejoy, Townsend and the like would generally have undertaken these sorts of projects. However, if the client wanted someone high profile, they would have perhaps engaged a ‘rock-star’ landscape architect such as Martha Schwartz, Kathryn Gustafson or perhaps even Eelco Hooftman of Gross Max – all from outside the UK, you will note (although many practice here).

The large (non ‘rock-star’) practices are still very much engaged in the public realm – more so than ever. One doesn’t hear much about them however. And perhaps therein lies the key to what is going on here. To use developer-speak, they are not ‘sexy’. Dan Pearson, on the other hand, is sexy (forgive me please Dan!); as are Andy Sturgeon, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Tom Stuart-Smith. All are gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower Show, which receives more TV coverage than any annual event except Wimbledon and all are therefore household names, to a greater or lesser extent.

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

So is it that developers simply want some of this ‘brand’, some of the glamour of Chelsea to be associated with their developments? That probably accounts for a lot of it. Branded ‘products’ are appearing more and more with developments. Interiors by so-and-so, architecture by practice X (although often only the concept) and so on. But if that is so, then perhaps a more interesting question is why are there no ‘sexy brands’ in landscape architecture. Why is it “Gardens by Dan Pearson” and not “Landscape by Townsend”. I would argue that it is a systemic problem with landscape architecture in the UK. Ever since landscape architecture emerged as a self-made idea, it has hitched itself to architecture. In the UK this meant mimicking the RIBA – copying its structure, professional values, procurement strategies – although inevitably always a step or two behind. However, as a result the public has failed to distinguish landscape architecture as a separate profession. It is almost as if the landscape profession puts on its dustiest jacket to go to the professional party. Even the name is confusing. the two individual words are perfectly understandable to people, but together they don’t really make a sensible meaning – is it really the architecture of landscape? Or perhaps it is just the landscapey bits of architecture (there we go again…). Now garden design, on the other hand, what could be clearer? To make it worse (or perhaps illustrating my point) many landscape architects really look down their noses at garden designers.

So what is it that distinguishes the landscape professions from all the others? The answer is that we work with plants. Paving, levels, external space, all of these things can be and often are done by other professions; though often less successfully in my view. Those Latin names though – that always gets them! Planting design is a specialism in itself, and one that most landscape architects don’t do often enough to excel at. Garden designers on the other hand often come into the profession through the planting door. Sometimes I think that this is exactly why landscape architects look down on them. To be fair, many garden designers are not very good at all the other stuff.

Of course the ultimate irony is that most of the garden designers who are taking on public realm work employ landscape architects in their practices to help them implement the projects – because they have a better technical knowledge. Sad then, that landscape architects are basically seen as good technicians, but not as creatives.

One question that remains hanging is that of aftercare. Perhaps you have already read my other articles about maintenance of public landscapes (‘The whole life cost of a Citroën‘ and ‘The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?’), but if not, then my point here is that there is no point in designing something without making sure that the resources and skills are there to care for it. Dan Pearson is famously careful about this, as are Argent Estates, his ultimate client at Handyside. But it is a point to consider: garden designs need gardeners to look after them. So is it the case that if developers employ landscape architects, they get something boring, but if they employ garden designers, they get something exciting? Maybe, but it’s a moot point. However, the truth is that in most cases, what garden designers deliver is still garden design, which may be unsuitable for the public realm resources. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in years to come.

 

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

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

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

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Typical developer? Not in my experience…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roof Garden Design: #1 – Exposure and screening

Buildings and landscape are inextricably linked, especially buildings and gardens. Most of our work is on, in, surrounded by or surrounding buildings of one form or another. Because of the centrality of this relationship, I wanted to explore the relationships between buildings and landscape more, starting with roof gardens, but also covering living walls, courtyards and other built landscapes. So… here is the first of a series of pieces, the first few of which are on roof gardens and terraces. Do leave a comment if you have any queries.

Introduction.

view3Over the years we have done many roof gardens. I have also been asked to speak on the subject on several occasions, include twice in the autumn last year. The popularity of roof gardens has grown in recent years. There are several factors behind this, but one of them is the increase in property prices and density of development, which has put a premium on outdoor spaces in the city. When I bought my first property (a maisonette near Elephant & Castle, London), the only outdoor space it had was a small roof terrace. The first thing we did was plant it out. It was a magical space, only a couple of floors up, but fantastic to have a garden up at rooftop level. This was very much in my mind when I wrote the section on Roof Gardens on our website, which begins: “A roof garden can be one of the most exciting and unusual outdoor spaces – or, if you don’t get it right, one of the most unpleasant! A well-designed roof garden makes great use of extra space and offers a secluded refuge, high above the city below. It has its own microclimate and special consideration of sun, shade, wind and exposure is required.” These spaces present tricky technical challenges, but also offer unique opportunities. I intend to break this series of blogs into sections on the various aspects of roof garden design – design of small and larger spaces, exposure and screening, drainage, irrigation and water proofing, plant selection etc.

Exposure and screening.

This scheme (below) was one of the first large roof terraces that we designed, for a building in London’s financial quarter overlooking the Thames. It was never built, but for me it encompasses many of the key issues and values of roof garden design. Roof terraces are extreme environments – sunny, windy, dry – generally very exposed. Not unlike a seaside microclimate. The inspiration for this roof terrace drew on that further, with bleached timber decking, weathered oak raised beds, beach pebbles and a planting palette that was based on foreshore and seaside species – kale, allium, thrift, grasses, cardoon and others. There was even a coin-operated telescope! The point here is that the planting worked with the environment rather than against it. There is no point in designing lush woodland planting to go on the top of a ten storey building. I will go more into plant selection in a later post, but it is a useful starting point.

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The extreme exposure of some spaces means that the design is necessarily limited, and this requires some careful footwork in terms of design and detailing. Maybe clients do not want a beach theme? One can hardly blame them! However there are other alternatives. Firstly, look at mitigation. 56860007

Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)
Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)

On this roof terrace we incorporated pergolas and screens to lessen the effect of wind. These were designed in early on so that the shoes for the pergola could be incorporated into the water-proofing for the roof terrace. Even if this is not possible, it is always possible to fix screens in one way or another – sometimes by using temporary fixings to balustrades (U-shaped clamp brackets – see left), or by having freestanding trellis panels that are held by the weight of containers, using a steel frame. This is a trick we often use. Perforated metal or timber screens are much more effective at dissipating wind than glass or solid screens. This seems counter-intuitive, but it is true. A solid screen creates more turbulence. In terms of shelter, it offers something like 1 x height in front of the screen and 2 x height to the rear of the screen, measured at floor level. Beyond this is turbulent air, often with quite a sharp boundary between the two. With a perforated screen of something like slatted trellis, this increases to 2 x height in front and 5 x height to the rear, with the optimal permeability about 40% ‘hole’ to 60% solid.

View from terraceIf screens are not an option, try and keep everything possible below the balustrade. There are things that will survive fairly radical exposure – olives for example, or tamarisk. Beware of the ‘windsail’ effect of trees and make sure the containers are of sufficient size to stop them blowing over. This roof terrace in London’s West End has a strictly limited palette of materials and planting, but perhaps the most striking thing when you look in a little more detail is that there is virtually nothing above the parapet level in the scheme. Even so, this hasn’t stopped the planting below parapet level being used effectively to sculpt the space.

Shade options for roof terraces
Shade options on a Mayfair roof terrace

Shade options for roof terraces Shade is an important consideration. Roof terraces can be exceptionally hot in the summer if the sun is out. Consider designing some sunny spaces for lounging/sunbathing and more shaded areas for dining. This can be done with parasols, although be warned – these blow around in high winds. Alternatively, you could consider more permanent screens fixed to pergolas, or even boom mounted shade sails which retract when the wind is too strong.

In the next two posts, I will consider roof loading, water-proofing, build-ups, drainage and irrigation. In the meantime, if you have any questions just pop them in below and I’ll get back to you.

John

Chelsea 2015

I know, I know – whatever happened to ‘I don’t want to go to Chelsea’ I hear you all shouting!

This year as well as building a garden for Brewin Dolphin, designed by Darren Hawkes (see www.bowleswyer-contracts.co.uk/news for updates on this, or look at the live camera during build-up: http://bit.ly/1GHYVl5), we are also designing and building a garden for our old friends Gaze Burvill. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of their furniture, even having written a blogpost about it last year. Produced from English and European Oak, craftsman-made in Hampshire, it is simply the best designed, most comfortable garden furniture on sale.

1996-P01revB-LOWQWhen Simon Burvill came to me last year, I was interested in getting under the skin of what they were trying to achieve at Chelsea. The design of the garden came as much from this as the core values of Gaze Burvill – sustainability, craftsmanship and quality (which are closely aligned to our own). The plot is split into two areas, one about a metre above the other. The upper space is designed as a roof terrace and paved with a dark, slate-grey porcelain paving. A dark grey timber pergola sits above the central area in the rear corner, wrapped around by green walls on either side. The focal point in the rear corner is a beautiful water feature, designed in conjunction with David Harber. This is hewn from flamed granite, with a fissure exposing a jewel-like handmade glass panel, running with water. At night this will be backlit. The left hand side of the roof terrace (facing Main Avenue) features a sky-scape backdrop – the photo was taken from an actual roof terrace we designed a couple of years ago – with some of Gaze Burvill’s fantastic outdoor kitchen units in front of it. So you can cook and look over the London skyline (or dream!) These kitchen units are beautifully made and equipped with the best Wolf and Sub-zero appliances.

The lower part of the garden is reminiscent of an English country garden, with Purbeck dry stone walling and paving. on the corner of the site is a large English Oak tree – nearly 8m tall – which is a reference to the source of all the timber from which Gaze Burvill’s furniture is made. There is a second kitchen set in this section, with gently undulating faces to the units in contrast to the crisp lines of the roof terrace units.

If you are coming to Chelsea this year, do drop in – I am around quite a lot of the week and Gaze Burvill would be delighted to see you. Or you can just try out the bench facing on to Main Avenue…

How do you deliver quality in a project?

A great question. The scheme always looks perfect in your head, or on your drawings. But sometimes on site, it doesn’t quite work out. What strategies can we use to ensure quality, and what does that even mean? On Tuesday last week, I delivered a talk (along with Pat Fox of Aralia and Mark Gregory of Landform) at one of the London College of Garden Design’s ‘Infoburst’ events. As always, it was an interesting evening; stimulating but with three quite different approaches to the subject.

I looked at case studies of three of our projects and how we went about delivering the required quality. Each of these presented very different challenges and suggested various solutions.

Pines with low sun
A dry site with a continental climate

The first of these was a garden we did in Spokane, Washington State, in the North West US. You can see more about the scheme here – Northern Exposure. The challenges were multiple. Firstly, it was nearly 5000 miles away, so any chance of popping to site to sort out a problem were out of the question. The environment was very unforgiving – little rainfall, a typical continental climate and very limited soil. What’s more, there was a low budget and partly because of this, the client intended to build the project themselves. Although they were enthusiastic and practical, they were possessed of few real landscape skills. Because of this, the normal framework of documentation and contract was largely irrelevant. However, they were open-minded in terms of design and eager to learn which made the whole process much more enjoyable.

First ideas for the frontThe starting point was a practical and achievable design – a simple

Gabion installation - a simple construction solution
Gabion installation – a simple construction solution

concept and simple drawings. In addition The materials were basic and local with the only exotic addition being wire gabion baskets. Engaging the client in the design process was a critical to the scheme’s success, so we took hikes together in the neighbourhood looking at local landscape formations and flora, as well as visiting stone yards and nurseries. One or two specialist areas were identified (such as the concrete path) and a local contractor was found for these elements. With a lot of emails and photos winging back and forth, the scheme was implemented. The result was a surprisingly beautiful landscape which trod lightly in its environment. The client was both delighted and amazed by their own achievement.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Early concepts for the Lancasters scheme
concepts…

The second project I chose was the Lancasters (more of this project here). This was about as different as it could have been – in scale, nature, location and design. The site was a long, thin garden for an upmarket development in Central London. The design was complex, with multiple hedges in intricate organic shapes and lots of specialist plant material. There were also demanding technical challenges to do with the underground car park. Finally, due to the size of the project the management structure was cumbersome and we had little control over the tender list.

The finished scheme looking east
The finished scheme

 

LowResCF018848The first stage was a really thorough design process, particularly at the technical stage of design. We worked closely with other consultants (such as engineers) and engaged specialist sub-consultant help where ever we needed it, such as irrigation and soil scientists. We arrived at a method of defining the organic shapes with pre-shaped steel edging. All the substrates and soils were painstakingly specified and test certificates were required form contractors. The specimen plant material was all pre-tagged and there was a shortlist of nurseries for other plants. Although there were problems with the construction, the rigorous process and documentation protected the design quality and the final result was an award winning scheme.

An early sketch of the scheme
An early sketch of the scheme

Construction drawingThe final project was a roof garden, also in central London. This was a minimalist design, so there was absolutely no room for error. Schemes like this are very unforgiving in terms of sloppy detailing, particularly at junctions of materials and planes. It was also on the 10th floor, with minimal working space. Every detail had to be thought about carefully – nothing was left to chance. As much as possible was pre-manufactured off-site. The design and construction method were drilled down to the last detail. The setting out information was precise, as was the programme. We were lucky enough to be using our own teams to build this, but the principle is the same for any site – find a good contractor you trust and can work with. Develop a partnership based on mutual trust and complementary skills. If you have done the rest – great quality will follow.

View from the finished roof terrace
View from the finished roof terrace

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As Pat Fox pointed out in her talk, there are many simple office procedures that can help standardise the delivery of quality:

  • Clear and legible drawings, with graphics and line-weights that contribute to the readability rather than get in the way. With working drawings the purpose is clear communication, not a pretty drawing.
  • Simple and concise specification. Pat argues for as much as possible on the drawings, and with small and medium sized jobs this is always a good idea. with larger projects a standalone specification will probably be called for, but clarity is still the key.
  • Good pre-construction process – contractor selection, pre-tender interview and a decent tender period.
  • Only have people on the list who you are sure can deliver a high quality project. And don’t always accept the lowest price!
  • During construction give clear written instructions where variations are required – and keep them to a minimum.
  • Keep good records of drawings issued – when, and for what purpose (information, tender, construction etc.)

Remember good quality is a stool with three legs: client, designer and contractor. It can only be achieved if all three are supporting the project.

Why are the gardens of the Alhambra so important?

IMG_8250In 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.

The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens
The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens

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).

The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human
The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human

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.

Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.
Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.

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 formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear
Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear

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!

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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.

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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 that without 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:

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:
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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.

 

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.

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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

What makes a good chair?

 

Court 2 Seater from aboveA little over twenty years ago, I was wandering around Landscape Professional show in Olympia, Kensington. It had been a long morning and I was feeling tired both physically and of being ‘talked at’ by well meaning people telling me how wonderful their product was. At the end of one of the aisles was a small stand with nothing more than a couple of benches on it and a man wearing a panama hat. The benches had a slightly seductive curved shape, and were just asking to be sat on. Sitting down never felt so good – it was really comfortable. Of course, I was tired – you know how good the most ordinary food can taste when you are hungry? But years later I can confirm that this bench is the most comfortable I have ever sat on – and I have sat on a lot of benches (in fact, I now have one of these in my garden). I was sold. The man in the hat (Simon Burvill) started to explain that the furniture was handmade in the UK from English-grown oak, with a steam bent back giving it those seductive curves. The name of the firm was Gaze Burvill.

Over the years I have specified this furniture many times. The range has expanded hugely to encompass more benches, chairs, tables, loungers and now outdoor kitchens. Recently I revisited the workshop where it is all made – no longer exclusively from English oak, but still all sustainably sourced European oak (French, English and German). It is still craftsman built, although these days helped along by some very sophisticated machinery. The steam bending however, is still admirably Heath-Robinson like.  Steam bending only works on cool temperate timbers which have the right balance of cellulose and lignite. The cellulose softens when heated (most easily done by steam to prevent over-heating and ‘cooking’ the sugars in the timber). This is a fascinating process to watch – see the photos – almost magical to see the solid pieces of timber bend before your eyes.

Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical...
Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical…

May throne detailSimon Burvill is still committed to the founding aims of the company – craft-built, beautiful, comfortable furniture from sustainably sourced local timber. The company actively promotes good woodland management and planting of new hardwood forests. Somehow I think they will still be around in a hundred years to see the results! Its the details that really make this furniture though. The junctions, the way lines and planes come together; the simple but elegant fixings and joints. When you first come across the furniture, you can’t help but reach out to touch it.

So what should a good chair be? Comfortable? – tick; Beautiful? – tick; Sustainably/ethically sourced? – tick; Affordable? – well, good furniture is never cheap, but for something that is going to give you twenty-five years or so of pleasure, I think it is great value.

I am just off for a lie-down on my bench.

Court seat

I don’t want to go to Chelsea

This of course, is not entirely true. However, with Chelsea Flower Show just around the corner, now seems a good time for me to have a good moan. Chelsea’s hegemony of the horticultural and garden design world seems just about complete. The scale of this is quite extraordinary. The number of visitors is limited (principally by the 11 acre site) to 157,000; but this belies the hours of TV coverage (audiences for the BBC alone are 2.2m), acres of press coverage and tens of millions of pounds in revenue. A show garden on Main Avenue costs around £250,000 to design and construct, although some are rumoured to have cost as much as £1 million. Not bad for a five day show.

Many designers have launched their careers on the back of Chelsea. It is a bit like a number one chart hit– for some people it is their launch pad, others sink without trace following their moment in the sun. The received thinking is that if you want to hit the ‘big time’ then this is the way to do it; but is that right, is it the only route?

In any conversation about designers, their record at RHS shows inevitably comes up fairly early on. Hampton Court, Tatton and the like tend to be seen as mere staging posts in the road to the Holy Grail that is Chelsea Main Avenue. What is more; most years, many of the gardens on Main Avenue look a little – well, samey? You know: an arrangement of something down one or both sides in a sort of formal procession, the end piece, the water feature, the pavilion – have I forgotten something? I am not for an instant suggesting that I would do better – I have never designed a garden at Chelsea and would jump at the chance. Nor am I sneering; it’s just that if you have the same sized plots on roughly the same date year after year, then inevitably many of the solutions offered by designers will be very similar. Especially if the garden is only going to be there for five days and cost as much as a small house – many sponsors will want to play it safe.

Christopher Bradley-Hole's Latin Garden at the 1997 Chelsea Flower Show.

This is not to say that good (even great) garden design is not in evidence at Chelsea. Nearly all the designs are good and some are great. I have been walking around during the build-up this year and there is some subtle design. What is more, over the years there have been some really ground breaking pieces of work done there. Everybody is agreed that Christopher Bradley-Hole’s 1997 garden was a game-changer.

Tom Stuart-Smith's Garden subtle exploration of green at Chelsea

Some of Andy Sturgeon and Tom Stuart Smith’s best work has also been at Chelsea, free of the restraints of clients.

However, despite all the TV coverage, column inches, analysing and chatter, Chelsea is in the end no more than a catwalk. It has all the excess, brilliance, crass bad taste, recycling of ideas and yet ground-breaking thinking that one sees in London Fashion Week. It also has a much inflated opinion of itself.

Would we have it any other way? Yes! But of course like everyone else, I will still feel irresistibly drawn to go there next week….

Obsession – do all garden designers obsess, or is it just me?

 

We all have obsessions. I like to line up all the light switches – I hate to see just one off or on with a multi switch. And don’t get me started on breakfast.

I admit that I am also slightly obsessive when it comes to design, but then, aren’t all designers? Clients have their obsessions too though. I worked with a man once who absolutely insisted that no more than three materials should be seen ‘together’ at any time. Actually, this turned out to be rather an interesting obsession, and led to a very stripped back roof terrace using only timber, zinc and stone. Luckily, he did not include plants in the equation, although these were also very restrained – mostly just Buxus and Olives. The results were great.

Clients are often obsessed about particular colours – “NO ORANGE” (spoken in CAPITALS) – is a common stipulation. I have had people say to me before that they don’t like – say – yellow, only to say in the next breath that they love daffodils and isn’t the Laburnum walk at Bodnant just fantastic? Then there are those that are obsessive in different ways. Lawn obsessions are common amongst a particular type of client – often those who are also fond of serried topiary and hedges – a control fetish perhaps? These clients tend to feel really at home in gardens with almost no plants other than topiary, hedges and pleached trees. Nature beaten to submission.

Strong geometry at the pavilion apartments
Strong geometry at the Pavilion Apartments

 

So, back to my obsession? Geometry. I don’t mean the trigonometric kind (although I do secretly quite like that – don’t tell anyone). I am very particular about the ways planes and lines interact. For years I had very tightly controlled geometric schemes. Don’t get me wrong; this wasn’t always orthographic geometry – all right angles and straight lines. It wasquite predictable, but often (like the Pavilion apartments in St Johns Wood, 2001) used tight curves and arcs. Even though some of these were irregular arcs, I still couldn’t stop myself hanging the rest of the design around the radii that shot off from the arcs. This same interaction of arcs and radii cropped up again and again.

The slightly anarchic parterre of the Lancasters, London

It wasn’t really until the slightly anarchic anti-geometry of the design for the Lancasters that I started to shake a bit looser. Here, low hedges rippled and swirled in a slightly out-of-control way down the length of the garden. Perhaps the final shake-loose was our project near the Rockies (see a post from October 2013 – ‘Northern Exposure’).

Spokane (copyright Allan Pollok Morris)
Loose geometry in the Rockies

That garden appears to have almost no structure, although there is a framework of obtuse and seemingly unpredictable lines that holds it together. Even though that got quite a lot of it out of my system, I still can’t stop myself getting very hung up the way lines and planes come together. And if I am honest, I still line up the odd light switch. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing…