Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box

Thinking outside the box
SketchUp is a powerful tool, but is it actually a brake on creativity?


Let’s for a moment envisage a beautifully designed garden; a modern garden for a young couple: white rendered walls, limestone paving in a crisply set out grid, a slick water feature, perhaps a fire pit or some chunky charcoal-coloured rattan furniture. We’ve all done it. Where would this garden be? London? LA? Cape Town? Tallinn? Beirut? The truth is it could be anywhere. Not only that, it could be for anyone. And it could be by anyone.

A decade or two ago Britain rubbed its eyes and awoke from the 75 year dream of Edwardian garden design, where every afternoon was sunny and everybody had a gardener. As other ideas began to be explored modernist design became more mainstream. In fact, the whole garden design industry became more mainstream, finding a new market in consumers accustomed to branded goods of reassuring uniformity. A side effect of this consumerist, lifestyle-led market was an expectation of ‘toys’ in the garden – hot-tubs, heaters, water features, speakers and even television screens. Over a period of ten years or so, urban gardens in particular began to move towards a standard style with which we have become familiar. Of course, this is not universal, but it is very prevalent.

A glance through previous years’ ‘Review of the Year’ published by the Garden Design Journal is enough to confirm this. The almost universal use of 3D design software such as ‘SketchUp’ has reinforced it, as schemes which rely on an orthogonal geometry of extruded planes and rectangles, tend to dominate. Curves and eccentric geometry are altogether trickier. The choice of plants has to fit the style – defined architectural shapes, clipped forms, bold foliage are common currency, their shapes emphasised at night by well-placed lighting.

We are in a privileged position as garden designers. First and foremost, we are able to design for an individual. The irony is that we often design as though it is for a mass market. And despite what I have said about their uniform expectations, every client is different. True, sometimes they might need a bit of coaxing to broaden their design horizons but the potential is there. Sometimes we just have to work a bit harder to break through pre-conceived ideas about what they want. And as designers we are all different too – we are all individuals with our own ideas. Perhaps we follow the pack a bit too closely but the real crux of this is that every site is unique. The genius loci, the sense of place, is as diverse as the location. Good design will reflect this, will celebrate it. I am not against modernism, far from it, but I am against uniformity. So come on, think outside the box!

This post first appeared in a slightly different form as an article in BALI news, the magazine of the British Association of Landscape Industries.

11 responses on “Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box

  1. Jane Marchant

    How refreshing! A challenge to the landscapes dictated & designed by the restraints of technology. It makes you wonder whether today’s version of `Modernism’ only came about because of the existance of CADware. Where’s the imagination, the individuality, the personality! I may be a little too traditional, but I still believe the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to styling a truly bespoke garden for a client.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      You’re right – a quick sketch with a 3B pencil works wonders! However, we do use SketchUp a lot as a visualisation tool; it is a very good way of seeing how a space will look. What I really object to is people designing in SketchUp from the off. It constrains your thinking.

  2. Christopher Clayton

    Interesting Blog.
    Many years ago a client of mine in the advertising business said that graphic designers were creating ads with no curves. That’s because the computer programs of that time had limited capacity to draw curves. So…. it looks like today’s simple sketch up needs a bit of time to mature.
    Another thought Plants are not static, so why not sketch over with a pen / pencil the real nature of plant structure.
    And something else. I always ask client to tell me about elements that we should add to their design that have meaning to them; cobblestones from her grandfathers’ farm yard, peonies from his mother’s garden, a statue they bought on their first trip together. Whimsical things bring life to the garden.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      I love that idea Christopher. It is a great concept that gardens should be filled with personal objects. Many years ago I did a garden in Kensington where the owners wanted a water feature made using a yorkstone slab with a ‘coal-hole’ in it which had come from her mother’s house. They surrounded it with cobbles which had been collected by their children on successive family holidays in the Isle of Wight in southern England.

  3. Helena Dennison

    While Sketchup is a useful tool it is no more than that – a tool. My career as a garden designer did not follow a traditional route, evolving from early days in fashion. I have found the most valuable book in my library to be ‘From Concept to Form in Landscape Design’ by Grant E Reid. His philosophy is based on the interaction between the client brief in terms of how they want to be in their garden and the surroundings with an emphasis on ‘influences (that) can flow in both directions’. For me, the plants and planting are the strongest influence in the garden, and I was delighted to see an end to several years of purple and white dominating Chelsea and a return to emphasis on colour. We have a huge, changing palette to work with in our metier, so why restrict ourselves?

    1. John Wyer Post author

      I always think of it as a triangle, with client, designer and site each having an influence. There are some designers who always seem to produce the same design solution for every client and every site (at least the client knows what to expect!). There are also some clients who seem to want to completely dominate what you design (best avoided, I am sure you will agree, but sometimes easier said than done). Finally, there are some sites where the environment is so demanding that only one solution will really work. Mostly though, the process is a delicate equilibrium between the three and that is part of the great pleasure for me.

      1. claire mee

        Brilliant John; completely agree with everything you’ve said. I always want our gardens to look better after a few years and any that we have designed with the white rendered walls, (usually led by the client) etc tend to degrade faster and require lots of maintenance. We design with plants in mind to create a more serene, relaxing space, of course as you said one is always constrained by the site esp in London where the space has to be so carefully thought out.

        1. John Wyer Post author

          I can’t remember now the number of gardens that we have been asked to look at because the white limestone is staining (or slippery). It is mostly not suited to London gardens (which tend to be shady). Actually, to my mind, it’s not much suited to sunny gardens either as it’s all a bit bright and ‘sunglasses’. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t used it in the past, just that [I hope] that we have learnt from our mistakes! We have also done gardens with white rendered walls (our 2010 BALI Grand Award garden included!) although mostly not orthoganal.

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