We are all familiar with complaints about ‘red tape’ – needless bureaucracy that gets in the way of getting the job done. This is normally laid at the door of Government or ‘Brussels’ the point being that it is imposed by someone distant and unaccountable. But the truth is that in the construction industry we do a pretty good job of tying ourselves up in red tape with little or no help from anyone else.
It used to be that people complained about Health & Safety regulation in the construction industry, but this attitude has largely changed. Most people in the industry have become used to the regulations around H&S now and most do not find it burdensome. Few could question the aims behind the regulations or their necessity. The industry still causes more deaths than any other in the UK – 39 in 2013-14 according to the HSE. ‘The construction industry is the most dangerous sector in Britain. There is no trade like it. To put it in context, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Over the same period, more than 760 construction workers have been killed on British sites.‘ (The Observer, April 14 2014).
For some time, people complained about CIS – a scheme set up by the Government a decade or so ago to try and increase the tax take from the industry. The building trade had always been riddled with cash-in-hand subcontracting. By shifting the duty of collection on to the employer from anyone not registered, HMRC effectively ironed out a lot of the casual work practices. As it has matured the process has become (relatively!) streamlined, or perhaps we have just all become more familiar with it! In any case, although no one wants to pay more tax than they need to, it is difficult to complain about the Starbucks and Googles of this world and not expect one’s own industry to sort itself out.
But I didn’t start this piece to talk about those pieces of legislation. What annoys me is the whole direction of travel in construction management and contracting. Two events earlier this week prompted me to write this article. Acting as a landscape architect, I was asked to fill in a nineteen page form (for a commercial organisation, not a local authority) in order to get paid for my consultancy work – a completely unnecessary diversion of time and resources. It included questions about how often we review our equality and diversity plan, whether we produce an annual sustainability report, our anti bribery and corruption policy, what work we had done with this contractor before and ‘what we had learnt from that project’. etc etc. Should I really need to fill out 19 pages and send in three years’ accounts to get paid. The serious point here is that it works against smaller practitioners. I am all for weeding out the ‘cowboys’, but do we need to go this far?
The other incident concerned a job we were working on in Central London. There are multiple small roof gardens on this project, which is run on a construction management basis by a large firm. Over the last few months we seem to have been copied in to so many emails to do with every aspect of the job, by almost every consultant. Sometimes in these situations, people add recipients to the list to cover themselves – better be safe than sorry – but the result is that you end up receiving so much information, most of which is not relevant, that it is difficult to find the important bits that you do need to know. Despite this, the design was fully co-ordinated. Anyway, in amongst this avalanche of information, we had missed an update to the programme and had less time than anticipated to put the tender package for the landscape together. I was called in for a meeting with the management team to ensure I met the deadline (which incidentally we did, although it was an effort). What I found difficult to understand was that the landscape element wasn’t due on site for another two years – summer 2017. Programmes are clearly important, but two years? Funnily enough we only ever get about two weeks to price things…
Sometimes the bureaucracy is just an irritating but necessary task to carry out to complete the job. At other times, it actively gets in the way of you carrying out your job properly. As well as making the whole process more expensive, it also works against small firms and in favour of larger operators. Instead of blaming ‘The Government’ or ‘Brussels’ for red tape, perhaps we should look closer to home. And this is something that our industry should be able to sort out itself, without government stepping in.
The question is, how do we achieve that?
If you have had similar experiences, I would love to hear from you.
A couple of weeks ago, the subject of a talk by Oliver James attracted my attention – ‘The joys and perils of ambition’. It was staged as part of the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange, which has been running for a couple of months or more now. I was kind of interested in this. I have long been fascinated by the fetishism of leadership in the business environment. We are all encouraged to be proto-leaders. To become a leader you have to be ambitious! What makes this more interesting is that it tends to run counter to one of the other great pillars of modern business thinking – teams. Overly ambitious people just do not make good team players, as we all know from watching the slow motion TV car-crash in that is ‘The Apprentice’. So, the questions rattling around my mind while I was waiting for the talk to start were: Is ambition a taboo subject in teams? Are leadership/ambition and teams paradoxical? How threatening is ambition to leaders?
Oliver James began by speaking about what motivated us all – why did we want to achieve? In the short term of course, each little (or large) victory makes you feel good. In the long term promotion brings rewards – we all do it for recognition and money. The funny thing is, often the perception of your contribution is often more important to success than the contribution itself. But why do some people really succeed in climbing the greasy pole, while others don’t?
James’s first answer to this was that the ruling elite set the rules… Those who are successful in business/society map the criteria for those who follow. The downside of this is that over time, those who succeed are often those who are good at – well – succeeding, rather than at actually being good leaders. This is of course a well-known and worn political conundrum, but none the less true for that. He noted that many people who are successful come from troubled backgrounds – around a third have lost a parent before the age of 14 years.
He postulated that many leaders are towards the wrong end of a spectrum; most exhibit some (or all) of the dark triad of leadership qualities – Psychopathy/Narcissism/Machiavellian tendencies. The term psychopath carries a lot of emotional baggage and immediately conjures up images of a knife-wielding madman. However, there has been a lot written about this recently, and I suppose what we are talking about here is people who see everything in terms of how it relates to them and what they can get out of it. Ultimately, this leads to a certain disconnection from others and from reality .
Oliver James also talked about extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Most leaders (according to James) are driven by the former, whereas actually, there is more chance of success form the latter. He explored this in some detail, although the arguments were at times very convincing and at other times less so.
If what we are all seeking is ‘happiness’ what is that? He argued that it probably doesn’t exist and what’s more, if we try to chase it we will surely fail, like chasing rainbows. What we should be seeking is emotional health. This (he argues) is the best way to describe happiness – or perhaps to describe success? Six key behaviours demonstrate this:
Live in the present
Display Fluid two way communication – know when to listen (and learn) and when to speak.
Insight – spot what is about to happen
Playfulness – but not game-playing
Vivacity – enthusiasm is infectious
Authenticity (as opposed to sincerity)
It seems to me that we all demonstrate some aspects of all these behaviours – both the dark triad and the six healthy ones. I can certainly see elements of all of them in myself – as I guess others can. There are plenty of online tests of psychopathy, although how effective they are I have no idea! Try this one: http://www.playbuzz.com/gregs/can-you-pass-the-psychopath-test?
James continued by stating (somewhat depressingly) that we are all led by psychopaths. What I found fascinating about this was that he was speaking to a group largely made up of business leaders (or aspiring business leaders). We all, of course, lapped up every word.
His concluding argument was that our ambition should be emotional health. Perhaps this makes you a good team player? Of course (in theory) it makes you a good boss too, but would you ever get there to find out?
He finished – with a flourish – by singing a couple of phrases from a Bananarama song:
“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it– that’s what gets results!”
*Thanks to InMidtown (http:/inmidtown.org) for the use of the Oliver James illustration – and for putting on the series!
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!
Back in the spring, I was asked by Jim Wilkinson, the organiser of FutureScape, to speak at the event, which took place last week. Great, I thought, mentally running through which projects I might talk about.
“The title of your talk is ‘The Way Forward’ ” he said.
“That sounds very grand, what does it mean?”
“Well, last year you spoke about marketing; everybody’s done that now and they want to know what to do next” Quiet groan to self.
However, when I started to think about this, it occurred to me that all small businesses face a similar challenge, and it is one that all the self-help management books don’t really talk about.
Businesses start with an idea. Perhaps it is one you have carried around with you for years. Maybe you are pushed into it by redundancy, or maybe you’re just a brilliant entrepreneur. You nurture this idea, feeding it with time and money. You have great hopes for it, but somehow it stays stubbornly stunted. Why is this? Let’s look at the reasons and explore some possible solutions.
Not enough work. Wrong sort of work
What most people complain about is simply not enough work. Or perhaps the wrong sort of work? Do other people seem to get all the best jobs – how did they get that?
Well, one answer is to diversify. This could be a matter of selling a different type of product to the same clients – maybe offer maintenance to your existing clients. Alternatively it maybe lateral expansion into a new market – schools or care homes for example.
The opposite might also be a good strategy. If you find yourself chasing round after lots of small projects with no time to think, perhaps you need to focus. Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies put this brilliantly when asked about singularity of purpose and focus: ‘If it’s too broad, there’s too little focus. But if it’s too small you might not give yourself enough money to grow. So there is a trick to working out what you’re in the business of. You have to work out exactly what it is you’re doing, and do that better than anyone else.’ I must confess to not being the best person at this – I tend to get dragged in to distractions too easily. But I do understand what my core market is, and we are very competitive in that market.
It may be you need to do more effective marketing. Once you’ve got your message and market clear, the starting point should certainly be your website. This may sound obvious, but it is amazing how many small businesses ignore it – out of date, unloved websites are positively counter-productive; they actually put people off. Use quieter times to rethink your marketing material. During a downturn in business a few years ago, I spent the time putting together some A4 landscape format sheets to make a digital (or print) brochure: four or five general sheets, then half a dozen or so case studies. Over the last few years, we have gradually added to these until we have about 80 or so sheets which we can choose from to make up a brochure – although we still don’t vary from 12-16 sheets in any single brochure. Finally don’t ignore networking and social media. These frequently are slow burners in terms of marketing – they often produce leads in unexpected ways.
Do you have too much work, not enough money? It’s a common enough problem with smaller businesses. There is a simple answer to this – put your prices up. It is a straightforward way of slimming down the workload and making more money at the same time. Often, it is surprising how the market reacts to this. Consumers do not always equate lower prices with value as much as they do higher prices with quality. In a market for luxury goods and services, the latter is often a bigger driver. If you can’t put your prices up, then look at your costs – can you buy more cheaply? Could you put more pressure on your suppliers for price? Or trim your overheads – how much plant do you really need? Could it be hired in?
Maybe cash flow is the problem. Most SMEs are pretty awful at credit control, especially in the design sector. It is almost as if they are a bit embarrassed about asking for money. Be proud of what you do and don’t be afraid to ask for payments regularly and on time. If you go out for a meal, the restaurant doesn’t say ‘That’s fine, drop by tomorrow and pay; or whenever you like really.’ If credit control is a serious problem, then one solution that some businesses use is invoice factoring. It can be expensive, but is often used effectively by enterprises that are expanding quickly. Another solution is simply to build up a cash cushion that allows you to ride out the vagaries of the market and still take advantages of opportunities as they arise.
Could you expand if you had just a bit more money? The obvious first stop is family. This has been the favoured way of funding businesses for hundreds of years. It can provide solid funding from somebody who trusts and understands you and is unlikely to foreclose without notice. Failing that, you might think about Asset based lending. This is bascally borrowing against some asset as surety, including intangibles such as future profits. You can find good articles about this at Fresh Business Thinking. Don’t write off the banks either. Since the government has been encouraging banks to lend to smaller businesses (with schemes like Funding for lending, British Business bank, Enterprise Finance Guarantee) they are quite keen to lend money, only if of course they see you as a good risk. One solution that we sought was essentially selling of part of the business to grow the whole. This allows other people to come in and re-invigorate the enterprise and often provides a much needed cash input. Branson has expanded his empire in this way – with almost every step; he sells part of his existing business to fund the expansion of a new enterprise.
Not enough you
Perhaps we get to the crux here – this is why most businesses plateau. They expand rapidly while they are based on one owner, but eventually that person runs out of enough time and energy to grow the business further. The solutions to this are sometimes obvious, but also sometimes counter-intuitive. I found that getting away from the coal-face often paid dividends.
Spending time with family and friends for a while often allows you to recharge and focus. Equally, instead of working, find inspiration! Go to an industry event, an exhibition or a networking opportunity. This should be a real driver in your business allowing you to absorb new ideas and move forward.
To really move the business on, you have to look at how you relate to others in the business and what the culture of the company is. You need to be open in the way you talk to others. I always find that talk to everyone as your equal is a good mantra – and this cuts both ways. Don’t undervalue yourself but also don’t patronise others. And you won’t always be right – Andrew Strauss put this well in a recent interview: “There’s a fallacy that strong leadership is about being right all the time. Actually strong leadership is admitting you don’t have all the answers sometimes, and encouraging other people to think a bit as well. I always think probably the best leaders are those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses the best and don’t pretend to be all things to all people”. I have a friend in Spain who runs a large language school. She runs a session with her staff each week called ‘Challenge Jill’ in which they can ask her what they want and question any of her decisions.
Listen to everyone: talent is everywhere. Ask people what they think; listen more than you speak and you may just find out what your people are capable of. Teams need nurturing. If you value your staff you will get more out of them and they will respect you. Andrew Strauss again: “Good leaders have empathy and care deeply about the people they’re leading. My philosophy is that if you care about them, they’re more likely to want to be led by you”.
Give back – this again is one of those counter-intuitive things. If you have achieved, give something back. Volunteer on a charity project, become a committee member in your professional or trade association, or become a school governor. Often these are self-affirming activities, and it can be great to use your brain for something other than work! They can also be good networking opportunities.
Despite all this, things go wrong. But don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the learning process. I think almost everyone has some event from their childhood seared into their brain, some occasion when they failed. Failure is how we learn, and avoiding making the same mistake again is a huge motivation. Many great thinkers and entrepreneurs have remarked on this:
Coco Chanel, fashion designer
“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
Richard Branson, entrepreneur
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
Winston Churchill, UK prime minster
“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Drew Houston, Dropbox co-founder and CEO
“Don’t worry about failure. You only have to be right once.”
Thomas Edison, inventor and businessperson
“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“Many of life’s failures are made by people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
J.K. Rowling, author
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”
Finally and perhaps most importantly – surround yourself with good people. Stelios Haji-Ioannou (the founder of EasyJet) once said that he always surrounds himself with positive people – negativity is a killer. But there is not point in surrounding yourself with great people if you are not going to share the responsibility – and the glory – with them.
I’d like to finish with a quote from Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDry: “Never think of yourself. It’s about your staff, your customer, and your business. You’re tenth on the list. If you’re thinking that you are doing it for a Porsche then forget it, because you’ll never make the right decisions to build the business.”
If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
‘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.
However, 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.
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.
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!
Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illman–young.com
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 email@example.com
A 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.
Simon 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.
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!
The ‘conservatory’ on the fourth floor of the Barbican is an unusual place for the Landscape Institute to hold a party, but last night it was rammed with Landscape Architects from all ends of the profession. Was it was an inspired choice? The brutalist architecture countered by the Tetrastigma, Ficus benjamina and other seventies throwbacks gave a neat if somewhat outdated reminder of the relevance of landscape and an interesting contrast to one of the themes of the evening – the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown. Some might argue that the 1970’s was not landscape architecture at its finest.
What interested me though was a second theme that emerged from the evening. In his ‘acceptance’ speech Noel Farrer (the incoming president) spoke of the great work done by Sue Illman (the outgoing president). As most people know, Sue’s area of expertise is water – SUDS, water sensitive urban design and the like. Noel mused on the way that Sue’s use of a single theme – water – was able to illustrate potential weakness in almost any issue, whether it is urban design, agriculture, global warming or transport.
Water of course connects all issues, especially those around biological (including human) activity. It is the connectivity and life force carrier of all biological systems.
Afterwards I was speaking to Jason Prior, a friend from college days. Jason trained as a landscape architect, but these days runs the built and external services section of Aecom, an international services company. He has around 10,000 people working for him – structural and services engineers, architects planners and of course some landscape architects. I asked him what he thought his training as a landscape architect brought to the job that others would not have. His answer was – “An understanding of systems”. An interesting answer. I thought about this: structural engineers are principally problem-solvers; services engineers design systems, architects (whilst doing a bit of both of those) design objects. Landscape architects on the other hand design frameworks which are then populated by systems and biological components. Although we also have our share of object design and problem-solving, it is this ability (or necessity?) to see the wider picture that makes landscape architects unique amongst design professionals. Not only do we design with time in a way which no other professions do, our projects are actually designed to change and develop as time passes. My guess is that the bigger the scheme, the truer this is.
So the question remains, are these skills under-utilised? Does landscape architecture provide a training – or state of mind – for more widely applicable skill-set? If so, how can the profession market itself to be taken more seriously, more widely. Perhaps we should leave it to Noel Farrer to answer that one.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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’).
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…