What do you do when you’re nominated for an award but you’re the only one shortlisted?
This has happened to me several times and once recently to John. I helped to found and still help to run a community garden in Hitchin, which for many years was the only one in the local area. Rather embarrassing then to be awarded the local In Bloom award for Best Community Project several years running, with no competition!
Having said that there were a number of criteria we had to meet to qualify for an award including high levels of community participation, environmental responsibility and horticultural excellence (In Bloom is no longer all about bedding displays). Despite being the only entry in our category, it was a great boost to all involved in the Triangle Garden, to have their vision, hard work and dedication recognised in this way and helped to raise awareness locally of the widespread benefits of such initiatives.
By contrast John’s project ‘The Collection’ was one of a number of entries in the Best Public or Communal Outdoor Space category of the 2013 Society of Garden Designers’ Awards, but the only one of sufficient calibre to be shortlisted, although you wouldn’t have guessed that from James Alexander Sinclair’s presentation banter on the night!
It is a shame that winning an award in this sort of circumstance can be such a bittersweet experience. It’s almost worse to win from a one-horse shortlist, than to be short-listed and not win!
The Collection, a design created in response to an extremely challenging set of technical and spatial issues, was chosen by the judges for its ‘… interesting layout and clever use of a narrow space, which jointly serves to screen the ugliness and clutter of surrounding buildings, and to unify the space into a single composition…’
Although this and the Spokane project (SGD International Award joint winner 2012: see blog post about this project here – separate window), were very much John’s designs from start to finish, much of the work we do at Bowles & Wyer is collaborative. As an office we often work in teams on projects, with John giving overall direction but leaving scope for our designers to express themselves freely and for graduates to grow and innovate.
At Bowles & Wyer we try to cultivate confidence and independent thinking in our designers, while satisfying a series of sometimes very technically exacting briefs. It is a difficult balance for a busy practice but I think it helps that we don’t have a house style and that every design we do is focussed on what’s right for the site and the client.
While many garden designers are one-man-bands, there is a growing number of high profile studios employing several designers who work collaboratively on designs – Andy Sturgeon, Tom Hoblyn, Arabella Lennox Boyd, Christopher Bradley Hole, to name but a few. And although the SGD recognises individuals as members, it does not recognise studios. In every garden design studio there are unsung heroes working on many and varied projects, making their mark in terms of design excellence but going unrecognised in the wider world. The SGD would argue that they should all register as individual members, and I wouldn’t dispute that as a sound idea in itself, but even if they did this, there is still no recognition in the SGD Awards for collaborative work. And let’s face it a lot of the best work is collaborative. Something for the SGD to ponder on perhaps…
Finally I have to let you in on a little secret… last year the Triangle Community Garden finally achieved an accolade of which its members and supporters could be properly proud: we were anonymously nominated for the RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood Awards and achieved the rating ‘Thriving’ – the equivalent of a Silver Gilt. Woo hoo! Next year we’ll be going for gold!
Senior landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, and cycling widow to John. For more info on the Triangle Garden see www.trianglegarden.org
As I am sure some (if not most of you) know I am a keen cyclist. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on this through the pieces I did on the Three Peaks Extreme event that I took part in September 2013. (Find them here)
When I was on that trip, I began to muse on the parallels between cycling and design. I trained hard for that mad caper, which involved a lot of cycling through tough countryside on my own, often after a hard day’s work. I am a fairly heavy guy, so hills have always been my Achilles heel. I used to get despondent on climbs, slowing down and feeling that the hill was getting the better of me. The task became huge and started to sap all the pleasure out of the cycling (this despite having cycled up a few mountains in my time.) And although I would be the first to admit that I am a bit of a speed junkie when it comes to cycling, especially down hills (when a larger frame really comes into its own!) my attitude to cycling is sort of summed up by ‘You don’t have to go fast, you just have to go’. I suppose what I mean is that in a sport obsessed by time and speed, actually the greatest pleasure comes from just doing it. I have never won a cycle race. Most garden designers have (like me) never done Chelsea, never been on TV (for garden design at any rate!) and are rarely in the magazines. But we do this because we love it; and there is a lot to love, not least the intense sense of promise at the start of a project (or a bike ride). The travel writer William Least Heat-Moon said that “The open road is a beckoning, a place where a man can lose himself”. You might as well say “a blank sheet of white paper is a beckoning…”. When I sit down, marker pen in hand, in front of a blank pad of layout paper, with its luminous depth of whiteness, I feel as though I stand on the edge of a lake about to dive in.
All too often though, I start to suffer ‘design constipation’ – the longer the timeslot available to do the design, the worse it gets. I have written about this before (Where do ideas come from?) but there is another parallel with hills and cycling here – to be successful, you have to get in the ‘zone’. Quite often, when I am cycling on my own, I get in an almost ‘Zen’ like state (bear with me here!); the swish of the wheels, the whirr of the pedals and cranks, and the wind whistling past is hypnotic, especially given one’s own body rhythm. Cycling when in this state is much easier – the miles fly by. Even when I am not in my own little world, when I get to an incline, I often deliberately think of something else: some all-consuming train of thought and before I know it I am at the top of the hill. Design is a bit like that, don’t you find? It often creeps up on you sideways and when you try and think of it directly, it skittles away.
Garden design in particular can be a lonely existence. Many garden designers work from home on their own. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting but in both cases no-one to share it with. During the summer I cycle a lot on my own, but I also go out once a week with friends for a ride. Cycling in a group (particularly a tight formation) is 30% more efficient than on one’s own. You can cover much greater distances and it is one of the few exercises where one can easily talk at the same time. Company and shared experience are essential to make the most of solitary pursuit.
To finish, one more quote, this time from John F Kennedy: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Except perhaps a well-executed design?
Five years ago, I received this email from my cousin:
“We are in desperate need of landscaping advice…when can you “pop over” for a visit??!! How’s things on your end of the globe? We are loving our life in Spokane, WA…nice to be back in the mountain west. House is VERY near completion, should be moved in early July, and great guest digs, so come check it out!! Seriously, landscaping is overwhelming blank slate…HELP!!! Love to all!”
So began a great project.
The site was a garden designers dream – and nightmare. With an inspired and trusting client, a ten acre site in the middle of some fantastic scenery and a great palette of hard materials locally available, this job seemed to have everything. Except that the ten acres was 5000 miles away, nothing much seemed to grow there except ponderosa pine and the climate was pretty harsh – summer highs of 350C and winter lows of around -200C . It was pretty dry too, enjoying a meagre 30cm or so of rain each year, much of it as snow during the winter months.
I arrived in late one evening, mid-September 2010 after a long flight. As a result, I woke up at about 5am the next morning, with sunlight streaming in. My hosts were asleep (not unreasonably) so I spent the next two hours until breakfast wandering around the site, drinking in the essence of the place. And this was a truly remarkable place.
Great outcrops of granite pushed obstinately through the landscape everywhere, often amongst precarious but picturesque pines. It was so dry that almost nothing rotted, or not very fast anyway. Timber from clearances (sometimes decades before) lay stacked around, bleached dry.
Over the next four days, I cycled, climbed and hiked my way around the local mountains, hills and valleys. I visited gardens, nurseries, stoneyards and parks. By the end of it ideas had begun to gel in my mind.
The house itself was uncompromising, made up of a series of different panel-clad planes running at obtuse angles, with colours inspired by the setting. Ideas began to half form in my head of a design which drew on the asymmetry of the house but also captured the essence of the landscape. I sat my hosts down and sketched a few ideas out on paper, showing banks of gabions – wire baskets filled with stone – running at asymmetric angles and emerging from the ground in a similar way to the granite outcrops. These were punctuated by the aspens that I had seen in the valleys around and anchored by a few large boulders and a sprinkling of dwarf pines. Flowing through the whole were drifts of herbaceous planting and grasses. The route to the front door was to be made up of huge irregular four-sided slabs of concrete, with trickles of thyme running between them. The reaction could perhaps be described as ‘cautious’, or perhaps ‘cautiously enthusiastic’. The planting was an intrinsic part of the design. With what limited water there was coming from a 335m (1100′) deep well, the choice of the plants was critical. The designs were developed on Xeriscape principles, first developed in Colorado USA, which uses plants well adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Grasses, penstemons, and other herbaceous species formed the backbone of the scheme.
Work started almost as soon as I left – or at least as soon as I could get the drawings together! The clients were keen to make a start; much of the donkey work was to be done on a self-build basis and work had to get well underway before the bad weather closed in. Watching the design emerge from 5000 miles away was a tantalising process. I received photo updates on an almost daily basis, and questions almost as frequently!
My ideas for the areas to the rear of the building came together more slowly. Here I envisaged broad sweeps of herbaceous planting which integrated with the naturally occurring spring flowers occurring abundantly on the site. There was to be a focus at a natural clearing and place where two axes met. I had originally envisaged a small building for this spot. However, some other ideas came together fortuitously. I had long been keen to incorporate some sculptural elements into the scheme; indeed I had been trying in vain to get a local fine art course involved. The client needed no more of a prompt – within a few weeks they were coming up with their own ideas for how a sculpture might work and a couple of months later it was finished and installed. Sadly, the ideas for the broader landscape although partly implemented went on hold. The owners had to relocate to Tennessee, so the house was sold much earlier than had originally been expected, although of course the up side of this was the possibility of a new project.
I thought that would be it, but was able to make contact with the new owners and return to the site to photograph it this autumn. Many of the pictures below in this blogpost are from that final trip by Allan Pollok-Morris, and his photos are not only a great record of the work but also a stunning piece of art in their own right.
*thanks to Andrew Wilson and Gardens Illustrated for the title – from a piece in GI written by AW.
About a week ago, I was in London for a day of appointments. With about 45mins to spare between meetings I took a stroll through Bunhill Fields. For those of you that don’t know it, this ancient Graveyard just outside the old City of London walls has been a burial site for at least a thousand years. Amongst the 123,000 people known to have been buried there before it was closed for interment in 1854 were many famous literary and non-conformist figures from the nineteenth century including Daniel Defoe, William Blake and Susanna Wesley.
Anyway, so much for history. I had scurried though this space on a number of occasions before – indeed our office used to be located close by when we first started up. This time however, I tarried a little and discovered something that fascinated me. After the Second World War, Bridgewater and Shepheard were engaged to carry out improvements to the graveyard. Peter Shepheard, who was one of the leading young landscape architects of his generation, re-planned the memorial gardens to the north part of the site. The work is unmistakeably English and of the post war modern movement. Peter Shepheard’s great strength was the effortless simplicity of his designs. Like many of his peers, he was completely comfortable with the Edwardian arts and crafts heritage, and did not see it as a millstone in the way that later generations did. The smooth lines of the Yorkstone path, edged with brick sweeps confidently through the grass beneath the huge plane trees that define the space. In contrast the [relatively] small orthogonal beds with evergreen shrubs, Liriope, Vinca and other plants typical of the period are a pleasantly restrained contrast. The use of fallen gravestones is both practical and I would argue reverential whilst giving a nod to the history of the site.
I have fond memories of Peter (as he liked to be known) or Professor Sir Peter Shepheard PPRIBA, PPILA, as he was when I knew him (there were probably a few other letters that I have forgotten.) He was an modest man, full of stories of his colourful career. I was lucky enough (with Chris Bowles) to work on the restoration of Charlston Farmhouse. We also worked on Winfield House (in Regents Park) and a few smaller projects. I particularly remember Peter’s wonderful pencil sketches and his plans, all in pencil and filling the sheet completely to the very edge with a sort of evenness of texture and graphic. As well as having a keen understanding of space, he was also a master of herbaceous planting (unusual for someone who had trained initially as an architect).
Perhaps we have something to learn from the gentle and unselfconcious blending of style shown here. Have we really learnt so much in 65 years?
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.
In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).
When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?
Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.
In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.
Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.
Quite a few people have asked me to upload a blog of how the trip went, so here goes…
After a stomach-churning night of nerves, I get on the train to London to meet up with the rest of the team. We stand around at Euston nervously joking and laughing as though we are on the bench for a big cup-tie. A quick coffee and a team photo and then we’re on the train.
However, it doesn’t go well – an accident near Lancaster means that the train will terminate at Preston, less than halfway to our eventual destination. After a journey on a replacement bus, another train to Lockerbie in the Scottish lowlands (where we do a spot of ‘carb-loading’ – see left), we get on a minibus taking us north. After about an hour, as we switch to a second minibus, one wag pipes up “Have we lost them yet?” We finally arrive, five hours late at the hostel in Fort William.
Because of our late arrival the previous night, we rise a little later than originally planned. A quick breakfast of tea and porridge follows and then we are off to Ben Nevis. Suddenly it is all real. As always with mountains, the views slowly uncoil as you climb, each more amazing than the last. By curious coincidence, a friend of mine is climbing Ben Nevis the same day, leading a party on a three peaks experience (all three peaks in twenty-four hours) and we meet up for a quick chat and a photo halfway up.
Our mountain guide, Davey (who is a trained mountain leader) takes us off the main trail and across to the north face where we get spectacular views down into the gorges on the north side of the mountain. We are incredibly lucky with the weather, which (unusually) stays clear right to the summit. A celebratory photo follows and then we are off down the slopes. This was the part I had been dreading. All the other team members I had spoken to had been fearful of the cycling. For me it was the mountains, and especially the descents. By the time we finally reach the base of the mountain a few hours later, my toes are killing me and muscles I didn’t even know I had are aching. It is therefore a relief to get on the bikes and cycle 18 pleasant miles to Loch Leven. Finally I feel as though I am in my element, although we ride as a somewhat ragged and uncontrolled group. We are a pretty mixed lot – one racing cyclist, two or three ‘roadies’ like me and the rest mostly experiencing their first seroius stretch on a road bike. With a broad range of fitness, and ages varying from 38-57 we are hardly a practised group. One rider (who we shall call ‘Jim’ for the sake of argument) insists on riding on his wife’s bike in old trainers, with a borrowed too-small helmet in purple with an attractive floral pattern perched on the top of his head. He stops for a cigarette several times a day, but still manages to outpace many of the other riders. It just shows that you don’t need all the latest flash kit!
The first big day’s cycling (125 miles) breaks with rain. We set off nervously in groups of around five people, with me in the first group. Cycling uphill toward Glencoe in the morning rain has an ominous feel. Scottish drivers are not friendly to us and there is some hooting and abuse. By the first food stop, I am ravenous and eat as many sweets, energy bars and other quick calories as I can cram in my mouth. We have to eat around 8000 calories a day to keep up with what our bodies are burning. This is equivalent to roughly 32 McDonald’s hamburgers, although we have to eat most of it as carbohydrates and sugars which are easy to digest. At the end of each day we have a protein shake to aid muscle damage recovery – not exactly something to look forward to, although it is usually followed up with a good pub meal (but no beer!). The rain slowly abates and we cycle through grand highland valleys under what can only been described as brooding skies. After a fantastic 35 mile stretch along the banks of Loch Lomond and a slightly less pleasant ride through the suburbs of Glasgow, we finally end in the delicious dry comfort of a Premier Inn near Ayr, where we collapse gratefully into bed.
For many of us this is the toughest day so far. The late start and bad weather the previous day meant we did not quite do the miles, so we have to backtrack by minibus and pick up where we left off. We are starting to ride as a more ordered group now; after a brief stop for best mates Darren and Matt to get married at Gretna Green and south of the Scottish border, we have a delightful ride south towards the lakes on an old Roman road through rolling countryside. By now, we are riding as a tight group in a peloton of eight pairs. I get great satisfaction from the occasional silent periods when all that can be heard is the swish of the wheels and the whir of the cranks rotating, periodically punctuated by the light clatter of sixteen bikes changing gear at the same time. We finally stop at Glaramara House nestled in the beautiful Borrowdale.
After the by now legendary porridge at 06:45 as usual, we set off up Scafell Pike. This is the highest point in a ridge (Pike being the local name for a ridge of hills). The Lake District has a complex radial pattern of hills and valleys resulting from the geology and glacial action. As we climb Scafell, the weather closes in, but through occasional tantalising breaks in the cloud, more and more of these hills and U-shaped valleys become visible in the sunshine. We reach the summit around lunchtime and the clouds part to give us some amazing views before our descent.On our return to Borrowdale, we have an exhilarating 25 mile cycle past Derwent Water, through Keswick and along Thirlmere to Grasmere. In the pub after a good dinner, a brisk discussion about route follows. Our three cycling guides are unwilling to take us through Liverpool and the Mersey Tunnel; we are unwilling to cut the mileage. We eventually compromise – we would keep the mileage the same, but divert to the coast, taking in stretches of shoreline through Blackpool and Southport before picking up the minibus through the Mersey to North Wales.
Another tough day’s cycling starts with the group being split up into three. In the end this doesn’t work as the contact between the groups is lost. Some press on and others stop. Eventually we all reconvene near lunchtime. The first part of the journey is switchback riding through Lakeland lanes, followed by a couple of long climbs. Eventually we wind down on to the Lancashire Plain and with a tail wind head for the delights (?) of Blackpool. After and exhausting 127 miles, we finish near Formby Beach.
We beat the forecast once again, and cycle in dry weather. The climbs start almost immediately and a tough 35 miles of climbing on the bikes follows, culminating in an into-wind grind up the final pass towards Snowdon. A small reception party are awaiting us at Snowdon, but no time is lost as the thirteen of us stand in a line in the car park changing into our mountain gear, much to the amusement of a coachload of middle-aged ladies parked nearby. After the six days of continuous riding and climbing our legs feel like lead as we begin the ascent of Snowdon. The weather deteriorates, and we were soon in rain and low cloud. Just before the summit, we emerge into strong rain-bearing winds along the final ridge. At the summit of Snowdon, as many of you will know, is a café and visitor centre, served by a Victorian funicular railway. The cup of steaming tea and warm pasty that I have there will remain as one of the best things I have ever tasted! The descent is pretty exhausting, particularly as my feet are beginning to suffer from constantly being rammed to the front of my boots. After a celebratory photo at the base, we retreat to a log fire and a beer. Later in the hotel, we have a final dinner followed by speeches reminiscing and celebrating what we have achieved. It is with some reluctance that we finally retire to bed.
Writing this diary three days later, my muscles have finally stopped aching, although it looks like Snowdon will have claimed both my big toenails! I was surprised to see that as well as having lost about an inch from my waist, I have put on about ten pounds (4kg), which mostly appears to be on my legs!
We never forgot the main reason that we were undertaking this – to raise funds for Perennial (the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society) and its work with the less fortunate in the horticulture industry. We checked the total daily and it spurred us on. Please donate if you haven’t already done so – it is easy through the JustGiving website dedicated to 3 Peaks Extreme – www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. The page will remain open for donations until early December 2013.
Perhaps I have finally flipped. I was always rather dismissive of those middle-aged men going on mid-life crisis quests to regain their fading youth (although my youth indisputably faded a while ago). In fact I am not quite sure how I came to agree to do this. I just started get the emails that counted me in. I didn’t recall agreeing. A few people suggested that it had happened while I had had a bit too much to drink at the BALI awards. Once I finally did opt in officially, I discovered I never had agreed beforehand…
Anyway, the ‘Quest’ is to climb the three peaks – Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike (I know, we’ve all done that) but also to cycle between them at the rate of around 100-120miles a day – ha, that got you didn’t it! In the six days it takes to complete the challenge, we will have climbed or cycled over 35,000 feet in height – 20% higher than Everest – and cycled over 440miles. I start next week on Friday 6th September until 11th September. The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a charity called Perennial (formerly the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society). This may not seem an obvious charity at first thought. However, regular readers of this blog will know that the status of the horticulture sector in general is a pet rant of mine. There are 500,000 people working in or retired from horticulture in the UK. Many are not well paid and pension provision is poor. In addition, Horticulture has one of the worst rates of workplace injury – perhaps not surprising, given it often involves working at height, in cold and wet conditions and operating machinery. Horticulturists are completely dependent on their good health and physical fitness to be able to work; an accident can have severe consequences for the horticulturist and their family. Perennial exists to support them when the going gets tough, which can be as a result of illness, bereavement or workplace injury.
To donate to the challenge visit www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. I really hope you can do this. Most people go into gardening as a career because they love it (certainly not for the money). Some fall on really hard times and could do with help as a stop- gap.
As for the caper, you should be able to follow our progress on the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/3Peaksextreme You can also and follow the team on Twitter @peaksextreme.
I recently went to see ‘Worlds End’, the final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. For those who don’t know it, the film is a science fiction comedy, the third in a short series of action films starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. I saw it in Letchworth, in the Broadway cinema. Why is this relevant? Well, Letchworth forms the backdrop to most of the movie; it was filmed there and indeed the Broadway Cinema was one of the locations in the film (‘The Mermaid’).
The first Garden City has long been held up as the apex of good urban planning, including by the current government, so it was interesting to see it used a somewhat sarcastic comment on Britain today. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his review of the film for the Guardian: “It is different from the locations that usually show up in movies: London or the leafy countryside. This is New Town Britain, Visitor Centre Britain, the suburban commuterlands and hinterlands: bland and agreeable.” The film is multi-layered, but one of the underlying themes is that living in the suburbs turns you into a robot. Hardly a new message, but ironic that they chose to illustrate this by using the crucible of the garden city movement, whose principle aim was to counter the way that industrialisation had de-humanised people.
Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from last year – “Where have all the trees gone?” (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=132). In this, I began to explore why many developers don’t really plant trees and how this might be addressed. I followed it up with a lecture at a conference in Devon (staged by the excellent Barcham Trees) in which I postulated that the garden city movement was indeed a turning point in modern planning, but it was also where it all started to go wrong. I pondered on what it was that made particular housing estates ‘successful’. For the moment, let’s ignore esoteric or academic definitions of success and instead look at market or colloquial definitions. The most expensive, the most sought after areas of housing are dominated by something larger than the houses – trees. And not just any trees; large, mature, forest species – horse chestnuts, oaks, planes trees, limes, even sycamores. So clearly, green leafy suburbs are what we aspire to. In fact estate agents and the media frequently use the word ‘leafy’ as a synonym for affluent when they are talking about neighbourhoods.
If we trace the roots of housing development back 100 years or so ago, we come to the genesis of large scale housing development the garden city movement. Before that, during the Victorian era, most development had been urban. At both ends of the social scale, mass housing as a concept had really only come into being at the beginning of the C19th, with developments such as Bath and the Nash terraces in London for the wealthy and mass terraced housing for the working class. But the rise of a middle class in late 19th century England meant that a different demand started to emerge. The landed gentry wanted their town houses to be elegant and urban – gardens were not a part of that. The working classes could only afford back to backs. Whilst the middle classes could pay more for housing, they could only afford one house. What they hankered after was mini version of the country estate. Both the architecture and the gardens point towards this – half-timbered houses evoking an idealised view of Elizabethan country houses; lawns, which had previously only been the reserve of the very wealthy, became available to all with the invention of the lawnmower in the C19th.
The garden city movement pulled many of these threads together. It distilled elements from the arts and crafts movement (with which it was closely allied), social reform (particularly of the Quakers), town planning, and mixed all this with a heady dose of social idealism with which all great reform movements are imbued. For me this is
where it all started to go wrong. The fork in the road where it all seemed so nice led us after sixty years ago from Letchworth – pleasant enough, to some of the more horrible modern housing estates. One of the reasons that the Garden City idea was so popular was that it plugged into the
English Dream. But continual watering down of that dream has made it into something of a nightmare.
In city centres, one clear way forward is to go back to a landscape-dominated high density development model. There have always been versions of this around – look at Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Street for example (a social housing project for Westminster City Council c1961-62, and a beacon in early 60s architecture-landscape partnership), or Janet Jack’s landscape around the Alexandra Road development in Camden – one of the last great social housing schemes. I would argue that both these developments are relevant today, although Alexandra Road has suffered from poor maintenance. I first went to Lillington Street in 1977 – it was one of the things that caused me to choose to train as a landscape architect. I revisited the scheme more recently and it has fared
very well. It feels as fresh and relevant now as when it was first designed 50 years ago, although the trees are bigger! There is no vandalism, and although people do have small areas of defensible space, the overall quality of and scale of the landscaped spaces is such that the estate is really leafy (there it is again!) despite being very high density. The overall feel is (not by accident I am sure) similar to traditional London squares. These principles are applicable to smaller scale developments.
We have tried to use similar principles ourselves in design of dense urban housing developments. Admittedly, these were privately funded; I suspect that the days of well-funded grand (or even modest) social housing are over, at least for the moment.
Both the Collection and Tercelet Terrace developments adopt this approach of public landscape at the expense of private space. Actually, in both projects the cost of the landscape was a very small percentage of the total.
What this shows is that the truth here is somewhat counter-intuitive: that in urban development at least, up to a point, higher density is actually a pre-requisite of good landscape and greater biodiversity, rather than acting as a restriction, as one might expect. It creates the opportunities for more meaningful spaces and often provides the funding to address those opportunities. The counter to this is that suburban development does not create good quality spaces, particularly at the densities mostly being built in recent years. Perhaps the government should apply more joined up thinking in this respect.
Rural development is another story – another post on that coming soon (or perhaps another movie?)
I don’t know about you, but I get a lot more emails than I used to. What with that and phone calls, like everyone else, I frequently find myself typing or sketching something at the dining room table at 10pm in order to meet a deadline. It is even worse now that I am trying to train for this damn three peaks malarky – now I have to fit in 150 miles a week on the bike, as well! I say to myself how much more I could get done if I just had another hour or so… Just imagine what I could achieve if I didn’t have to sleep! And like other people I see on the tube and the train (where I am sitting right now) I use all those little bits of time to check emails, go on twitter, write a blog etc.
Which is why you may find it strange that I am arguing that we should make some space in our busy lives to do nothing. Some of you might remember my previous piece entitled ‘Where do ideas come from?’ (10 May 2012) In this, I argued the importance of the right-hand half of the brain in creative activities, such as design. In the article, I quoted Mattias Konradsson – “Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”. For me that is often when I am staring into space. Or sitting on a train. Or driving. Or (this one is the most frequent) standing in the shower in the morning. Perhaps this last is the most revealing: the fact that the brain has been completely disengaged from everyday tasks for a few hours may leave it free to chew away at some problem that it hasn’t been able to address during the waking hours. A bit like when my laptop runs short of RAM, except that it doesn’t seem to go on working when I turn it off! Perhaps we all need to make a bit more space in our lives for doing nothing? Shift into neutral and idle for a while. We might be surprised at the results.
So, if you see me on the train, gazing out of the window; or nursing a cup of coffee and staring into space, just remember that I might be working on my next project…