Monthly Archives: July 2008

Context-sensitive garden design

Hort Park is in Singpore but it could be anywhere (photo Steel Wool)

Ken Yeang, the world-famous Malaysian architect complains that ‘Pursuing a kind of national architecture is a dilemma imposed by foreign architects’. He says that the Americans and Europeans can’t do it ‘Therefore, why should we define a national architecture, but these developed countries cannot?’. He is wrong. The architectural style known as International Modernism is really a North European style which just happens to be widely used in a context-insensitive manner.

For garden design and landscape architecture there is a far stronger case for a context-sensitive approach. Countries, regions and small localities have different geology, different climates, different hydrology, different flora, different fauna, different histories and, above all, different ways of using outdoor space. So why on earth should there be an International Style of Garden Design? The only possible excuses are the general lack of professional education in garden design and, in the case of landscape architecture, the general ignorance and lack of interest in design theory.

Curiously, the nearest thing to an agreed principle of landscape architecture is that ‘designers should consult the genius of the place’ (the genius loci). It is a great principle. But it has to be carefully considered and ‘though the genius must always be consulted she does not always have to be obeyed’. What most designers do is take a quick glance at the local character, find out a little about soils, find out some more about climate – and then do what they planned to do in the first place. The people should shout them down.

Resin bound gravel

Resin bound gravel (left) and unbound gravel (right)

The University of Greenwich has re-done much of its paving with resin-bound gravel on its Maritime Campus. It has one the most scenic campuses in Britain and certainly needs to be ‘paved with care’. But was resin-bound gravel the best choice?

Some of the pedestrian paving, usually adjoining buildings, is done with a beautiful riven sandstone. It comes from Yorkshire and has the local name Yorkstone. This is an excellent material. Other pedestrian paving, often running through grass areas, is ungraded gravel. This too is a good choice, though it is hard to fathom why they used granite instead of the local flint.

Most of the new paving on the campus is resin bound and uses a small-diameter flint gravel aggregate (2-4mm). For the central roadway this was a good choice. A bitumen macadam basecourse supports the weight of vehicular traffic. But the road is used as much by pedestrians as by vehicles and it was well worth the extra expenditure on resin bound gravel to hide the bitumen.

But I can’t see the point of having used resin-bound gravel for purely pedestrian walks or for the new car parks: (1) it costs a lot more money (2) it is impermeable and therefore works against Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) objectives (3) it does not have that nice crunchy sound you get from gravel (4) it looks phoney – like a plastic imitation of gravel (5) it is out of keeping with the historic character of the Maritime Campus – where unbound flint gravel is the traditional material.

What is the difference between garden design and landscape architecture?

Residential garden design - or landscape architecture?It’s worth looking to see what Wikipedia and Britannica have to say on this question. And I have to say that the Wiki entry on landscape architecture is a lot more useful than the Britannica entry on garden and landscape design. Britannica only let you have a quick glimpse at their text before a big black screen tries to sell you a subscription. But you have enough time to discover that the text is badly written garbage. Here is a sample: “Efforts to design gardens and to preserve and develop green open space in and around cities are efforts to maintain contact with the original pastoral, rural landscape. Gardens and designed landscapes, by filling the open areas in cities, create a continuity in space between structural urban landscapes and the open rural landscapes beyond. ”

The Wiki entry ( at 10.40 GMT on 1.7.2008) is so much better, or at least so much closer to my own view, that I suspect the author of having made good use of the Gardenvisit.com website. It states that: “Both arts are concerned with the composition of planting, landform, water, paving and other structures but: (1) garden design is essentially concerned with enclosed private space (parks, gardens etc), (2) landscape design is concerned with the design of enclosed space, as well as unenclosed space which is open to the public (town squares, country parks, park systems, greenways etc)”

Compared to Europeans, Americans tend to be a bit sniffy about garden design. They see it (as in the Britannica quotation above) as a subsection of garden design. This makes garden designers inferior people, because they can only do a fraction of the work undertaken by landscape architects. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) only introduced a professional award for garden design, actually called “residential design” in 2005: ” The ASLA 2005 Professional and Student Awards program features a new category—Residential Design—drawing more than 120 entries in its inaugural year. Cosponsored by Garden Design magazine, awards in this new category will be presented on Monday, October 10, during the ASLA Awards Ceremony. A special luncheon honoring all award recipients, their clients, and professors will be held following the ceremony.”

Personally, I see garden design as much closer to a fine art than landscape architecture. Art is for art’s same and gardens are for garden’s sake. Landscape architecture is often for a public or private body with a shedful of axes to grind. It is similar to the distinction between painting and graphic design or between sculpture and product design.

Towards a Greener London

Green carpet, green chairs and green light - seen on London's South Bank on 12th July 2008As the author of a an old report on Towards a green strategy for London, I should be pleased to see a sudden and dramatic green turn on London’s South Bank. And I am. Green is a good outdoor colour, kind to the eye and calming for the nerves. But I would also like the Greater London Authority to adopt a serious Green Strategy for London. ‘

Landscape architecture on the march

Marching for landscape architectureCongratulations to Whitelaw Turkington for sponsoring a landscape contribution to the London Festival of Architecture. A group of landscape architects marched through South London on Saturday 12th July 2008, carrying trees and with periodic pauses to consider the relationship between trees and London. Congratulations also, to one of the firm’s principals for becoming a tree bearer.

It is always good to see landscape architects on the march. But I wonder if they don’t need more political courage. Way back in 1983, I proposed to the then-chair of the Landscape Institute’s South East Chapter, that we should protest against the failure of the London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC) to commission a Landscape Strategy. The proposal was that every landscape architect in London should keep their Christmas tree until it went brown. We would then carry the dead trees in procession from the Palace of Westminster to the HQ of the LDDC, cast them down and, should anyone be so brave, light a funeral pyre.

I wish we had done it. Although there are a few good things, the landscape planning of the Isle of Dogs is predominantly disastrous. Had they spent a few pence on a landscape plan, the cost of the re-development would have been significantly lower and the environmental quality would have been significantly higher.

Plant combinations and planting design

Bad advice on the beauty of gardens

Having long believed that good plant combinations are a key to successful planting design, I was pleased to get a copy of The Encyclopedia of planting combinations by Tony Lord and Andrew Lawson (Mitchell Beazley, 2005). They are both expert photographers and Tony Lord, who wrote the text, is a former Gardens Advisor to the UK National Trust. Unsurprisingly, the photographs are excellent – if not quite as excellent as one might have expected. Disappointingly, most of the text is about the individual plants. Since there are many books on individual plants, this could have been omitted. The plant descriptions are followed by remarks on plant combinations and, as one might expect from a pair of photographers, they have a good eye for line, colour and texture.

The most surprising thing about the book is the appalling standard of the introductory section on ‘The art of combining plants’. It reveals the author to have no understanding of garden design as a fine art and somewhat reminded me of books written in the 1920s. Take the opening statement as an example: ‘A garden’s beauty invariably comes from the plants that it contains, the way they work together, and the overall effect they produce’. Does this apply to the Alhambra, to Versailles, to the Taj Mahal or to Rousham? Of course not. A garden is a composition of five elements: landform, vegetation, structures, water and paving. If one element is strong and the other four are weak you will not have a truly great garden.

After this blinkered introduction, the first sentence is ‘Making a successful garden is a question of balancing what is already there with what is required of the plot’. But what IS ‘required of the plot’. The author does not say. The second section (p.13) opens with the sentence ‘Once any hard landscaping is in place, selection of the plants can begin’. Goodness gracious me! You should not employ a gardener when you want your central heating fixed – and you should not employ a horticulturalist when you want a design for your garden. Similarly, the UK National Trust should employ horticulturalists for horticultural advice and garden designers as gardens advisors.

National Trust Gardens

A National Trust bench at Studley RoyalWhen Dame Jennifer Jenkins was appointed to chair the UK National Trust she commented that the main criticism of the gardens they manage is that ‘They are all the same’. It is not quite true but they do have an alarming similarity. This was brought home by visits to some visits to Yorkshire gardens this year. Studley Royal, run by the National Trust, has not had the ‘curse of Sissinghurst’ laid upon it. Of course I love Sissinghurst and of course it attracts busloads of visitors, but I do not want to see England’s historic gardens getting ever more like Sissinghurst. Studley Royal retains its independent dignity but it IS getting more National Trusty. Perhaps the paths are being too well kept; perhaps too many seats are appearing; perhaps that terrible Visitor Centre has an existence outside my drawer of garden nightmares. I can see that the architect had a lot of fun but the National Trust does not exist for this purpose. Its not such an ugly building: it just does not belong at Studley Royal.

From Studley Royal I went to Bramham Park – and was delighted to see how un-National Trusty it remains. In parts the standard of maintenance is higher then the National Trust would attempt. In other parts is is lower. In other parts, like the tennis court on the front lawn, it is entirely as the resident family wish it to be. It is a real garden.

Chatsworth Garden was also a pleasure to visit. Apart from its unique historic character, it has an individuality which, I can only assume, results from the kindly care lavished upon the estate by the Devonshire family. The food was also a great deal better and cheaper than in a National Trust multiple.

These considerations remind me that a friend of my grandfather’s was one of the National Trust’s first 100 members. In the 1950s, they both resigned with the explanation, in my grandfather’s words, that ‘They will be just like the monasteries, and all monopolies, when they get too large and too wealthy, they become lazy and corrupt’. He thought the National Trust was doing too much to become larger with ever more jobs for ever more boys and ever more girls. Instead, he argued for a plethora of smaller trusts each with its own role and its own policies. I think he was right.

Let us hope the National Trust’s new chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, can do something more effective about the problem than Dame Jennifer Jenkins. He has long argued for effective devolution from Westminster to the regions. The problem he faces is that the great estates can’t very well be returned to their ancient families. One thing he could and should do is rid the National Trust of fawningly busybody interference of the kind pioneered by Graham Stuart Thomas during his reign as gardens advisor to the National Trust.

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2008

Hampton Court Palace Garden Show

London has two great flower shows: Chelsea in May (see 2008 Chelsea Review) and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July (see 2008 Hampton Court Review). I went to Hampton Court yesterday. It rained as I entered and rained as I left – but the sun appeared in between and it was a good day. My interest, of course, was the garden designs. The RHS Best in Show went to a very worthy design by Dorset Cereals for an Edible Playground. It was a good idea for an outdoor learning area, and well made, but it does not make a contribution to garden design as a fine art. The Gardenvisit.com Design Award for Hampton Court 2008 went to the Holiday Inn Green Room designed by Sarah Eberle. Elegant and well-made is scored highly for being just the kind of space we should be making for the city of tomorrow – instead of those wretched garden-centerey plots made by the UK housebuilders who have seen such a spectacular decline in their businesses over the last 12 months.

A focus on domestic gardens is the strength of the Hampton Court Show. Chelsea provides haute couture for gardeners – nice for window shopping but with garden designs on the expensive side of exorbitant. Hampton Court is more like Oxford Street. Designers learn from Chelsea and use the ideas for everyman. To make this policy more apparent, we recommend buying some special fencing for the Hampton Court, to replace the standard contractor’s wire. This would not be to keep people out, as at Glastonbury. It would be to draw people in and provide more context for the garden designs. The fencing designers should learn from Hollywood and make fences which look like English streets from both sides. Visitors would then queue at house doors and enter a garden world, filled with garden designs they can relate to. This is what Oxford Street stores use mannequins for. At present, the garden designs at Hampton Court float in a sea of tents.

We would also like to see a London Garden Summer Show, spread through the capital and lasting for the summer season ( See our note on the proposed Chelsea Fringe Flower and Garden Show).

The Principles of Garden Design

The Principles of Garden Design, eBook by Tom TurnerI had an idea for a book on the principles of garden design about 20 years ago. The publishers I offered it to (Mitchel Beazley, Francis Lincoln and Conran Octopus) each invited to me meet them and said it was a ‘very interesting idea’. But they did not sign me up and the idea went on the back burner. Some of the content went into the final section of City as landscape (Spon 1998) and when the idea returned to the boil in 2008 I decided to do an eBook. It is now available under the Gardenvisit.com imprint: The Principles of Garden Design, Tom Turner (ISBN 978-0-9542306-2-3, 45 pages, 130 illustrations, 2008). Comments would be most welcome and journalists can request review copies.

The basis of the book is that Garden Design is much subject to the Vitruvian principles as any other field of design, though they need to be adapted. In short:

  • Gardens should be beautiful
  • Gardens should be useful
  • Gardens should be well made with good materials

These points are discussed with 130 illustrations and I am puzzled as to why they are not already embedded in the literature of garden design. Idle chat about ‘year round interest’, a ‘blaze of colour’, ‘focal points’, ‘specimen plants’, ‘water features’ etc is all very well – but it is no substitute for having a firm grasp of the principles of garden design. To draw an analogy with cooking, we can say that an over-reliance on recipes is no substitute for a grasp of the principles: use good materials, don’t overcook, take care with the sequence of dishes.

Garden design at Borde Hill paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)

I went to visit Borde Hill Garden in Sussex last Saturday. Since my last visit, it has acquired a so-called Italian Garden. It was funded by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Regrettably, it is of poor quality and cannot possibly, by any indecent stretch of the imagination be regarded as part of England’s Heritage. So why did the HLF pay for it?

The Borde Hill Garden Map calls it an “Italian Garden” and the signboard at Borde Hill states : “Italian Terraces. The Lower Terrace centred around the formal pool, started life as the family tennis court until it was converted by Robert Stephenson Clarke in 1982. From 1997 to 1999, and with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, this part of the Garden was renovated and replanted following a design by award winner Robin Williams’…. We are endeavouring to improve the more formal atmosphere of the area.”

It is a dull rectangle of water with a small fountain, cheapish terracotta tubs, precast concrete slabs, good quality English park seats, a rough stone wall and a badly maintained box hedge. The rill which flows down the steps and through the slabs looks faintly Islamic. This raises several questions:

  1. Why should the garden be described as ‘Italian’? I have seen anything like it in Italy.
  2. Why should the Heritage Lottery Fund be paying for poor quality unhistorical garden designs?
  3. Why not adopt the historical solution and make the space into a tennis court, asking players to wear white flannels and eat cucumber sandwiches?
  4. Or why not go for a genuinely modern garden design?

The so-called Italian Garden at Borde HillThe What We Do page on the HLF Heritage Lottery Fund Website states that ‘The Heritage Lottery Fund is the UK’s leading funder of our diverse heritage and the only heritage organisation that operates both across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and funds the entire spread of heritage – including buildings, museums, natural heritage and the heritage of cultural traditions and language…We help groups and organisations of all sizes with projects that: conserve the UK’s diverse heritage for present and future generations to experience and enjoy;”. I was pleased that I could find no mention of Borde Hill in the HLF website and assume they are ashamed of having funded the work. In fact I would like to find a What We Regret Having Done page on the HLF website. They would earn Brownie Points for transparency, open government etc. We all make mistakes.