Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Landscape Man: Matthew Wilson at Hedingham Castle

Hedingham Castle in Essex was the subject of the second Landscape Man series.The owner’s wife, Demetra Lindsay, a garden designer, thought ‘something a little more formal would be a bit of contrast’. So they converted the swimming pool into ‘formal pond’ and put in a semi-Islamic water channel edged with granite cadged from a sponsor. Granite is of course a traditional material – for tomb stones. Matthew Wilson made the un-profound remark that the grounds were being ‘restored to their former glory’. The owners’ design objective was to generate dosh by letting the place as weddings venue. The estate also contains a really fine Norman keep (dating from 1140) as well as a decent eighteenth century mansion. What should they have done? Something better: less costly, more imaginative, more beautiful, more romantic, more appropriate – and designed to create amazing opportunities for wedding photographers.

Bad garden design in America

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James van Sweden told Monty Don that ‘Americans just don’t get gardening. Americans don’t go outside. They are frightened of it. Frightened of bugs and wildlife. Frightened of the heat and the cold. They don’t want the work of a garden. Maintenance companies come in and cut and fertilise the grass. That’s it.’ (Around the world in 80 gardens, 2008 p.244) He sounds like a grumpy old man, and seems to have forgotten about California and the Pacific North West, but there are some significant points to be made about gardening in the United States:

  • when it is not too hot and too humid to work in a garden, it is often far too cold
  • though called ‘yards’ much of of the green space around houses is not fenced or otherwise enclosed, partly because a fence would be considered an unfriendly gesture
  • American’s move house more often than Europeans – and pay a higher percentage of the house price to the realtor (leaving less money for the garden)
  • American houses are larger than European houses – so why go out when indoors is so comfortable?
  • Americans have shorter vacations and tend to work longer hours
  • Food is cheaper in the US
  • the American landscape architecture profession continues to regard garden design as an inferior activity

Please correct me if I am wrong – or add other explanations. I am not saying bad garden design is an exclusively US phenomenon, but they do seem rather good at it! The above illustation is from our eBook The Principles of Garden Design. We are of course aware that America has many great public gardens to visit and has long enjoyed a leadership role in world landscape architecture.

Towards a greener London – with help from sheep

London green roofs with flock of sheep to calm bankers

London green roofscape with flock of sheep to calm bankers

In 1992 I wrote a report, Towards a green strategy for London. Many of the proposals are being implemented, but too slowly and with too little drama or imagination. With this in mind, and as my contribution to solving the City of London’s banking problems, I propose keeping a flock of sheep over and above London. They would make a more useful contribution to the sustainablity of the City than any works now in progress but the primary objective would be to restore calm to London’s market traders. With their minds on higher, greener and better things, I believe they would be less frenzied and that we taxpayers would be able to devote more of our savings to our families and a lower proportion to baling out frenzied bankers.

Note: the curvey-roofed building just north of the rooftop meadow, No 54 Lombard Street, is on the site of London’s Roman Forum. So the proposed meadow would be outside the Forum and on an appropriate site.

Seeing the wood for the trees

The Forest of Dean certainly makes you wonder what the Garden of Eden looked like before Adam set about tending it. What elements would it have possessed? And once Adam got to work, I wonder what he would have done to keep the Garden of Eden the way God wanted it to be?

Did the Garden of Eden have animals within it? Perhaps Adam was vegetarian? Was Eve, as Adam’s helpmate, also a keen gardener? In 2004 the Tate gallery explored some of the themes and artistic representations of Eden through the history of art to contemporary times. The Glue Society using google earth produced their version of Eden in 2007. Of course, Adam and Eve need not live in a garden anymore – as they can stay in a luxury hotel in Turkey….


The Landscape Man: Matthew Wilson on Channel 4

The Landscape Man launched on Channel 4 today with Matthew Wilson as host and Keith and Ros Wiley as his subjects. Matthew has a pleasant manner but, judged only from this episode, lacks a feeling for design. His talk was all about operations and quantities (of land, soil, money, water, plants etc). One feature was described as a ‘sort of canyon’ and another as a ‘sort of Mexican parterre with a wooden cloister and hot plants’. They call it the Wildside Garden. I would call it a display garden for a plant centre. Before that Keith was the manager for the Garden House, which is admired. The style of the Wildside planting was described ‘naturalistic’. But why make a Mexican parterre in Devon? – and when were parterres a characteristic garden form in Mexico? And what is ‘wild’ about pond liners? Matthew did not ask. Keith did not say. His main aim is to make money, since losing his previous job. Matthew has adopted many of Kevin McLeod‘s speech mannerisms and it would not be surprising to learn that the same production team is involved. But to catch-up with Kevin he must sharpen up his design judgement. The programme was sponsored by B&Q and I wondered if they had helped with the garden design.

Context-sensitive design in the Middle East and the Arab countries

Should more develoments in the Middle East look like this?

Should more develoments in the Middle East look like this?

HOW to produce context-sensitive design is a very considerable problem – and the Madinat Jumeriah Hotel in Dubai is a case in point:
1. the character of the design is unmistakably West Asian (though more Persian than Arabian)
2. the design style is popular with both Arab and European visitors
3. I would rather stay in this hotel than in an Anywhere Style modern block
4. I guess the idea of building in this style would be condemned in most of the world’s architecture schools, by most of the world’s architects and by most of the world’s architectural critics
5. wind-towers (badgirs) were a brilliant Persian contribution to the art of air conditioning, but the badgirs in the photographs are fakes, probably used for mechanical plant or as storage space for crates of beeri
6. it is completely non-traditional to surround Arab palaces with water – and the Madinat Jumeriah Hotel does not exemplify a sustainable approach to hydrological design
7. the planting design style in the hotel gardens is more authentic than in the great majority of surviving Islamic gardens, though it is quite a way from the tradition of uderplanted palm orchards


So is the Madinat Jumeriah Hotel in Dubai an example to follow or an example to avoid? (10 re architectural design? (2) re landscape and garden design? (3) re use of materials and detailed design?

See note: How should a design project relate to its context?

Critical regionalism – or critical localism? The Sydney Opera House and its context

Sydney's Opera House mediates between the city and the ocean

Sydney's Opera House mediates between the city and the ocean

Kenneth Frampton described Critical Regionalism as a means of creating an architecture which is neither a vacantly ‘international’ exercise in modern technology nor a ‘sentimental’ imitation of vernacular buildings. It is regionalist in the sense of not being internationalist and critical in the sense of not being a slavish imitation of older forms. Christine suggested that the Sydney Opera House exemplifies this approach but I wonder if Jorn Utzon’s great project is not more suited to the term Critical Localism. As the photograph shows, the cultural character of the locality is part-Victorian and part-American. Almost turning its back on the the city, the Opera House opens its sails to the harbour and wide world. So I would say that Utzon’s design responds to the region more than to the locality.
[Note: the folks who plonked the tent in front of the Opera House were plonkers].

(Image courtesy Dave Keeshan)

Courting the lawn

It is always a challenge when considering heritage how to respect the past while accommodating the new. The houtongs in Beijing are now facing the predicament of a modernising city. Traditional society and lifestyles have changed. Consumer demands are different.

So the traditional courtyard house is being reinterpreted…and in some instances modernism and tradition are facing each other quite literally.

However, there is much to be gained from understanding the tradition of the courtyard house and the patterns of life which gave rise to it. The garden of the courtyard house seems to have been predominantly a place for trees.. but perhaps also for lawn?

Garden archaeology and archaeologists

There is no evidence for the gardens of Herculaneum having had lawns. So why is this grass here?

There is no evidence for the gardens of Herculaneum having had lawns. So why is this grass here?

I despair of the archaeologists who manage historic gardens – please can someone cheer me up by pointing to some good examples of garden archaeology combined with garden management. (Photograph of Herculaneum courtesy dandwig)

The best garden archaeologists, like those who ‘restored’ Kenilworth Castle Garden, seem to be dry academics devoid of design sense or design judgment. Normal, bad, garden archaeologist-managers seem to work on the principle that ‘we don’t know much about historic gardens so they must have resembled modern gardens’. Gertrude Stein remarked that ‘Civilization begins with a rose. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.’ GERTRUDE STEIN DID NOT say “Civilization begins with a garden. A garden is a garden is a garden is a garden.” Garden archaeologist-managers reason that because modern gardens have lawns and shrubs THEREFORE historic gardens must have been the same. It is rubbish and their approach to garden management is rubbish.

Take Roman peristyle gardens as an example. I know of many fresco paintings of Roman garden planting, always with flowers and birds, but not one single  example of an illustration of a Roman lawn. So why do our garden archaeologists supply all excavated Roman gardens with lawns? Are they vandals, penny-pinching accountants or imbiciles?

Garden fresco at Pompeii - showing lush planting in a courtyard

Garden fresco at Pompeii - showing lush planting in a courtyard

Roman courtyard gardens DID NOT have mown lawns and the Romans DID NOT have lawn mowers. They clipped box, to make what we call topiary, but there are very few illustrations of linear and uniform box hedging of the type which became common in renaissance gardens. Nor are there any illustrations of Roman parterres – and I am doubtful about the accuracy of Barry Cunliffe’s ‘restoration’ of the garden at Fishbourne Roman Palace

Parks now?

It is interesting to see parks within their urban setting to start to understand the relationship between urban fabric and parkland. Apparently Olmsted‘s Central Park faced something of a crisis in the 1970s and was revived in the 1980s through a major restoration project.

So the times change and people demand new things of their parks? After the French Revolution fortuneately the true value of Versailles was recognised…So hopefully designers and the public will be able to recognise the value of the past when refurbishing green spaces for the future.

Red, White and Green Commuter Transport: cycling and ghost cycling

Red commuting produces white rage and dead cyclists

Red commuting produces white rage and dead cyclists

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…’ (Wildrid Owen Strange Meeting)
Image courtesy jscolman – with added blood See also: Ghostcycle.org

My winter post on White Commuting has led me to the following classification:

  • Red Commuter Transport: uses hydrocarbon energy to create air pollution, noise, dust, asthma and road rage
  • White Commuter Transport: white rage is what green commuters are driven to when most of the roadspace is allocated to red commuters
  • Green Commuter Transport: uses human energy for quiet, health-giving environmentally friendly commuting
Ideal green commuting in a hot country (Italy)

Perfect green bicycle commuting in a hot country (Italy)

Talking gardens, roses, the language of symbols, sustainability and Christianity

The green walls being made in gardens have more significance as symbols than as practical contributions to sustainability

The green walls being made in gardens have more significance as symbols than as practical contributions to sustainability

Garden designs can communicate with words and images – or they can continue with the silence of abstract modernism.

The drift from modernism to postmodernism continues, but with little knowledge and less thought. A recent post on The Fower Sermon, recalled that the dying Buddha used a single flower to speak volumes. He also advised: “All conditioned things are impermanent. Work out your salvation with diligence.” Christianity has been more concerned with relationships between humans than with the HUMANITY:ENVIRONMENT relationship.
During Europe’s Middle Age, the Rose was an eloquent Christian symbol. The five petals of the rose symbolised the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), the five wounds of Christ and other pentads. Gazing at a rose, the garden owner could feel inspired and re-assured, as when remembering a famous quotation, a line of poetry, a proverb or the heroic deed of a saint or martyr.
So are there symbols of comparable power for current garden designers to explore? I think many green roofs and green walls fall into this category. Presently, they have more value as symbols than actual contributions to sustaining life on earth. I make no complaint about this – but am deeply skeptical about any practical contribution they might make to saving the planet from climate change, forest clearance, rising sea levels, interruption of the Atlantic heat conveyor – or sin. And if green walls use electric pumps they aggravate the risks we face.