Category Archives: context-sensitive design

The Manali to Leh Highway & Landscape Change in Ladakh


Taking the footage for this video, in September 2014, was a good opportunity to reflect on landscape change in a hitherto remote region of India: Ladakh. There are many considerations:

  • Ladakh was an important sector on the of the Silk Road Network, particularly for north-south trade and travel between India and China. The video uses quotations from European travelers who undertook the journey c1850-1950.
  • Travel between Ladakh and Pakistan ended with the partition of India in 1947.
  • Travel between Ladakh and China ended with the closure of the border, by China, in 1949.
  • India responded by closing Ladakh to all travel and tourism
  • From 1949 until 1974 Ladakh was cut off and isolated as rarely in its history
  • Since 1974 Ladakh’s economy has become dependent on the army, which invests in roads. The military population of Ladakh is now greater than the civilian population but the army keeps its personnel largely separate from the local people.
  • Ladakh’s other post-1974 economic prop is tourism. In summer there are more tourists than locals in the regional capital, Leh.
  • Westerners, in the main, want Ladakh to remain an undeveloped and traditional region.
  • Ladakhis, in the main, want to experience the ‘luxuries’ of western civilization.

So what should be done? I think Ladakh would have done better, if it could, to have followed the development path of Bhutan. This involves a very cautious approach to development and a concentration on the luxury end of the tourism market.
As things stand, the best approach is probably the adoption a forward-looking development policy as firmly rooted as possible in the principles of context-sensitivity and sustainability. This policy is exemplified by the Druk White Lotus School and its Dragon Garden.
Romesh Bhattacharji, an Indian who knows Ladakh very well, wrote in 2012 of the new roads which will open up Zanskar that ‘Many people, all outsiders typically, I have met, however, also moan about the loss of the traditional way of life of the people of Zanska. The latter want a better way of life than just being museum relics for tourists’ It is a well-aimed criticism. But ‘traditional’ and ‘development’ need not be in opposition: a Middle Way is also possible, by design. The Druk School and Dragon Garden make a cameo appearance on the above video and are explained in more detail by the videos on the DWLS Dragon Garden Playlist.

Ebbsfleet Garden City: the landscape architecture will be calm, lush and green


‘Fresh calm lush green designer landscapes beckon you to lead a harmonious lifestyle at the garden city. The Garden City is a beautiful development, a delightful combination of three buildings, Almond, Jasmin and Mandarin. Nestled in a picturesque surrounding comprised of tree-, fruits- and flower-lined avenues The beauty and the grace of each flower type exude great confidence and reflect the true essence and exquisite quality of the tree, fruit and flower types after which they are named.’
I’ve solved the problem of why George Osborne envisages Ebbsfleet as a Garden City: he’s been to Dubai and seen the Ajman Garden City. He loved it with the adoration of a puppy. He wants Sunny Ebbsfeet to rival Dubai with its wonderful expanses of lawns embellished with wonderful expanses of charming roads and concrete slabs. The only features Ebbsfeet cannot rival are the intense heat, dust, glare and humidity. Never mind, the Chancellor can tell our state-owned banks to give starter loans for tanning parlours and tatoo artists. The UK economy will then boom with a slew of professional opportunities in skin cancer.
Please tell me it’s a spoof. The world cannot have clients fool-enough to build such a “”””Garden City””””. It cannot have designers bad-enough to produce the drawings. It cannot have buyers rich-enough to buy the property. But listen carefully: the voiceover is spoken in a near-human English marketing argot – but for the robot saying al-mond, insetad of aa-mond. So the Dubai video IS a prank by Gravesend kids doing robotics as a sixth form project. Ebbsfleet Garden City will, after all, be a place of semi-detached rose arbours where we can all enjoy harmonious lush green lifestyles.
Phew. What a relief.
See also Will Ebbsfleet be a Garden City a New Town or an overblown Housing Estate?

Graffiti, street art and murals

Street Art in Hackney

Street Art in Hackney

In Australia, ‘Melbourne’s street art puts it in on the tourist map (alongside Berlin, New York, London, Los Angeles and SaoPaulo) enabling it to compete with Sydney and the famous harbour and Opera House’. So Melbourne has an enlightened policy on street art and the city council hosts a gallery of street art.
In London, Graffiti, street art and murals are subject to borough control, not GLA control. Greenwich, my local council, suffers from the blinkers you would expect from 43 years of political control by the same party. So the policy is about ‘grafitti’ instead of ‘street art’. Here it is:
Graffiti removal
We aim to keep all council property free of graffiti, but we need your help. If you report a graffiti problem to us, we will deal with it.
How to report graffiti
You can report by mail, phone, email or online form using the details on the right.
If you can, please provide details about those responsible for the graffiti. We will try to make them, or their parents or guardians if applicable, to pay for the graffiti removal.
What happens next
Our cleaning team will inspect and remove offensive and racist graffiti within 24 hours. Other graffiti on the outsides of Council property will be removed within three working days.
Graffiti on private property
The team will also remove graffiti on private property, although there may be a charge for non-offensive graffiti.
We require signed permission from the owner before we remove any graffiti from private property.
Anti-social behaviour
In some cases – for instance, when it seriously affects you or causes great inconvenience – graffiti can be considered a type of anti-social behaviour.

Hackney was long considered the worst-run borough in London but has had more diverse political control in recent years and has undergone rapid trendification. Anyway, the above illustration is from Hackney and the policy is on Graffiti, street art and murals. One could regard it as enlightened, at least in comparison to Greenwich eg ‘We recognise that some people consider that street art makes a positive contribution to the urban environment. If your property has a piece of street art or mural on it, you must contact our Environmental Enforcement team to let us know that you would like to keep it.’ BUT the Hackney Hedgehog is on a building marked ‘to let’ so it was probably done without the owner’s permission. Does this make it graffiti and an act of vandalism attributable to migrants from Eastern Europe? The poor beastie looks a bit underfed. Or is it political activism by deep ecologists who want more more planning for nature in urban areas?

Image courtesy gruntzooki!

Hermitage Wharf, Joseph Conrad, Norman Foster and the River Thames Landscape

hermitage_wharf
The above photograph from Tower Bridge was taken yesterday on my way to the cycle petition hand-in. It struck me as a real Joseph Conrad view of the river and Andrew Cowan Architects design for Hermitage Wharf looks much better than Foster’s design for Albion Riverside. Then I remembered having written a critical comment on Hermitage Wharf a few years ago. Checking it, I was pleased to find that I had praised the architecture and that it was the wretchedly dull riverside space I had criticised. Maybe Tower Hamlets’ planners mandated a bad landscape design because of the South Bank type crowds they were anticipating?
hermitage-wharf1

Kongjian Yu – landscape architecture as an art of survival

I have praised Kongjian Yu’s work before and much enjoyed his lecture to the HGSD (above). I particularly like his advice to ‘make friends with the flood’ and to design for the ‘integration of contemporary art and ecology’. But I am having doubts about my call for him to be appointed Chief Technical Officer to the The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development 住房和城乡建设部. For sure, he would be very good at the job – but the landscape architecture profession has greater need of him.
It is bad mannered of me to criticise Kongjian after he quotes me in his lecture, but there are two historical points I would like to correct. First, the history of landscape architecture in east and west can be traced back for thousands of years – though its name is but 185 years old. Second, the planning of western gardens and parks ‘for ornament’ dates from c1700 and is now in decline. Older parks and gardens were always planted for food.
So here is an invitation: next time Kongjian Yu is in London I would be delighted to show him round my local park and the new building for the University of Greenwich Department of Landscape Architecture. Greenwich Park was designed in 1660 primarily for food production – and it still produces a large quantity of food, much of which is collected by ethnic Chinese. So it is very appropriate that the roof of the new school has the production of food as one of its main design aims: it will be used for research into the use of living roofs for food production and other sustainable purposes.

Lord Norman Foster's Thames-side Boom Boxes

We are pleased to publish the hitherto-unseen concept which so evidently inspired Lord Norman Foster’s pair of Thames Boomboxes. As previously agreed, Lord Norman does ‘an awfully good box‘. His heart is in the right place: he speaks with enthusiasm about urban design and works with good landscape architects. The problem, I fear, is that his head is in the wrong place. He sees buildings as objects, not as the creators of space. His own office (the left-hand building, above) is a fine box. But, like a hifi box or another consumer product, it could fit equally well in any context. There is nothing-London and nothing-Thames about it or the curvy adjoining residential boombox – except of course for its wannabe name: The Albion. The above photograph was taken on a warm day in late summer. Re-visited last week a howling gale was being funneled through the arch under the Albion. The ambient temperature was 11C and, with wind-chill, felt like -1C. So, while perfectly able to admire Foster and Partners architecture, I condemn this example of the firm’s the landscape architecture and urban design. The half-doughnut building faces due north, so that its wings keep out all sunlight except for mid-day in mid-summer. This is not my idea of good conditions for enjoying a good outdoor life beside a great river.

The skyline, architecture and landscape of the River Thames in Central London


I see the Banks of the Thames as a place where, during the twentieth century, unimaginative planning and selfishly mediocre architecture often conspired to produce designs better suited to a rundown provincial town than to the heart of a great city. Skylines, landscape and architecture should be considered together, looking to the past and looking to the future. ‘Protecting’ views is important but insufficient. Proposals for ‘high buildings’ ‘tall buildings’ and ‘towers’ should be viewed in context, never in isolation. Studies of their visual and environmental impact require scenic quality assessments, a policy context and full testing on a digital model of the city. As the below quotations reveal, London’s river is both a Place of Darkness and a Place of Light.
William Blake, in 1794, found ‘in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ where ‘the Thames does flow’.
William Wordsworth, 8 years later found the Thames a river of beauty and romance. He declared that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ (1802).
Joseph Conrad, in 1899, knew the Thames as a place of history, romance, toil, darkness and light. He saw London as ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth’, a place which had known ‘the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’ and was yet ‘one of the dark places of the earth.’
Since 1945 property developers have seen the Thames as a place to make a quick buck
Since 2000, some wealthy immigrants have viewed riverside apartments as great places to launder the ill-gotten gains of financial scams and miscellaneous corruption.

Recent blog posts about London’s River Thames skyline landscape

See also:  Rem Koolhaas on London’s skyline. Koolhaas remarks that ‘London has always changed dramatically and it’s still is not a very dramatic city. So it can go on. I think that in London whatever you do you do not disturb an earlier coherence. You do not disturb an earlier utopia like in Paris. It can stand a lot of development without suffering’.  I read this comment as a polite way of saying that most of London’s riverside is pretty dull, as the above video shows, it has its moments – but not enough of them.

The 122 Leadenhall Cheesegrater and protecting London's skyline landscape view of St Paul's Cathedral from Fleet Street

St Paul's Cathedral, the Fenchurch Cheesgrater and the London Skyline from Fleet Street

London has had controls on tall buildings since the Great Fire of 1666 and views of St Paul’s Cathedral have been protected since Faraday House was built in 1938. A recent consequence of this protection is that No 122 Leadenhall Street, dubbed the Cheesgrater, was shaped like a wedge of cheese. The planners and the designers (Rogers Stirk Harbour Architects), sought to lessen the impact on the much-loved view of St Paul’s Cathedral for those traveling east along Fleet Street. As the above photographs show, the west elevation is shaped like a church spire on its south face and a rectangular block on its north face. This reduced the floor area by almost 50% (and the rental income by approx £4.5m/year). I commend the sacrifice of profit to beauty but is the result beautiful? My answers are (1) the north and south elevations of the Cheesegrater drive an ugly wedge into the City’s once-harmonious skyline. So the endeavour was worthy but the result is only a partial success. (2) The most important street view of St Paul’s Cathedral, from Ludgate Hill, would have been unaffected by an any-shaped building at 122 Leadenhall Street (3) I would prefer a spire, in keeping with London’s traditions, or a curvilinear building to harmonise with the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie (also known as Vinoly’s Bulge). Please consider the following questions, with the above images from left to right:

  • Was the skyline better before the addition?
  • Is the Cheese Grater a good shape for this skyline?
  • Would a rectangular block be OK?
  • Is this a place for a ‘Pepper Pot Skyscraper’?
  • Would a Shard-type spire be more in keeping with London’s historic skyline?

THE most important surviving views of St Paul’s Cathedral are from the River Thames embankments and Waterloo Bridge. The Greater London Authority GLA should commission a digital model of Central London for use in generating accurate perspectives of development proposals. They need to be seen in relation to each other and to the existing urban landscape. And/or, they could ask David Watson to produce a complete verified photomontage and ZVI analysis. As the photograph below shows, the architecture and planning professions have allowed a chaotic skyline to appear. Quite possibly they are surprised and embarrassed by what has happened – and puzzled as to how a better outcome might have been achieved.

St Paul's Cathedral, the Heron Tower, Tower 42, the Gherkin, a Blob, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie - seen from Waterloo Bridge. Simon Jenkins and many other commentators view this skyline as

The view of St Paul's Cathedral from Ludgate Hill is unaffected by the Cheese Grater. Thames views are much affected

Paul Finch, consultant editor of the Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, commends the public space which will be created below the building and summarizes his view of 122 Leadenhall Street as follows: ‘All in all, the Cheesegrater is a speculative office development of extraordinary quality, built in an exemplary way by Laing O’Rourke, with engineering by Arup. It sets standards that few are likely to emulate.’
Finch read history at Cambridge and has edited BD, the AJ and the AR. A history degree should give him impartiality but a life in architecture could be counter-productive. On high buildings in London my views are closer to those of another Cambridge man, Monty Don, who is a scion of the architectural Wyatts and the marmalade Keillers. Reflecting on the protected views of low-rise Paris from the Arc de Triomphe, Don is delighted that Paris ‘has resisted the indiscriminate spread of skyscrapers. There is nothing wrong with these per se, after all, Manhattan is stunningly beautiful precisely because of them, but they diminish any otherwise magnificent buildings they adjoin. They destroy the scale. Look south-east and the city is flat-topped, the individual roofs of buildings smoothed to one harmonious plateau’ A French garden journey, Simon and Schuster, 2013 p227). But could Paris have become the world’s financial capital if this policy had not been instigated? If they had also switched to the use of English, possibly.

Note: I have included a pepper pot shape in the above montages in response to one of the conclusions from the 2001-2 House of Commons report on Tall Buildings: ‘Tall buildings should be clustered rather than pepper-potted across a city’. ‘Pepper-potting’ can refer both to the shape of a pepper grinder and to the sprinkled distribution of the pepper which falls from its jaws.

The Shard architecture and skyline landscape symbolic reviews

Salisbury Cathedral, The Shard (with a cross) and the Albert Memorial as Christian architectural symbols in an urban landscape

If you build a skyscaper in London you can expect a shovel of reviews. Here is a selection of opinions about the symbolic impact of Renzo Piano’s Shard on London’s landscape.
Tom Turner: If The Shard had a Christian cross on top most of the critics would change their minds
Nathan Hurst: The Shard is an irregular pyramid with a glass exterior, evoking a shard of glass.
Fergus Feilden: I find the Shard lacks soul
Richard Rogers: The Shard is the most beautiful addition to the London skyline.
Owen Hatherley: The Shard is rammed unforgivingly into Southwark
Peter Buchanan: The Shard is much too big, as is Piano’s building rising beside it, and completely out of character with the surrounding area − the evocation of spires and sails is fatuous.
Simon Jenkins: This tower is anarchy. It conforms to no planning policy. It marks no architectural focus or rond-point.
Paul Finch: Like any icon, the Shard demands attention and has received it in spades from London cab drivers (split views), architects (benefit of the doubt), and the non-fraternity of architectural critics puzzled by this south-of-the-Thames phenomenon.
Terry Farrell: In its overall shape, the tower is to my mind a bit of a 1960s Dan Dare version but as with all Renzo’s buildings it has its own elegance.
Simon Allford: I am delighted to see it standing tall on the skyline in an unexpected place confidently breaking rules.
Patrik Schumacher: The form is insufficiently motivated. The project seems to sacrifice efficiency for the formal purity of the pyramid.
Jonathan Glancey: The Shard is in the wrong place. It would be better off in Shanghai or Dubai.
Aditya Chakrabortty: It’s expensive. It’s off-limits. It’s largely owned by people who don’t live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.
Chris Leadbeater: Henry VIII would be furious. Apoplectic. Red-faced with rage. Heads would surely roll.

Underneath it all, London remains a city of spires: St Paul

My guess is reviewers can be placed in two camps: left-wing and right-wing. Aesthetic conservatives would be happy to see a traditional spire towering of London, as the spire of Old St Paul’s once did. Aesthetic lefties enjoy breaks with tradition and feel sick at the use of a traditional building forms in the twenty-first century. Both groups of critics are happy to sneer at Towers of Mamon and/or at foreign involvement in London. Symbols have a profound influence on aesthetic judgements. While the UK economy has languished for a century, London’s economy has rarely paused since the time of Henry VII. It remains one of the most financially productive places on earth and subsidises what remains of the British Empire (including the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)

The worst view of The Shard is More London in the foreground. It is dissonant ('in the musical sense of 'a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant '). Is the red arm removing a speck of dust from Lord Foster's eyeball?

Sunlight, tall buildings and the City of London's new urban landscape architecture


I had a short walk and ride around the City of London at the weekend. It is an unusual place and, though I have never had the experience, thought about being  in a crevasse. The City has a medieval street pattern overlaid on a Roman street pattern. It can’t be changed and land values are sky high. So they keep building higher and with steel and glass. You might think this would produce gloomy canyons but, in fact, there is a phenomenon akin to total internal reflection, as in a ‘sun tube’, which brings light down to street level. The odd aspect of this is that the light is normally less-bright than sunlight and has a ghostly quality (as when sun shines through ice). An exception results from the Walkie Talkie.

As it neared completion in 2013 Rafael Viñoly Architects design for 20 Fenchurch Street began to act as a solar mirror. It focused so much sun in the pavements that it became possible to fry eggs. Londoners therefore changed its name to Walkie Talkie Scorchie – though Fryscraper is a popular alternative. The above video begins where Lovat Lane runs south from Eastcheap – so the sunlight is coming from the north! It shows the once-dark alley blazing with solar glare. Viñoly should have known better: he had the same problem with the Vdara skyscraper in Las Vegas. The effect is known as a ‘death ray’ but, properly directed, the sunlight reflected from tall buildings can be a welcome addition to dark pedestrian spaces.

 Viñoly’s response to the problem has been to point his fingers and toes at other consultants. He whines that [in London] ‘the superabundance of consultants and sub consultants dilute the responsibility of the designers until you don’t know where you are’ so that ‘architects aren’t architects anymore’. In truth, he did not have the right consultants. What he needed was a physicist to calculate what would happen and a landscape architect to make best-possible use of the reflected light. Gillespies are working on the design of the Fenchurch Street Skygarden and I am sure they would have been pleased to help out with the street level design problem.

Architects (notably Richard Rogers) often argue that high buildings save the green belt, save on transport infrastructure and are good for sustainability. All true but this does not mean tall buildings are always best. Simon Jenkins tried to discuss them at the RIBA  and reached the conclusion that ‘Talking towers with London architects is like talking disarmament with the National Rifle Association. A skyscraper seems every builder’s dream. At a Royal Institute of British Architects seminar on the subject last April, I faced an audience almost entirely of architects who treated any criticism of tall buildings as nothing to do with aesthetics or urban culture but to do with denying them money.’  An expert House of Commons committee (2001-2) and the City’s Chief Planning Officer (Peter Rees) argue that high buildings are unnecessary and undesirable – because similar densities can be achieved by other means.

The planning and design of tall buildings should form part of an imaginative scenic conception of the future urban landscapes they will help create. Conservation is not enough. Innovation is not enough. Past and future concepts must be brought into harmony. This requires design imagination.

Iran landscape architecture, urban design and politics

Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

I share the general optimism about Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s future. Many of the country’s problems were caused by western interventions. Others are indigenous. My own experience of Iranians is that they are kind, courteous and peaceful. This has made it difficult for me to understand their demonisation in the west. The new President has both liberal and authoritarian credentials. He gained a PhD in ‘no mean city’: Glasgow. He wear’s a cleric’s clothes and buys from Armani (I do not know how this is possible). If you are also wondering what relevance this has for this blog then I recommend Louise Wickham’s interesting book on Gardens in History: A Political Perspective. Garden design, like urban design, has always been influenced by politics. You can read something of Iran’s last half-century in the above photograph. The design is inoffensive: a little Iranian, a little European, a little modern and not much of anything. So my modest suggestion, assuming President Rouhani reads this blog, is to show your people what you can do for them by encouraging them to draw on the best of Iran’s traditions and the best of contemporary landscape, garden and urban design wheresoever in the world then can be found.
Photo (courtesy jturn) of Park-e Laleh, Jamshīdīyeh, Tehran, Tehran, Iran.

The visual impact of Renzo Piano's Shard on the landscape and skyline of the River Thames

Is the visual impact of Europe's tallest building on London's skyline good or bad?

Does The Shard have a positive or negative visual impact on this view of London’s river skyline ? The above photos are 180° panoramic views from Southwark Bridge and little spiky building in front of The Shard is Southwark Cathedral (unlike St Paul’s, it is not connected). Camillo Sitte said the ratio of  height:width of a city square should range between 1:1 and 1:2. Is this relevant to buildings near London’s river? The Shard is 306m high and the Thames at London Bridge 265 metres wide. This gives us a ratio of  1:1.5. The Shard is  150m from the river. Sitte wrote that “We find…that the height of its principal building, taken once, can be declared to be roughly the minimum dimension for a plaza, the absolute maximum that still gives a good effect being the double of that height – provided that the general shape of the building, its purpose, and its detailing do not permit exceptional dimensions.”

Beijing urban landscape: architecture, planning, design and conservation

Should the old urban landscape of Central Beijing have been conserved?


The montage, which is rough, shows a 1914 plan of Beijing superimposed on a recent Landsat image of the Beijing metropolitan area. When the reconstruction of the old city began, after 1949, Chen Zhanxiang recommended that a new city should be built outside the old walled city – so that the central area could be conserved. He had worked with Sir Patrick Abercrombie in London and understood the need for a city to engage in both conservation and development. Professor Liang Si-cheng commented that ‘demolishing the old wall is like peeling off my skin’ (Turner, T., Asian gardens: history, beliefs and design 2010, pp307-8). Beijing’s old walls, which became the 2nd Ring Road, are shown in the below photograph.

Osvald Siren's photograph of the old walls of Beijing, before they were demolished to make a ring road

Were the academics right or were the municipal authorities right? My vote goes to the academics. Central Beijing should have been as well protected from the twentieth century as Haussmann’s Paris.  The two capitals have comparable design histories. But, for Chinese urban designers and landscape planners, there were other problems. The old map makes a distinction between the ‘Tartar or Manchu’ Inner City (which contains the Forbidden City and the three Seas) and the ‘Chinese’ Outer City. The Manchus were invaders who spoke a different language. Their walls were a symbol of exclusion and repression, like the Berlin Wall, and were demolished by Chairman Mao’s government. Had the French and British not demolished the Yuan Ming Yuan, Mao Zedong might have done it for political reasons, much as he destroyed Buddhist monasteries. Mao’s position in Chinese history is peculiar. He will always have credit for modernising the country and educating women but, one day, he is likely to receive even more blame for the Cultural Revolution. He will also be blamed for destroying too much of China’s architectural and landscape heritage. So here is my advice to municipal authorities everywhere: find the best parts of your heritage FROM EVERY ERA and apply the most stringent conservation measures possible. This will require landscape assessement technqiues. The ‘blocky landscape’ of early 21st century Beijing will be disliked, sooner or later, but a good-sized zone should be subject to strict conservation measures – including those ridiculuous ‘flower beds’ which line any roads wide enough to have them.

The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing follows the walls of the old city - on which it stands


Images of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road courtesy of ernop and poeloq

Christian symbols in garden design

Christian symbol in a designed garden

This Christian symbol, in the garden of a chuch in India, is pleasing - and startling: it highlights the LACK OF CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS in European gardens, be they sacred or secular.

Ian McHarg, the most influential landscape architect of the twentieth century, criticised the Book of Genisis for giving man dominion over our planet’s animials and plants ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26) McHarg, following Lynn White, saw this as a Biblical basis for not recognizing rights in non-human life. McHarg thought it was a reason for Christians not identifying an ethical duty to conserve the environment, biodiversity or ‘wild nature’. Forests, for example, which were associated with paganism, need only be conserved if, as part of their ‘dominion’, humans make this choice in their own interest. Aldo Leopold, who trained as a forester, argued that humanity should adopt a ‘land ethic’.
Christian Ecologists have responded by interpreting ‘dominion’ as ‘stewardship’. I see this as an incomplete re-interpretation of the Bible, because a steward takes instructions from a lord. A steward is ‘An official who controls the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master’s table, directing the domestics, and regulating household expenditure; a major-domo’ (OED). A steward would have a duty to conserve the environment only if the lord issued such a command. The etymology of steward is ‘most probably Old English stig a house or some part of a house’ (OED)
But what of Christianity and garden design? There is a Biblical injunction to grow food ‘…and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.‘ But, as the magnificent words of the King James Bible testify, growing food was more of a duty a pleasure. Then, when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, the injunctions against idolatry (eg in the First and Second Commandments) came to the fore:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

Rome’s public places, and Roman gardens, had been rich in statues of pagan Gods. After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, by Theodosius I on 27 February 380, these statues came to be regarded as idols and graven images. So they were removed or destroyed. This was a blow to the classical tradition of garden design, though not to the practice of gardening. Christian monks became expert gardeners and cloister garths are widely interpreted as examples of sacred geometry – as symbols of God’s perfection. The Vatican has great gardens but they do not have Christian symbols. The gardens of Lambeth Palace are sadly neglected. Some cloisters, like Salisbury, have had wholly inappropriate designs. Other cloister garths (eg Certose di Pavia) have parterre designs – which are not Christian symbols.
During the renaissance period, ‘graven images’ re-appeared in gardens. This was an aspect of what is called ‘renaissance paganism’. The Belvedere Court, in the heart of the Vatican, had the greatest collection of pagan sculpture in all Europe. I do not know of a contemporary justification for their presence but the argument seems to have been that since there is only one creator god, he must have created the pagan gods – and so they could be used to symbolise the Christian virtues. Venus is the prime example. Seen as a symbol of Love, she became an excellent reason for placing statues of nude girls in gardens. Protestants seem to have been less confident about her presence, as they were about other ornament and decoration, but even the Baroque gardens of the Counter-Reformation allowed for the siting of graven images in gardens, with two qualifications: they had to be pagan symbols and they could not, of course, be worshiped. It is odd that statues of pagan gods were allowed but statues of the Christian God, Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were not allowed. Should this policy be re-considered? Yes. Representations of the Holy Family are allowed in Christian art – so why should they be banned in Christian gardens? I look forward to the English churches helping to organise the sponsorship of Christian Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show and as part of the Chelsea Fringe so that they can be kept as features of London’s garden heritage. Also, there is significant scope for improving the management of the gardens associated with cathedrals and churches. These projects would be demonstrations of new life in old institutions. There is a particular opportunity to use flowers of special importance to Christians, including red roses, white lilies and ‘flowery meads’.

[Note: the relationship between Christianity and gardens is discussed in British Gardens: History, philosophy and design London:Routledge 2013 p.148ff]

Fire bowls, bonfires, garden waste and health hazards


Garden bonfires are one of the pleasures of country life and, if the fire is in a bowl or pit, you can use garden waste instead of barbecue fuels. In towns, outdoor fires can be a nuisance but the advice given by municipal authorities is variable. Some say little more than ‘be considerate and don’t inhale the smoke’. Others, of which Milton Keynes is a notable example, appear to have been written by people suffering from severe asmatha, tinged with pyrophobia and boosted by bossiness. They have my sympathy – but not my support. Those who live in cold climates love fire.
But if I lived in Australia I would probably be violently opposed to garden fires. To look at the tourist photos, you would think all of Australia was always warm and always sunny. Yet I heard that Sydney had a temperature of 42°C two days ago and 21°C one day ago. Every aspect of garden design and management needs to be context-sensitive, more so than architecture or interior design.

Orvieto, Italy, landscape and architecture then and now


Orvieto, in Umbria, Italy, shown about 80 years apart. The views are not quite the same, though the campanile provides a reference point. The 1930s photograph has a Claudian air. The 2006 photo has less of a town:country contrast and the landscape is being suburanised. When walled cities had to defend themselves the presence of trees in the immediate vicinity was undesirable – and I think I would get rid of them now (for about 250m from the cliff. Thomas Aquinas once taught her and Orvieto used to control the road from Florence to Rome. There is a labyrinth of tunnels in the rock below the town. In 1840, a travel guide noted that ‘For the traveller not having his own carriage the best mode of proceeding will be by the diligence, which leaves Rome on the mornings of Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and arrives at Viterbo early in the afternoon. At daybreak on the following morning, a carriage that conveys the mail, not the cleanest or most comfortable of vehicles, starts for Orvieto, and arrives there about 11 o’clock, giving him sufficient time to vist that interesting city on the same day.’
(2006 photo courtesy pshanson)

Assisi fountain then and now

These photographs of Assisi’s urban landscape and architecture were taken about 80 years apart. It’s great to see how little has changed (probably ‘thanks to St Francis’ for attracting tourists) but the changes seem to be for the worse: cars, masts for  TVs and phones, ugly street signs, heritage lighting, extra downpipes, less picturesque clothing, some odd castellations (top right).  Readers are invited to contribute ‘then and now’ pairs of illustrations so that we can keep an eye on how gardens, parks, urban landscapes and rural landscapes are changing.  Let’s hope we can find some examples of things getting better.

(2012 photo of Assisi courtesy of  preston rhea)

Placemaking for 34 great waterfront urban landscapes


I admire the Public for Public Space and I like this video, even if it is too long. Also, I mostly agree with the criticisms of landscape architects and the other design professions. What I regret about the film is the detachment from design theory.
Fred Kent’s answer to the question ‘What Makes a Great Place?’ is (1) sociability (2) uses and activities (3) comfort and image (4) access & linkage. It is not wrong but it is muddled. Fred Kent should have begun with Vitruvius and had he done this the list might have been re-organized as follows (1) commodity: uses, activities, sociability and comfort (2) FIRMNESS: construction and planting supporting a healthy ecosystem, with access and linkage for humans and other species (3) DELIGHT, or, as Vitruvius put it VENUSTAS – his word extends to all the aesthetic qualities associated with Venus, rather than the marketing-mens’ word ‘image’.
Some acquaintance with design history might also have yielded the fact that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown described himself as a Place Maker.

Space and place

Famous Danish Urbanist Jan Gehl after a nine month study of central Sydney in 2007 called for the addition of three new public squares along George Street:

“His report paints a picture of a city at war with itself – car against pedestrian, high-rise against public space. “The inevitable result is public space with an absence of public life,” he concludes.

His nine-month investigation found a city in distress. A walk down Market Street involved as much waiting at traffic lights as it did walking. In winter, 39 per cent of people in the city spend their lunchtimes underground, put off by a hostile environment at street level: noise, traffic, wind, a lack of sunlight and too few options for eating.”

If the City of Sydney was to implement his vision how would the addition of public space improve the perception of place in Sydney?

The City of Miami is also feeling the lack of a public centre. In considering the attributes of good public squares they describe a few of the most successful spaces in the US, including Union Square and Madison Square.

Feel free to nominate your favourite public square and tell us why it is so good!

iGardens, iCities, iArchitecture, iLandscapes, iPads and the Steve Jobs design theory

Buddha, getting help from an iPad, with an idea for the Chelsea Fringe Flower and Garden Festival

Buddha, with an iPad and an idea for the Chelsea Fringe Flower and Garden Festival

Steve Jobs is the most successful product designer of modern times, bar none. Nobody has built so many fabled products. Nor have they built (what was briefly) the world’s largest coroporation in such a short working life – or such powerful brand loyalty. So if cities, gardens, architectures and landscapes are ‘products’ then what can designers learn from the Steve Jobs approach to design? Here are some of the possibilities:

  • classify every design idea as ‘insanely great’ or ‘absolute shit’
  • listen to ideas from members of the design team and tell the proposers they are all ‘absolute shit’,
  • come in next day claiming the best of their ideas are yours, now seeing them as ‘insanely great’
  • earn the undying love of your staff by these means
  • ignore public consultation, and market research of all kinds, because ‘people do not know what they want until I have built it for them’
  • practice Buddhism, become a vegan and drink bucket-loads of carrot juice
  • adopt the purest forms of the Bauhaus and Zen Buddhist approaches to design
  • focus, like a laser beam, on the user experience
  • find the necessary technology to realise your dreams
  • keep on and on and on simplifying and perfecting every detail of your design
  • ‘Don’t compromise’
  • ‘People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint’

Yes, I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and, yes, I think all designers can learn from Jobs’ example. But there is a big problem: I detest the idea of an iCity, an iGarden, an iScraper and an iLandscape – with the ‘i’ standing for ‘international’. I believe, fervently, that the environmental design professions should hold to the principles of context-sensitive design. They should, like our predecessors down the millennia, CONSULT THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE.
Steve was interested in gardens. The ‘stalk and head’ idea for the iMac G4 came from the sunflowers in his wife’s garden and, more to the point, he stated that ‘The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto. I’m deeply moved by what that culture has produced, and it’s directly from zen Buddhism’. Since the Zen idea (禪) came from China and, before that, from India, perhaps Steve was not as strong on history as on product design.
But there is one more thing that we want to tell you about…East Asia is building iCities as if there is no tomorrow. So? “….Tomorrow will never come“.

See also 2012 Chelsea Fringe Flowers Gardens and Gardening Festival.

Buddha image courtesy Miheco.