Monthly Archives: September 2008

Public Art in Barking Town Square

Public art bounds Barking Town Square

Nothwithstanding our criticism of the urban design of Barking Town Square, Muf deserve an award for an excellent piece of public art on the northeast side of the Square. Muf state that ‘The folly screens the flank wall of Iceland supermarket and makes the fourth elevation to the town square. The folly is comprised of architectural salvage and recovers the texture of lost historic fabric of the town centre; it stands as a mementomori to this current cycle of regeneration.’

Unlike the usual ‘Turd in the Plaza’ approach to public art, this wall:

(1) serves an urban design objective by enclosing the space

(2) picks up on the historic context of Barking

(3) pleases the eye without being attention-seeking

I wish we could have more context-sensitive public art.

Barking Town Square does not deserve a public open space award

Barking Town Square by Muf Architecture Art should not have won the 5th European Prize for Urban Public Space, however good the architecture

I’d never been to Barking. But in 2008 Barking Town Square won the the 5th European Prize for Urban Public Space so I went to have a look. Sorry about the weak pun, but the judges are Barking Mad. The main building has a sentimental Bauhaus-ey charm but the urban space is a plain rectangle of pink Spanish granite, laid in stretcher bond for no good reason. The hoardings illustrate some planting to come but the “Public Open Space” is a void, an empty space, a nothing. The judges all represent organizations which promote the art of architecture, which is fair enough, because the building is OK, but this is NOT a good urban square. It is as though Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte had never lived. There is no mixed use: the adjoining buildings are all municipal, without the shops and cafes which might have provided users. There is nowhere to sit, ignoring wisdom of Jan Ghel. The ‘square’ is almost a cul-de-sac, ignoring Ed Bacon and Bill Hillier. The paving is non-SUDS. The only redeeming feature is a piece of public art described as a “7 metre high folly [which] recreates a fragment of the imaginary lost past of Barking”. But why re-create an imaginary lost past? Barking had a medieval abbey. Captain Cook was married in a Barking church. Then there is the cultural context. Barking has one of the largest immigrant communities in London, with many from the Punjab and Sub-Saharan Africa – neither of which region is known to admire the Bauhaus. Some architects show genius in urban design. Muf muffed it.

Note: The photograph was taken at about 11.30 am on an unseasonably warm autumn day (28th September 2008). The good urban spaces in London were overflowing with people. The places which remind one of pre-1989 East Berlin were empty.

The importance of the Iconic

Swiss Re Building 30 St Mary Axe

Although the historic and modern medium density London is not visible from Bishops Square in this photograph, Foster thankfully has provided the city with a Landmark building which orientates us within a largely visually undifferentiated urban environment; and the green space and water garden provide the amenity so beloved of London’s inner city squares.

Red green vertical garden building

This building is green in summer and red in autumn. It makes a useful contribution to re-balancing the carbon cycle, by absorbing CO2. Undesirable particulates (dust!) stick to leaves and are swept up in autumn. The leaves shield the building from undue solar gain in summer. Traffic noise is absorbed. Birds and insects find habitats amongst the vegetation. It is a beautiful building (Point House facing Blackheath in South London). Why can’t we have more facades treated like this? Call them vertical gardens if it would help. Co-ordinated planting on discordant buildings would harmonize argumentative buildings.

London with a green roof

London as it should be - greened

Thank you to Allen & Overy for opening their offices under the Open House scheme – and congratulations to them for having an office with genuinely green credentials. Roof space is used for solar panels, roof gardens or wildlife habitats (brown roofs). As the office brochure remarks ‘One of the best features of Bishops Square is the ability to hold barbecues in the summer or evening drinks on the terrace’. For me, it was a pleasure to see the City taking a small step towards the London equivalent of New York As it Should Be.

The City should designate its Square Mile as a Green Roof Zone.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Garden

The Durbar Court should become the Durbar Garden Court.

The HQ of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is open this weekend as part of London’s Open House scheme. I came away with two ideas. First, they should treat the Durbar Court as an indoor garden for senior civil servants to tend. It would give them useful experience of the cultural differences between the UK and other countries. Second, they should commission a new building, with gardens inside, outside and on top. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design, completed shortly after the ‘Indian Mutiny (aka India’s First War of Independence) could then become a Museum of Empire, dedicated to involving visitors in a discussion of the pros and cons of imperialism and globalization. Douglas Hurd, when he was Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, used to say that Britain was a country which could ‘punch above its weight’. I wish we could either stop punching or learn to punch well below our weight. This would be a genuinely ethical foreign policy – and a lush display of semi-tropical plants in the Durbar Court would be a step in the right direction. The original design, by Digby Wyatt, had the Court open to the skies, which must have been cold. It is believed that it was glazed over to receive the Sultan of Turkey in 1867. The Durbar Court is now used for receptions and would be a softer and less imperious place if well planted.

Or should it remain unplanted in the interests of historical accuracy?

Roberto Burle Marx as a context-sensitive designer

Paving at Copacabana Beach, design by Burle Marx, photo by Christina

As a painter, Roberto Burle Marx was an international abstract expressionist. But as a garden designer and landscape architect he showed a high degree of sensitivity to context – I say ‘surprising’ only because I was so slow to appreciate the complexity of this point. His planting was voluptuously Brazilian, like his mother, and Marx could see no reason for using European plants. Nor did he see any reason for the hard detailing to draw inspiration from the land of his father: Germany. Instead, he drew upon the country whose language is spoken in Brazil. The accompanying photograph is of Copacabana Beach – but could just as well have been taken in Portugal. Until I went to Portugal, I thought this amazing design was an example of Burle Marx inventiveness as an abstract painter. I was very wrong.

Ted Fawcett on Gardens in English and Chinese Poetry

Red, white and pink flowers in a Yangzhou gardenIt is a pleasure to discover Ted Fawcett’s love of gardens is undimmed. Writing in the Historic Gardens Review (August 2008 Issue, p.12), he observes that ‘Gardens are the poetry of landscape. They contain, in concentrated form, views, water, trees and flowers and so, like poetry, purvey an essence’. The implication is that landscapes are prose and gardens are poetry. He quotes a beautiful verse from Po Chu-i (AD 772-846) ‘at that time the best-known poet in the world’:

The red flowers hang like a heavy mist;

The white flowers gleam like a fall of snow.

The wandering bees cannot bear to leave them;

The sweet birds come there to roost.

Did Morel, Meason or Olmsted invent the term 'landscape architecture'?

Gilbert Laing Meason's Landscape architecture of the Great Paintings of ItalyA reader makes the following point: ‘On your site you stated that: “The name “landscape architecture” was invented by a Scotsman in 1828’ but, landscape architecture actually originated in France. There, in the year 1804 Jean-Marie Morel introduced; ‘architecte-paysagiste’ in order to distinguish (his profession) garden architecture from landscape architecture.’ There are in fact 3 candidates for the questionable credit of having invented the term landscape architecture: Morel, Meason and Olmsted.

Jean-Marie Morel (1728 — 1810) published a book on the Théorie des Jardins (Paris 1776). He had trained as an architect and became an advocate of the ‘natural style of landscape gardening’. He worked for Girardin at Ermenonville and, in 1804, coined the term architecte-paysagiste, for which ‘landscape architect’ is a fair translation.

Gilbert Laing Meason, a Scotsman, wrote the world’s first book using the English term ‘landscape architecture’. It was published in 1828 and Meason had little interest in gardens. His inspiration came from the great landscape paintings of Italy and the writings of Vitruvius. In combining the nouns landscape and architecture, his concern was for what architects could learn from landscape paintings. The difference between Meason’s and Morel’s terms equates to that between a fish box and a box of fish. Buildings contribute to containing space; landscapes are the spaces contained by buildings, landform and vegetation. It is a fundamental distinction.

Frederick Law Olmsted was the first man to use ‘landscape architect’ as a professional title and one cannot doubt that he learned of the term from his partner, Calvert Vaux, who learned of it from Andrew Jackson Downing, who learned of it from Loudon who learned of it from Meason. I therefore regard Meason as the man who invented the term ‘landscape architecture’ and, despite other respectable claims, Alexander Graham Bell as the man who intented the telephone.

It is regrettable that Olmsted did not, so far as I know, read either Meason or Vitruvius. They could have provided a firmer theoretical base for the new profession than Downing or Vaux. John Dixon Hunt comments that ‘there was never a body of specialists to compose treatises specifically for what we have come to call landscape architecture, as Vitruvius did for architecture’. But if, like me, you take Meason as the inventor of landscape architecture then the necessary base can be uncovered by pushing aside a few leaves. To help with this task, we have published the most relevant chapter from Meason as  an eBook. Please see:

Contextual design and sculpture in Castleford

Our guest contributor, Christine Storry writes that ‘Intuitively, I think the place to start thinking about the issues of identity for the area is with arguably Castleford’s most famous son, sculptor Henry Moore.’

Moore had a deep interest in the siting of his work and often makes me feel a little guilty about reading on trains: he said it was a waste of a wonderful opportunity to observe the landscape. The photograph is of Moore’s bronze “Die Liegende”  in Stuttgart (image source:

If my memory serves me correctly, I think I heard the architect of a dull paving design for Castleford Town Center say that there were patches of black paving to reflect the underlying coal seam. This would count as a response to context but I doubt if it would command as much support as giving Moore an honoured place in Castleford’s urban landscape.

Architecture in context

Following our discussion of Design Theory, Christine Storry has prepared these interesting collages of a building in different landscape contexts. She asks: ‘What do they illustrate? That there is a symbiotic relationship between a locale and architecture. Even great architecture. Architects might draw buildings on white or yellow paper or in model or paper space but buildings are built on a site and in a location with all that that means!’ 
Building in a winter landscape
Building in grassland
Building by a forest
Building on a waterfront
Building by a river
Building in the mountains

Sydney Opera House from the air (from Google Earth)

Building amongst lesser buildings

Design theory in architecture and landscape

The softness of lime mortar has allowed the doorway in an old garden wall to  be filled with respect to the bond pattern.

An email arrived today with the comment that ‘My primary interest is in design excellence (aesthetics) & I have been writing about how architecture is an art, and unlike other fine arts it is a practical art: a public art.’ But that ‘… because of the demands of sustainability there needs to be a way of re-thinking how we do architecture, privileging design. Central to this idea is that architecture is functional (modernist programme), sceniographic (post-modernist) and meaningful (post-postmodernist agenda)!?’

I agree that architecture and landscape architecture are applied arts. But in this, they do not differ from garment design, furniture design, etc. All should be functional and are best when they have high aesthetic quality. Sustainability considerations apply to each of these arts: if the world is running out of resources then we need to be more economical. This is, amongst other things, an argument for using lime mortar instead of cement mortar. Lime bonded brickwork and stonework can be disassembled, allowing design changes the the reuse of materials.

The public aspect of some applied arts raises other issues. The furniture in my home would seem to be entirely my own concern. But if I want to build a tall modern building in a medieval village then this becomes a matter of legitimate public concern. Ditto for the Martha Schwarz post-modern amhphitheatre in Castleford, especially because a bunch of idiots dipped their hands into the public purse to fund the park.

‘Meaning’ is another issue. A modernist approach to the Castleford Park would have been to discover what people wanted for the space and then make provision for their activities. The postmodern approach, as used by Schwarz, was to give the space a ‘meaning’. I do not know what words she used – could it have been to ‘echo a Roman approach to open space design, as exemplified by the Colisseum’ – but they must have been something inappropriate. A post-Postmodern approach to the Castleford park would have involved recognition of the multifarious interests of local people combined with intelligent design leadership. Beliefs shared between the public and the designer would have facilitated their combination. Flying in a US Design Queen might have worked in the context of shared beliefs.