Monthly Archives: July 2009

Creating urban dreams

OMA have an exciting project in conceptual development at the Coolsingel in Rotterdam. The use of pure form and warped space is a breath of inspiration…

Beyond the visual gestalt are some incredible opportunities for the integration of strong landscape concepts in a project which plays with the relationship of inside and out, of the city to the building and of the existing built fabric to the new.

This project potentially asks among other landscape questions about the greening and social vibrancy of atria…and how this greening and socially active space might be continuous/discontinuous etc with the outer urban realm..


Fishbourne Roman Palace Garden

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and mown lawn

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and a mown lawn. The museum building, left, is passable but it would have been a much better idea to use the columns to make a proper peristyle with a tiled roof. Terracotta-coloured sheet steel would be an improvement.

Barry Cunliffe led the excavations at Fishbourne from 1961-8 and wrote a most useful book on the subject. Located near Chichester on the south coast, Fishbourne is the best example of a Roman garden in England. But I am doubtful about Cunliffe’s interpretation.  He began with the proposition that ‘there was a formal and it was discoverable by excavation’ (Cunliffe’s italics). This assumes his conclusion and the term ‘formal garden’ comes from a much later period in garden history. This has been a problem with much that has been written about Roman gardens. Since the term ‘Renaissance’ means ‘re-birth’ too many people have concluded that we can discover the form of  Roman gardens by studying renaissance re-incarnations. But there are several other sources of information about Roman gardens and they do not seem to confirm this picture (or ‘formal’ hedges and a ‘formal’ lawn : (1)  the frescos at Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere; (2) excavation of garden sites in Southern Europe; (3) texts, such as Pliny’s letters. None of these sources confirm the above re-creation of Fishourne. The planting design  comes from a pattern of trenches, but there is no evidence that box was planted in these trenches. Cunliffe calls them ‘bedding trenches’ (p.134) and my experience of growing hedges and flowers inclines me to the belief that they were more likely to have been planted with flowers. Pollen analysis yielded no information but box is of course a tree (Buxus sempervirens). It can grow on very dry soils and it has has strong fibrous roots. Digging up one of the box trees shown on the photograph ( planted at Fishbourne in the 1960s) would provide useful evidence – my guess is that the roots would be found to have outgrown and destroyed the archaeological Roman ‘bedding trenches’ (in fact I do not think they should have been planted, for this very reason – who knows what information future archaeological techniques might otherwise have discovered?). William Melmoth’s translation of Pliny’s Letter LII to Domitius Apollinaris [ Bosanquet, 1909 edn] includes this passage:  ‘You descend, from the terrace, by an easy slope adorned with the figures of animals in box, facing each other, to a lawn overspread with the soft, I had almost said the liquid, Acanthus: this is surrounded by a walk enclosed with evergreens, shaped into a variety of forms.’   I wonder if the tree, shown as a conical specimen on the photograph, was box clipped into an animal form. Conical specimen trees and lawns are modern concepts.  Like everyone, I  would like to know more.

Exploring streets ahead

fruit-street-trees-montrealIt seems the Canadians have taken to promoting the idea of street orchards…which since I had been reading Great Streets by Allan Jacobs (1993) seemed a great way (with a co-operative enlightened council) of enhancing urban residential streets and providing edible opportunities for both people and fauna.

It is Jacobs belief that sociability is a major reason behind the development of urban centres. And I suppose economic exchange is just one part of a broader view of sociability. Residential streets are places to come home to, to relax in and to spend time at with the family as well as create mini-communities.

Jacobs says “There have been times when streets were a primary focus of city building – streets rather than individual buildings.” Streets are the place where urban landscape and architecture intersect and mingle.

It would be interesting to take some cues from Jacobs and add to the collection of green roofs, a collection of great streets!

Read more including source of photo at

Soho House and Gardens in Birmingham

matthew_boulton_house_birminghamMatthew Boulton was a notable  industrialist, James Watt’s partner and the designer of his own ‘landscape garden’, between 1761 and 1809.  It was a key period between the classicism of the eighteenth century and the eclecticism of the nineteenth century. Boulton took an interest in many of the arts and sciences of his time. His approach was summarized in verse:

Nor Knight, nor Price nor Burke sublime
I ape in landscape nor in Rhyme

These lines define Boulton’s garden horizons: he was influenced by the Brownian approach; he was not willing to adopt a fashionably picturesque approach; he had a fondness for follies and a fondness for flowers. But, judging from  plans and paintings,  he lacked design talent.  The garden has been carefully and usefully researched by three authors [Phillada Ballard, Val Loggie, Shena Mason: A lost landscape – Matthew Boulton’s gardens at Soho (Phillimore & Co, Chichester, 2009 ISBN978-1-86077-563-5)]. Their work is good but it is a pity they did not invite a fourth contributor: the book lacks the specialist perspective of a garden historian.  It lacks a stylistic oversight of the period in which the garden was made.  Brown died in 1783. Repton’s career began in 1788 and reached its first peak in 1794. Boulton’s work casts a fascinating light on the ‘gap’ between the famous designers – but the authors seem unaware of their subject’s wider significance. This will not matter to those with a broad kowledge of the period but it could limit the popularity of the book. Another source of regret, for me, is that the conjectural plans of Matthew Boulton’s garden in 1794 and 1809 are casual sketch plans. It they had been drawn with more care they would have been more useful.  The book should have been a study in the early development of the picturesque. But I recommend the book to local historians and to specialist garden libraries.  Boulton’s house has become a museum and the authors have undertaken a botanically interesting garden re-creation.

Image courtesy jo-h

Lancelot Brown and Blenheim Palace Garden

100_7911I have sometimes heard myself remark that if ‘Capability’ Brown undertook a modern landscape architecture course he would be lucky to get a mark of 50%. But a few of his projects are excellent and none is more puzzling than Blenheim Palace Garden. I have been to photograph Blenheim many times and had another ‘shot’ at it last week. As usual, when I got home and looked at the pictures they are pretty flat and pretty disappointing. But after struggling with the Oxford area traffic and driving through the tightly picturesque village of Woodstock, and walking through what must have been the trade entrance, an amazing vision of the palace, the lake, the landform, the woods and the bridge opens before you. It is beautifully composed, full of awe and vast in scale. But you need a really wide angle lens to capture the scene, and I think this is why the photographs tend to be disappointing. I therefore offer you a photograph of the bridge only. It was taken from the lake edge with an angle of view approximately equal to the human eye (47 degrees on a 35mm camera) and I think it captures the scale of Blenheim much better than a wide angle lens would have done.

A view of Blenheim Palace from the bridge

A view of Blenheim Palace from the bridge