This year Germany offers both the County Garden Show in Norderstedt and the National Garden Show in Koblenz. Norderstedt is using the show to unite an old mineral excavation site with an adjacent woodland and grassland to create a new park and Koblenz has renovated an antique military site to parkland and upgraded existing urban open space on three sites on both sides of the Rhine. The competition for the Norderstedt master plan was won by Kiefer Landschaftsarchitekten (Berlin), that for Koblenz by RMP Landschaftsarchitekten (Bonn). Both competitions were run in 2006.
Despite the large difference between the budgets for County and National shows, there is not much to choose between Norderstedt and Koblenz, and I believe that Norderstedt will leave a more substantial legacy behind it after the show. I am told that the renovation of the military site swallowed large amounts of money in Koblenz, and perhaps this is the reason why I judge this National Show to be the dullest I have seen in the 30 years that I have been visiting them. Whereas previous shows offered political comment, experimental design and a cornucopia of exhibits, Koblenz offers as its central attraction a threadbare expanse of grass surrounded by the dullest temporary exhibits, most of a commercial nature. The highlight of the visit is the cable car ride between sites, strung high over the Rhine at the point where the Mosel joins it – but this is also a temporary installation which will be dismantled when the show closes in autumn. Norderstedt leads the way when it comes to the technicalities of ground modelling, offering crisp and sculptural soft detailing and beautiful flowering meadows.
Both shows continue the trend of an emphasis on horticultural excellence. German plant designers are at the top of the range when it comes to herbaceous perennials, carpet bedding and the contemporary combinations of the two and they are certainly putting the Garden back into Garden Shows. Unfortunately, this does seem to be happening at the expense of the inspirational designs that were such a characteristic of past shows, particularly those that took place in the 1980s, the golden financial years before reunification.
Britain’s RHS Royal Horticultural Shows are called FLOWER shows rather than GARDEN shows but it is notable that the TV coverage, which is extensive, is at least as much on the show gardens as on the flowers. The Tatton Park Show is running this week and the BBC thoughtfully chose this location for their in situ weather forecasts. This encouraged the weather forecaster to give us opions on the garden designs. The gardens he showed, and his comments, were awful.
Britain also had a series of GARDEN shows in the 1980s and 1990s. It came to an end, apparently because of poor financial planning and poor design. London’s 2012 Olympic Park is taking shape. Though I am optimistic, the opinion I have formed from peeping over the fence is that it will look like ‘a garden festival in collision with a business park’.
I am sorry if the German shows are losing their direction and recommend a two-stage competition (as for Parliament Square) The first stage should be an ideas competition to define a strategic role for use of the site (after the festival ends). The second stage should be for the design of the garden festival. The objective of ‘a new park for Koblenz’ is too bland and too parkish. They need a well-defined urban landscape design objective.
I would go further than “sorry”: I find it tragic that the German shows have become so pragmatic. They were a source of inspiration throughout my degree and diploma and one of the reasons that I was determined to practice in Germany. Two of the high points of my professional career were the prizes my office took for the National Garden Show in Schwerin and in the Norderstedt competition (neither of them top prizes, but, never the less…).
What the German shows still provide though, are these design competitions, one a year and usually with a number of places reserved for young offices. Design competitions, although expensive (I recall that Schwerin cost us something around Euro 10,000, money we barely regained with our prize award) are incomparably useful for offices, clients and the general public. They are stringently regulated in Germany and are thus as transparent and fair as it is possible to get. I remember that EDAW got awarded the Olympic Park after a closed and very obscure “competition” that had nothing much to do with design, this would not have been possible in Germany for a major project funded from the public purse. There would have been at least 20 design submissions from international offices, all of which would have been publicly displayed after the prize-giving, and it seems indisputable to me that everyone would have benefited from the procedure. There was at one time talk of banning British firms from taking part in German competitions because of England’s failure to allow European architects the same chances that British firms enjoyed in Germany (this talk grew especially loud after Norman Foster’s winning submission for the Reichstag, and indeed it is almost impossible to imagine that a German office would win a similar commission for major works to the Houses of Parliament: what would The Sun have to say about that?), nothing came of this. Neither did the RIBA or the LI do much to react to the criticism.