Thursday, 29 April 2010

Sneak Preview

Well, months of planning and discussion and a week of rushing about lugging timber, paint and dowelling, photographs and notices are over, and the exhibition at the O3 Gallery in Oxford Castle is mounted, ready to open its doors.  Sarah Naybour and I have designed an outdoor exhibition space for local sculptors to display their work (including a class of local schoolchildren whose wickerwork unicorn looks terrific).  With severe restrictions on the site - no excavation, no hard landscaping, and next to no budget, we have developed an installation that celebrates the inclusiveness and democratic nature of the Oxford Artweek festival, and created an intervention in the courtyard that responds to the colours of the site, the strong grid of verticals and horizontals and - although this only struck me looking at the photographs just now, evokes something of the prison that the buildings once housed, thrown open to all in the name of creativity and artistic endeavour.  The timbers undulate across the grass and in the coming weeks this will grow up in its rapid early-summer way to soften the edges and more clearly define the waves on the ground, particularly if we cut it to follow the lines of the wood.
Given that the installation will be in place for six weeks, the £325 we spent is a complete steal - it's amazing where tight restrictions will lead you...
We are really pleased with the result, but probably shouldn't be surprised - as Sarah noted this morning, as we put in the last of the uprights under the pouring rain, it still seems extraordinary that computer modelling gives you such a clear idea of how the finished article will look!
I'm also delighted with the look of my exhibition - this is the first time that I have exhibited photographs, and they sit really well in the space, backed by the curved roughcast grey walls of the castle tower in which the gallery is housed.  If you are unable to call in to the gallery in the next month, the images here will give you a feel for the space and, hopefully my work.  To see the images in more detail follow the link to my Flickr page on the right.

We have a few days before we mount the second show at the Said Business School - more of that later, for the moment we hope you can get to the Castle to enjoy the Artweek Exhibition...
Paul Ridley Design

Friday, 16 April 2010

Elements of Design 4: Water

One of the fundamental components of a garden, present since the earliest recorded gardens, is water.  Its role in early Persian gardens, as a cooling antidote, in a shady enclosure, to the violence of the natural environment beyond - the sun, dust, heat and exposure of the desert - became transmuted in the Islamic garden tradition that developed from this into a religious symbol.  The presence of canals and pools in Roman gardens also feeds into the historical tradition in the West, and water has been used in one form or another in almost every significant garden since.
But how do you like your water?  Many early applications celebrated the sounds and movement of this element, enlivening otherwise controlled and formal spaces.  Huge efforts were made to bring water vast distances, where necessary, and bring the force of gravity to bear in the creation of bubbling basins and rills, fountains and cascades - the very existence of these features indicated the wealth and influence of the garden's maker, and, especially in the desert zones, must have seemed a truly paradisaical relief from the world outside.
The other obvious quality that has been equally exploited is the capacity of water to reflect the sky, and whether it be a huge formal cistern as in the Islamic tradition, a meandering lake worthy of Claude in the English Landscape tradition or a simple wildlife pond, the ability to bring light and the changing moods of the sky to ground level is a powerful design tool. 
Fountains can be focal points drawing the eye, rills and canals can draw the feet through the garden, formal pools with statuary can act as punctuation points in a terrace or at the end of a vista.  There are few more effective ways of improving the biodiversity of a garden than adding a pool - even a relatively small tank or planter filled with water will do the job - and few more effective ways of enticing visitors to linger.
Whole gardens, particularly in Renaissance Italy, have been devoted to exploiting the countless forms that moving water can take and the equally varied sounds that it creates.  It has even been used to deliberately trick visitors - seats incorporating upward pointing jets and fake trees that drench passers-by have entertained the practical jokers of the garden-making fraternity for centuries, although their guests might have had a contrary view...
Like light, water is a mutable presence in the garden - its qualities can be changed or managed to create calm, sustain interest or generate huge excitement, and for this reason alone it earns a place in every garden that can spare the space. 

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


My apologies to those of you waiting for something plant-related!  I have been so busy with design projects and exhibitions, all aimed at publicising my work locally, that the headlong rush of spring is in danger of passing me by completely.  Severely delayed by the long, cold winter, the growth that was two or three weeks delayed a month ago is now advancing rapidly, and flowers that form the spring succession are beginning to appear simultaneously.
Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that I favour species and near-species cultivars - highly-bred plant varieties have an unnatural aspect that seem to deny their origin - I hate the cartoonish colours and ruffled double forms that are invariably offered as this season's must-have.  A degree of reticence is a big plus in my book - I respond far more readily to the simple and unshowy.
I fell for this narcissus in a big way.  Anonymously gracing the walks through Magdalen College meadows last spring, a small colony of these flowers lit up the dappled shade among simple anemones.  It could well be N. 'Actaea', a division 9 narcissus, although the petals (properly: perianth segments) seem a bit too rounded and reflexed.  Whatever, it is very close to an all-time favourite, N. poeticus var. recurvus, the poet's narcissus or old Pheasant's Eye.  This, the latest to appear of all narcissi, deeply scented, brings the season of this essential and much-loved genus to a close in May, with its reflexed petals of waxy white and deep orange central cup (corona) edged in red.  There is no more emblematic plant to mark the cusp of spring and summer, and if you can accommodate them in a wildish part of the garden and forget about them they will reward you with an annual display for decades.  They are possibly the plant I miss most from my last garden, and which will be an essential inhabitant of my new patch.  The image below shows a few of these in just such a setting.
There are other narcissi to be admired, though - see the list in the sidebar for some, familiar and unfamiliar, that are worth seeking out. 

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Elements of Design 3: Materials

Once the space has been organised (see earlier posts in this series), more thought can be devoted to the details of the garden design.  In truth, detailing should be at the back of the designer's mind from the very beginning, because it is through the details and materials that the mood and style of the garden can be conveyed, every bit as much as through the spatial arrangement.
Materials have to be suited to the garden as well as to the regional, vernacular styles of building and garden making.  It is for this reason that I feel strongly about the use of plastics, glass and stainless steel in modern designs - they are available everywhere, have an immutable appearance and do not reflect any traditions of building for most of the gardens they are used in.  For show gardens, where there is no context within which the garden exists, they offer unparalleled opportunity to experiment with shapes and structures, and in a setting of modern architecture they are clearly appropriate. 
Gentler surfaces, such as that offered by Cor-ten steel, are a halfway house between the modern and traditional - the modern material picks up the colours of earth and brick, and is a subtly changing presence as it weathers.
The best materials to use in most gardens will be those which have a counterpart in the local architecture or which are long-established as the most suited for their particular purpose.  In an exterior context we are talking about stone (limestone, flint, sandstone), brick, iron, timber, gravel and tile. 
Relating the materials to the climate and building tradition of the area brings a groundedness to the design - it will sit happily with the house it belongs to, and will be a far less jarring imposition in the landscape than if the materials are alien.  Obviously a city courtyard, in which the relationship of the local architecture to traditional forms and the landscape has already been stretched to breaking point offers greater scope for the use of more modern materials, but my feeling is that there are plenty of ways of generating a modern look in gardens anywhere with traditional materials if they are handled sensitively.
Think about alignment, spacing, flush finishes, juxtapositions of the unexpected, combinations of materials exploited for their differing structural qualities, and there is plenty of scope for creating something unusual yet true to the vernacular traditions of a site.  Ironwork set in Bredon gravel, timber of differing widths and spacings to clad fences or shelters, unplaned timber contrasted with highly finished render or tiling, decking planks interspersed with channels of gravel or grass - all these could (and do) enliven contemporary exterior design, and are examples of the ongoing dialogue that a garden has with the surrounding landscape and with the people who create it.