Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Simple by Design

As people who make gardens, designers and landscapers work to a client brief.  Sometimes this is very broad and unformed, the client needing to be coaxed through the process of deciding what they will need, weighing up the relative merits of various features and prioritising them.  At other times the client will not only have a very clear idea of their requirements, they will also have a shopping list of other features that they really won’t need: they have fallen prey to the urge to throw everything, including the reclaimed butler’s sink into their envisaged plan.

An informal waterside planting surrounded by loose hedging

This urge is entirely understandable, and has a long pedigree. 
Mid-Victorian Britons had the opportunity to not only ransack earlier historical periods for design elements to impose on their garden plots (something which had already been going on for centuries), they had access to a rapidly increasing stock of plant material with which to clothe them.  By the last quarter of the nineteenth century new varieties of exotic plants were flooding into the West, and especially Britain, from colonies all over the world.  The huge increase in the size of the middle class, the birth of consumerism and the craving for novelty that it created led to gardens (amongst other things) overburdened with mismatched elements and confused in intent.  Even recognised styles such as Picturesque and Gardenesque tended to combine design devices from a variety of traditions.
We are still in the same predicament – if it is a predicament.  There is nothing wrong with a garden filled with favourite plants, clashing styles, errant pathways and a defunct trampoline pit.  If it makes the owner happy it is doing its job.  The garden evolves, with natural selection and occasional bad plant choices deciding the nature of the plant stock, the space following a fixed arrangement or changing as shrubs and plants colonise previously empty space or areas are cleared for seating.  There is also the never-ending stream of new trinkets that floods the market each year – a gardener has to have nerves of steel to ignore the latest developments in hand-fork design or strawberry towers, propagation devices,  bird-scarers and bird-feeders.  Most of us succumb, at least once in a season…

A garden at Future Gardens in 2009, by Andy Sturgeon - formal structure with informal planting

But there are people (often the same people, who wake up one morning and suddenly see their garden as a haphazard mess rather than simply charmingly unstructured) who crave clarity and coherence in their spaces.  Thank goodness, for these are the people who are already halfway to calling in a landscaper or designer to assist. 
And so we come back to the client and the brief – whether undecided or over-elaborate.  Whichever is the case, it has to be the job of the designer to bring a sense of coherence to the space.  Some requirements are above style:  the garden must be practical, must use the space efficiently and must be easily navigable.  Its design obviously needs to be based on the available budget, but once these aspects have been decided there should be a pause.  Is everything in the plan necessary to the clarity of the design?  If not, does its aesthetic contribution merit the expenditure?  Is there a better solution that would support the initial idea and intended style?  What can be left out?

Luciano Giubbilei's show garden, Chelsea 2009

By examining and simplifying the plan, we get to what is essential.   And I think that, if what is essential is sufficient, we have moved away from style – the elements of the plan have the integrity of all truly functional things and are a statement in themselves.  This doesn’t mean that the space needs to be a clinically brutalist box.   The great thing about gardens is that plants can engender mood, act as structure and provide a seasonally changing scene all at the same time, and the choice of these is as important as the structural elements – it is in the planting that the randomness of nature can be expressed, that the garden can evolve its own plant community.  Within a sound and carefully designed framework the needs for both human-imposed order and the exuberance of nature are served.

A strong and simple ground-plan, France

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Designers and Contractors

Do Contractors need Designers? 
This is the title of a seminar to be delivered by Mark Gregory of Landform Consultants and the London College of Garden Design at Landscape, the industry trade show to be held at Olympia on13th and 14th April.  It’s a question that caught my eye, as it addresses an issue that I feel is an unacknowledged elephant in the (exterior design) room, and given that it is eye-catching and that titles are copyright free, I have shamelessly pinched it.  Sorry, Mark.
I have no idea where Mark’s discussion will lead, but the fact that he is so closely involved with both sides of the design/build coin suggests that he feels as I do: that the answer is as much a ‘yes’ as it would be if the question were reversed – do designers need contractors?

There is clearly a need for high quality workmanship when building gardens – the effects of the weather mean that a shoddy finish is quickly apparent as pointing degrades, frosted joints split and badly drained surfaces freeze into ice rinks.  If garden structures are to have any longevity then there is no choice but that the build should be of the highest quality.  No garden designer would quibble with that, or expect anything less from the contractor they appoint to put their ideas into action.

Perhaps as a garden designer I am being overly sensitive, but I think I detect, at times an, at best, indifferent attitude to design among some contractors – for some, I feel, the answer to the question could easily be ‘no’.

On various threads, in different forums, the unvoiced premise behind some contractor’s  comments seems to be that ‘designers have never laid so much as a brick in their lives, what do they know about building a garden?  It’s all about pretty plants and farting about with coloured pencils – I can do that for nothing!’  Well, coloured pencils may well be involved, but that doesn’t automatically render (that’s a design pun, by the way) the role of design null and void.  

Anybody – client, contractor, designer – can walk into a garden and offer suggestions about the best place for a patio, which tree should come down and whether a pond is going to add anything to the space, but I would argue that for contractors to show their work at its best and for clients to achieve the best result for their space there has to be a degree of design input.  There are obviously well-qualified contractors with a highly developed sense of design who can create beautiful gardens without recourse to a designer, as there are designers with a wide experience of construction – in each case it’s the knowledge and experience of both aspects that need to be fused to create something of worth.   A jaundiced view of designers is no more constructive than the view of an architect, one of the tutors during my training, which was that contractors are essentially glorified navvies who will misunderstand a drawing if it’s at all possible.

I’d argue that the relationship has to be symbiotic – I have been working with a trusted contractor over the past year or so, who appreciates the clarity that a designer brings to a project as much as I appreciate nuggets of advice when I suggest something that might be more practically realised by employing a different solution.  In this way there develops a common approach, better designs are evolved and both aspects of the build are enhanced.

If you are one of the lucky ones, a contractor with a highly developed design aesthetic or a designer who loves to mix cement, you will know all this instinctively – if, however, you are unsure of your abilities in either design or construction it makes sense to seek out the skills of others who can offer complementary skills.  In a time of economic adversity it always pays to offer the best.
I can’t be at the seminar on 13th April, unfortunately.  It’s at 2pm  – if any of you go, let me know the answer!