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

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