The India Habitat Centre recently hosted an event led by noted French landscape architect Pascal Cribier. Called Garden, Nature or Landscape?, the workshop allowed Cribier to explain his design approach through a variety of projects.
For me, the most fascinating part of the day was Cribier’s description of what ecological design means to him. (He spoke poetically and passionately on the subject in his broken English, and would I suspect not entirely approve of this short and rather prosaic Anglo-Saxon summary of his views.)
Put simply, Cribier argued for the conservation of gardens. Not conservation in the usual sense of meticulously recording and expensively safeguarding important historical features; but conservation simply in the sense of keeping as much as possible of what was already on site. He does not believe in adding to landfill by ripping out plants and materials just to impose his own design on a garden. Instead he strives to keep what is there and just amend it. He gave the simple example of a brick wall which he did not like; instead of replacing it, he used the same bricks to build a wall in a different style. A more flamboyant example was a fussy little Victorian water feature he found in the garden he was redesigning at Woolton House in England, which he extended into a far more effective large pond while keeping the original feature at the centre.
There was a second, equally important, part of this approach. Cribier also strives to create a design that will last, that will not in its turn get ripped out as uninspiring or too difficult to maintain. He almost starts with what he considers a realistic maintenance plan and works backwards. And his focus is on producing something that the owner and gardener will love and want to maintain; in this way the garden is more likely to persist.
Several of the young Indian landscape architects in the room pressed him on his use of non-native plants. But Cribier was unrepentant: it was ecologically more important to give clients a pleasurable garden that they would love and preserve, than to strive to recreate some lost ecosystem. He argued that nature is self-balancing, able to cope with disruption and change, and not in need of frantic attempts to return to what has been lost. To be fair, he did say that if France’s native flora was as beautiful as India’s, his attitude would be rather different; but providing enduring beauty was more important than a focus on native plants.
It was a fascinating account of one individual’s approach; not one I am sure I fully support (and certainly his argument that bees will visit hybridised double flowers as readily as native single ones seemed based on nothing more than a fervent wish that they should), but one which left all of us pondering on what really is good ecological practice in garden design.