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Archive for the ‘Modern design’ Category

Veddw is a modern garden, laid out among the gentle hills of the Welsh borders. It has an unusual genesis: not a plantswoman’s garden, not a gardener’s garden. Instead, its creator, Anne Wareham, was driven by a fascination with the garden as art form. With her photographer husband Charles Hawes, Anne has spent 25 years developing Veddw from meadowland.

We visited last June and found lots of things easy to enjoy and admire.

The garden is full of big confident sweeps of plants and patterns of hedging. This is not a timid place, fiddling around in details. It makes bold marks on the landscape.

Veddw 12Veddw 16 Veddw 14 Veddw 01 Despite its confidence, Veddw is not a garden with airs and graces – you take it as you find it, from the home-made sign on the door to Anne (maybe) offering builders’ tea, no cake, and a gossip after the visit. It is full of contrasts, between wild flowers and clipped shrubs, light and shade, open vistas and secret pathways.

Veddw 02 Veddw 19 Veddw 09There are words in the garden – a quirky, modern use of inscriptions – from the apt Wordsworth quote on a bench:

Veddw 15to lists of common plant names in the cornfield garden, stamped in gold lettering on wooden railings. Here I learnt the delightful phrase “snotty gogs” and discovered that it is a child’s term for yew berries.

Veddw 17 Veddw 18The garden is not seen as settled or finished, but is constantly undergoing review and refinement. Since we were there, Anne has announced plans to chop down the trees at the end of this pathway and replace them with a bench as a better focal point.

Veddw 22Although the garden’s most famous feature, a reflective pool, left me rather cold (feeling too self-conscious, too much of a stage-set):

Veddw 24there is a delightful smaller stone pond near the house. It is firmly rectangular and makes no pretence at being natural but, surrounded by mossy stones and seemingly self-seeded alpine flowers, it manages somehow to look like it has always been there.

Veddw 20What I admired most about Veddw was how the garden sat in its time and place: the way the curved hedges echo the rolling hills beyond the garden:

Veddw 27the retention of ancient meadow:

Veddw 21the little tombstones in the wild garden with their inscriptions of lost local names:

Veddw 08Veddw 11

the casually displayed collection of objects found when the cottage was partially rebuilt – allowing us to imagine the former life of the site.

Veddw 13Anne invites visitors to suggest one improvement. I immediately and erroneously plumped for an area in the north garden, full of contrasting grey cardoon and purple heuchera and cotinus. I found it leery and brash; she clearly does not. It did not need improvement as such -  it just didn’t appeal to me (although I know Anne scoffs at the idea that we should explain away critical comments as just a question of different tastes).

Veddw 05 Veddw 04On reflection I think a better suggestion for improvement would have been the grasses parterre (in the background of the photo below). I really wanted to like this area: low hedges are laid out in the pattern of the 1841 local tithe map, and the resulting ‘fields’ are planted with ornamental grasses. It seems a great idea, another novel way of referencing the history of the site. But I found it impossible to understand on the ground. It just looked puzzling and slightly scruffy, like it was trying to tell you something but you couldn’t work out what.Veddw 10

No easy solution springs to mind but, given the use of quirky inscriptions elsewhere, I wondered if the tithe map could be more explicit? Or the area made more aesthetically pleasing in its own right, so that knowledge of the map as its inspiration becomes just a bonus?

The garden is a joy, always changing and growing, and worth repeated visits. Just don’t simper to the formidable Anne that you think it all vaguely “lovely” – and don’t expect roses or cake!

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Before on this blog I have written about the mysterious French designer Elie Lainé, and about the placing of modern artworks in historic gardens.

So I was delighted to see the two come together this Christmas, with the installation Winter Light in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor. Contemporary artist Bruce Monro placed six large light-based displays in the glorious landscapes of Waddesdon, which were laid out by Lainé in the 1870s.

The most interesting of the six for me was Field Of Light, a geometric wave that swept down a valley between Lainé’s majestic trees. In the photographs here (from a set by Eamonn McCormack), you can see how, in the late afternoon, the 6,500 tiny lights looked like of a swathe of Spring bulbs; by sunset, they were more reminiscent of a lustrous peacock’s tail; and then a great river of liquid chlorophyll. I like that, close-up, you can see the glass fibre and spheres, understand something of how the display is created, and yet still its magic holds.

Field of Light was not conceived for Waddesdon. It had already been displayed in various locations, in England and the States, and is currently in its first urban setting, in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. It seems to me to have worked beautifully at Waddesdon, with both Lainé’s confident Victorian landscape and Monro’s contemporary artistry enhanced by the temporary juxtaposition.

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I am delighted to have joined the rosta of writers at ThinkinGardens, a British website eager to encourage serious, stimulating and critical writing about designed landscapes.

My first piece is Worthy but Wasted? on the challenges of sustainable parks (and from which I’ve taken the title of this brief post). It has already attracted lots of interesting comments. Please do go over and have a look.

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Joseph Allen Stein was a twentieth century American architect who spent much of his professional life in India. I have written before about his work at the India Habitat Centre, a late example of his blend of modernism and environmental care.

Stein argued that “reverence” guided the work of architects in previous centuries as they created “profoundly right structures, often on sites of great natural beauty” and that around the world “there are abundant examples of architecture enhancing nature.” In the face of twentieth century population pressures and mass industrialised production, he saw the role of architects as needing consciously to “seek not to spoil the earth.”

Today I joined a tour of one of his earliest buildings in New Delhi, and one of the few private houses that he designed.

Plan by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

Plan of High Commissioner’s Residence, New Delhi by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

The Australian High Commissioner’s Residence was built in the late 1950s in the Chanakyapuri district of New Delhi. It was one of a series of grand residences laid out for India’s burgeoning diplomatic community in the years following Independence. Unlike most countries, Australia chose an architect who was permanently based in India to design a home for its head of mission, and the wisdom of that choice is clear in the resulting building.

Stein’s design is beautifully simple. Using local materials and with a deep understanding of the harsh Delhi climate, he produced a house that related perfectly to the lush green landscape in which it sat. Local design details, such as open stone jalis or perforated screens, combined with large expanses of glass in a way that respected both traditional knowledge and modernist principles. The current High Commissioner’s wife confirmed to us that the house was a joy to inhabit, the space flowing around the splendid central hall and each room feeling airy and open, with ready access to the outside.

Less is more was one of the fundamental concepts of modernism and our guide for the tour, architectural historian Aman Nath, thought that it played out nowhere better than in Stein’s work in New Delhi, where it perfectly complements the Indian respect for simplicity. Nath was lucky enough to know Joseph Stein and his wife Margaret, and described them as self-effacing, almost – in Joseph’s case – to the point of hermitism. He did not care to publicise or proclaim his work and, perhaps as a result, it is not as well-known or documented as it might be. My explorations of his Delhi work continue and I plan to post soon on the India International Centre (1959-62), the American Embassy School (1960-70) and the Gandhi-King Memorial Plaza (1970).

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Parc André Citroën in the southwest of Paris was created just twenty years ago, on the site of an old car factory. The only park in the capital with frontage on the river Seine, it is famous for its bold modern design and confident use of water and sculpted plants. Locals picnic en masse on the central lawn at weekends and hundreds of kids cool down in its 120 dancing water jets. Well-maintained small gardens and a popular tethered balloon add to its appeal.

Despite its appeal, much of the park has long needed better maintenance. Three years ago I wrote this post about its dilapidated condition and expressed a hope that, at last, the problems were being addressed. Sadly a return visit this July suggested that my optimism was misplaced.

As I reported at the time for Historic Gardens Review, the park’s central water features remain in a deplorable state. The shallow moat that surrounds the main lawn, which was empty for so long, has now been refilled with water, but contains an astonishing amount of blanket weed and algae.

Citroen 11Citroen 02
Almost all the other water features remain empty and cordoned off, including the 250m long elevated canal to the west, the waterfalls at the river end of the park, and the series of six rills and cascades that join the individual gardens to the main lawn.

Citroen 03 Citroen 05 Citroen 09 Citroen 10The mayor’s office in Paris reported to me that the six rills were actively under repair (to prevent serious leaks) but would not be drawn on any of the other problems. I suspect that, with its mass of elaborate water features, the park may simply be too expensive to conserve in its original state.

Better news seems to be emerging from the much trumpeted €3.9m planned extension to the park. Plans announced early in 2012 included innovative play areas, refreshment stalls, the park’s first toilets, and substantial new plantings of clipped hawthorn and hornbeam, plus a mass of Judas trees. The extension was due to open this summer. The space was still a building site when I visited – fenced off, weeds establishing themselves on the piles of earth, with no obvious work underway and no explanation of the reasons for the delay.

Citroen 12 Citroen 13But one of the main contractors, COTEG, has just wryly reported that the extension is likely to be finished by the end of next month because the park is now part of “a political context that demands deadlines” – with the municipal elections taking place in March 2014, the local mayor presumably wants parc André Citroën as a showcase of urban developments in his arrondissement. C’est un mal pour un bien…

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Faith in the future

Born from the trauma of partition, the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, in the Himalayan foothills, was designed as a model city and a decisive break with India’s colonial past.

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Nehru, the country ‘s first prime minister after Independence, famously described it as “a new city unfettered by the traditions of the past. ..an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

From 1951, the design work was led by the great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, working with three other Europeans and a team of young Indian architects.

Much has been written about the city – on the irony of Western design becoming the symbol of India’s future; on whether Chandigarh really adapts European style to the very different climate, values and lifestyles of northern India; on the seeming success of the new city in terms of wealth creation, sanitation and human well-being.

I was lucky enough last month to join a private tour of Corbusier’s capitol – the great civic centre of the city, with its high court, assembly building and secretariat arranged around a vast courtyard. There is no easy public access to any of these buildings, and it was a privilege to visit them in the company of international architectural historians and preservation experts.

To my eyes, the buildings were an extraordinary mixture. The expected monumentality was everywhere, in line with the city’s role as a symbol of the new India. We saw three vast columns dramatically painted in primary colours at the high court:Chandigarh 04

Chandigarh 03 Chandigarh 14the great curved concrete parasol of the assembly building, reflected in its rectangular pool:

Chandigarh 15the striking drum shape on the assembly roof, reminiscent of some industrial-scale cooling chimney:

Chandigarh 08and the towering Open Hand sculpture, now the symbol of Chandigarh.

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 10But there were many fine details as well, reminders perhaps of Corbusier’s early grounding in the precision of watch-making and the arts and crafts movement, from the mosaics in the courtrooms:

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 06to the precisely modelled door frames, rhythmic ceiling supports and geometric window patterns:

Chandigarh 12  Chandigarh 07 Chandigarh 02Chandigarh 11I was in Chandigarh to speak at a conference on 20th century heritage. We discussed how Corbusier’s great capitol may be admired by experts the world over, but is little appreciated by many locals, for whom it is distant from the town centre and irrelevant to their daily lives. We witnessed the challenges of building and maintaining structures on a scale and at a cost unfamiliar to most Indian cities.

And, particularly striking for me as a landscape historian, was the sad impact of a sectarian attack in the 1980s, which led to Corbusier’s once glorious open courtyard being divided up by barbed wire. Instead of being the heart of the complex, the space is now meaningless, neglected and overgrown. Given these issues, the city of Chandigarh proved a perfect example for conference delegates of the joys and challenges of managing designs from the recent past.

Chandigarh 09

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As regular readers will know, I am a great fan of the work of the US designer Dan Kiley. His spare, modern parks and gardens arguably made him the finest and most influential landscape architect of twentieth century America.

So I’m delighted to be contributing to two events this autumn that celebrate his work.

A 1970 photograph of Kiley's modernist North Court, from www.lincolncenter.org

A 1970 photograph of Kiley’s modernist North Court, from http://www.lincolncenter.org

In October I will be speaking at an ICOMOS conference in Chandigarh called “Filling the Gaps: World Heritage and the 20th Century.” At a session dedicated to historic urban landscapes of the 20th century, I will analyse the treatment of Kiley’s seminal 1960s design for the North Court at Lincoln Center in New York City, which was sadly neglected and then effectively dismantled.

La Défense

Some of the magnificent groves of plane trees laid out by Kiley at La Défense

In the US, The Cultural Landscape Foundation is organising a major retrospective of Kiley’s work. Having offered to contribute, I was surprised to find how many articles I had written and how many photographs I had taken of Kiley designs. They are now all available to the Foundation as it finalises its plans for a Landslide compendium and a travelling exhibition of photographs that will display some of his most important commissions, including his work at La Défense.

La Défense

The water feature at the end of Kiley’s esplanade through La Défense

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It seems appropriate that Singapore is the only country in the world with a hybrid as its national flower, the orchid Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim.’ This is such a manicured, efficient, tightly-managed country, that somehow a natural species wouldn’t seem quite right as its symbol.
Vanda 'Miss Joachim'

It’s also a country with many admirable policies on sustainability, some of which have been in place since the 1960s. The most obvious result is the sheer amount of green space that is crammed (neatly of course) into every spare inch of the island – on rooftops and roadsides, along walkways, in window boxes and tubs, sometimes vertically, sometimes hundreds of feet in the air.

The excellent botanical gardens are an interesting mix, with lawns, trees and traditionally labelled plants in borders, laid out around a dramatic remnant of Singapore’s tropical rainforest. Saving the remaining small portions of original jungle is admirable, and I liked the boardwalks that allowed visitors to stroll through the primeval vegetation. But it did feel rather as if Singapore can’t quite allow all that scale and lushness and primitive disorder to persist without it being surrounded and constrained by the neat classifications and control of the botanical displays.

Singapore 7

Almost as dramatic as the rainforest was a brand new public park built on the marina, called Gardens by the Bay. It’s hard not to be impressed by this vast construction, with its artificial supertrees, lakes, displays, gardens, and glass conservatories. Indeed it just won the World Building of the Year award, for its celebration of nature in such a dense urban environment, and its innovative, naturally-cooled glasshouses. Everything about it is big and confident – the dazzling view across the site as visitors arrive on an elevated walkway, the group of vast supertrees (described rather incongruously as a grove), the curvaceous glasshouses, and the external planting all colour co-ordinated with the maroon of the construction materials.

Singapore 8

Singapore 11 Singapore 10 Singapore 9Singapore 12

Inside the first of the glasshouses, called the Flower Dome, are carefully-arranged displays of plants from every continent, with explanations of their origin, uses and cultivation needs. These are supplemented by seasonal shows aimed particularly at kids. For us it was autumnal harvests; now it’s apparently Christmas scenes. The dome itself is rather beautiful, with its high-tech curved glass ceiling stretching out above the displays.

The second glasshouse is billed as a Cloud Forest, mimicking mists and mountains with a vast cascade (apparently the biggest indoor waterfall in the world), and masses of tropical vertical planting.

All a bit shipshape and tidy for me, certainly compared with scruffy, ancient, irrepressible India, but fascinating and deeply impressive all the same. For more examples of interesting garden initiatives in Singapore, see Noel Kingsbury’s recent post on the Gardening Gone Wild blog. If, like me, you’re fascinated by park signage, I’ve written about a few examples from this visit in Tell-tale signs. And in my next post, I’ll explore an award-winning neighbourhood park we saw while in Singapore.

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We are in Northumberland for a couple of weeks, escaping the worst heat of the Delhi summer. A few days ago we revisited the rather pompously titled The Alnwick Garden, a  site created by the Duchess of Northumberland in part of the grounds of the ancient Alnwick Castle.

It is a garden I try – and fail – to love. The Duchess took a brave decision to use contemporary designs and designers to make this new site, rather than creating something classical and safe. She argued at the outset in 2001 that “No gardens of this scale and ambition have been undertaken in Britain during this century. And no gardens will have quite such a magical effect on those who visit them.”  The Garden’s website now trumpets its “Must See” features, including the Poison Garden, the Tree House (apparently one of the world’s largest), the Serpent Garden with its hidden water features, and the Grand Cascade.

Grand Cascade

The garden is well – and expensively – done, much of the planting is lovely, and it is undoubtedly popular and increasingly well-known. Yet for me it has no sense of place or character. Instead it feels rather like a theme park, a collection of roller coaster garden experiences all stuck together in one big shiny venue, giving you lots of bangs for your buck, as they say, but no atmosphere or associations or quiet moments of reflection. It is a garden without a soul.

The rest of the castle grounds are utterly different. They are the characteristic distillation of the English countryside for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is renowned. Created in the 1760s, the grounds are a fine example of his work, not perfectly preserved, but still a beautiful mix of trees, grass, water and English sky, setting off the castle building and providing a magnificent sense of permanence and serenity. The contrast with the gaudy business and sparkle of The Alnwick Garden just over the fence is delicious. The grounds offer a perfect spot to picnic, enjoy the fine views, and just to relax and ponder for a little while.

Brown Pastures

Yet, as far as I can see, the publicity for The Alnwick Garden makes no mention of the attractions of the castle grounds, despite them being assessed as of Grade I (exceptional) significance and having been designed by one of the most influential men ever to come from Northumberland (Brown was born and raised in nearby Kirkharle, and was no doubt much influenced by the lush, open countryside of his home county). When I asked at The Garden ticket booth whether my entrance fee allowed me to visit the Capability Brown landscape as well, I was met by a puzzled look, and had to explain what I meant – and then was wrongly told that it did not.

Maybe the contrast between the two garden styles is just too great to attract the same visitors. My nine-year-old daughter loves The Garden’s interactive water features, its dumper trucks and wobbly rope bridges. When I took her to the back window of the upscale gift shop, to peer at the Brownian landscape just visible behind the row of tills, she looked genuinely puzzled and said  to me: But, mum, it’s just grass and trees…

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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.

A conserved but transformed water feature at Woolton House. Image from http://www.etab.ac-caen.fr

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.

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