More beautiful than nature
[Sustainability in Practice] Piet Oudolf’s garden within a garden at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is part of a larger movement in greening the public realm, writes Hattie Hartman.
When I saw Peter Zumthor’s striking proposal for a cloistered garden at this season’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London, my first question was, ‘Who did the garden?’
The pavilion was exceptional, so the planting had a lot to live up to, particularly in this land of horticulture. After recent high-profile commissions at Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf might seem an obvious choice for an urban green space. Yet some critics say Oudolf’s work, notable for its painterly use of grasses, texture and a subtle palette - ‘brown is a key colour’, he told me - is nothing new.
Oudolf’s garden within a garden at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is part of a much larger movement towards greening urban space. ‘It is only in the last five years that architects have become interested in people like me. It’s due to the environment and the times we live in,’ says Oudolf. Incessant chatter about climate change and the need to combat the urban heat island have spawned myriad initiatives to bring ecology back into the public realm, be it through parks, green roofs, urban agriculture or even guerilla gardening.
Landscape designer and writer Dan Pearson, named an RIBA Honorary Fellow last February and a Stirling Prize judge last April, delights in the fact that Zumthor’s pavilion was created for the garden, rather than vice versa. ‘The building sets you up to regard the inner sanctum with a heightened reality,’ says Pearson. He bemoans the fact that landscape designers are generally engaged too late, only to make a building look good when a tiny slice of the budget remains. Completed last year, Pearson’s Hamadayama project in Tokyo is a series of courtyard gardens for seven housing blocks where the client opted for smaller floor plans in the flats in favour of more green space.
Most dramatic for London will be Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which pioneers a new approach to planting that stems as much from ecology as aesthetics. James Hitchmough, professor of Horticultural Ecology in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape, uses spreadsheets, not drawings, to determine what percentage of each plant should be located within each square metre. Two or three dominant species are laid out with the contractor to set the planting structure, with the rest planted at random to agreed percentages.
At the Olympic Park, Hitchmough has used this principle to seed 85,000m² in the northern park. Using seeds reduces the cost dramatically. This makes large-scale public planting more affordable, but control becomes more difficult. Hitchmough likens the overall effect to the random repetition of marble veins. Localised wind, variation in mineral content in the soil, or different water regimes can dramatically impact upon the way the planting matures.
In the pipeline for the autumn is a similar work at Southwark’s Burgess Park in collaboration with LDA Design. Pearson describes the Olympic Park meadow mix as a ‘brave commission, something entirely new between nature and the garden, which uses clever, extremely well-judged combinations of plants. They are very ravishing to look at. It’s more freeform, because you’re throwing the seed down and it’s down to the site and the conditions what happens with the base level of the aesthetic.’
This contrasts markedly with the planting at Zumthor’s pavilion. Oudolf’s highly controlled planting was designed to peak at the Serpentine Gallery’s opening fete and to constantly evolve and look at its best until October, when the pavilion will close. Whether tightly planned for Zumthor’s courtyard or expansively conceived to transform the Olympic site, the growing preoccupation with urban green is a welcome phenomenon. Architects would do well to heed Oudolf’s advice: ‘If you want to understand [landscape design], you have to get very into the matter, but don’t make it too complicated. Even if I talk about it, I lose control over the key things that are important.’ The main message is to seek collaboration early.
On working with architects
You can’t bolt these things on at the eleventh hour like the colour of a door. If I’m not in at the top table at the beginning, I can’t deliver the goods. It’s all about recognising that these green end-points have to be integrated right at the outset even though the work may take place some years hence.
On working with architects
I haven’t met one architect who saw my work as fourdimensional. With no exception, they all see it as what it is, not what it will become. What I put down in the garden is a performance in time, which is why trust between the architect and the landscape architect matters. They know that it is more than just architecture. Peter Zumthor trusted me.
On the British horticultural tradition
I worked in England and there are a lot of people there who have great plant knowledge. It taught me all the skills of gardening, but it also taught me that there is a lot of dogma. I am more influenced by the German way of looking at gardens, which is more about how plants live together over time. Traditional English gardening focuses on maintenance and manicuring. Today we don’t have so much time, so maintenance is a big issue. There had to come a moment when we would just garden with the eye.
On working with architects
The design team is key. If we are involved as landscape designers at the inception of a project, it might be that all we need to say is ‘you need to think about weight loading and then we can do anything’. We are now being approached by architects sooner and there is much more joined-up thinking. It is hugely inspiring.
On the Dutch horticultural tradition
What is different in the Netherlands is that it is mainly a madeup country, so creating something natural is much more radical. Here [in the UK] you are keying into something that already exists. The movement is seen to come from there because it seems more radical.