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Cultivating consistency in design

A patch of semi-wasteland in the blighted environs of King's Cross, the slick world of Canary Wharf as its development gets a second wind: landscape architect J & L Gibbons seems as at home in either, and able to engage creatively with both community and commercial needs. Is this engagement largely pragmatic and chameleon-like, or does a consistent language of design inform the practice's response?

The King's Cross site, Edward Square, is just off busy Caledonian Road, a few hundred metres from the station. Looming over it to the south is an old London Board School while to the north is, on one side, the drab brick Church of the Blessed Sacrament and, on the other, the Mitre public house, with a mural of the Tolpuddle Martyrs on its side-wall. This serves as a reminder of the area's radical associations, for it was from here that a huge crowd marched in 1834 to press for the Martyrs' freedom.

To practice principal Jo Gibbons the site at present is 'a nondescript green desert'. It was once surrounded by mid-Victorian houses, which were bomb-damaged in the Second World War and cleared as slums in 1961. Various ideas for re-use of the land have since been mooted but none has reached fruition. Two 'desire-line' paths cross it diagonally but it is otherwise neglected except for the exercise of dogs.

This part of the London Borough of Islington has, says Gibbons, 'every kind of social need you can imagine'. It is designated as a Special Policy Area because of environmental blight and empty buildings; it is an area of Local Community Need because of insufficient play space; and it is targeted in an Environmental Improvement Initiative by the King's Cross Urban Partnership.

After pressure from a concerned local organisation - the Edward Square Steering Group - J & L Gibbons was commissioned to carry out community consultations on the future of the site to support an SRB bid. With the success of the bid, it was commissioned to execute a design.

An important part of the consultation process was a Planning for Real exercise, attended by over 100 people. The problem, of course, with such consultative attempts is that those who are vocal and extroverted tend to dominate the process, and the views that emerge aren't representative. Gibbons took pains to counter this - for instance, by ensuring that children from two local primary schools could have their say in a special workshop, and by attempting to reach likely adolescent users of the new square. The latter were persuaded to contribute to a 20-minute videotape, with a young presenter, which was largely filmed on site.

Among the requests that emerged were football and other play facilities, a nature-study area for school use, an orchard or garden, a place to picnic or simply to relax, better lighting, adequate security. 'Having teased out all these various requirements, what we wanted to do was synthesise them, not try to put each of them into its own compartment. It's not a very big space - it has to be flexible,' says Gibbons. And at this point the practice's design preferences begin to crystallise: 'It's our job to interpret. We make our own aesthetic interpretation of the requirements.'

Integrated with a New Islington & Hackney Housing Association development, which is now under construction immediately to the north, the proposed Edward Square has a hard-won simplicity in plan - but with subtleties too. Bordered to the west by a familiar presence in the capital's parks, a row of London plane trees, it is basically bipartite: a sunken lawn, fringed on two sides with stepped seating, to the south; and a roughly triangular sloping lawn to the north, part-colonised by a grove of honey- locust whose lighter foliage contrasts in colour and texture with that of the plane trees. With something of the character of an amphitheatre, the sunken lawn can be used for performances and festival gatherings as well as just a kick-about.

Acknowledging that the square will be both destination and through-route, the area between the lawns is paved (not the dirt-track it is at present); but as the paving extends to the peripheries of the square - towards the 'habitat area' at the southern edge, for instance, which should be welcomed by the local schools - its appearance is softened by the perennials such as thyme and sage planted in its joints.

Other features include an orchard beside the northern entrance, its blossom and fruit clearly marking the passage of the seasons; a rendered wall for ball games at the south-east; and, off the main thoroughfare, freestanding benches of recycled bricks, seen as 'a co-ordinated series of sculptural objects'. The boundaries of the square are partly reinforced with fencing which, along with new gateways, will reflect 'a consistent language of metalwork'. Such consistency is, says Gibbons, vital to the design: 'It's important that the place has a strong sense of identity, that people know just where they've been.'

A component of the Edward Square consultations, the children's workshop, has been central to another project which Gibbons is undertaking in Islington at William Tyndale Primary School. The practice has developed a landscape masterplan for the site, which will be executed in stages as funds permit. In devising it, the views of more than 300 pupils were sought, both in classroom discussions and by giving all of them a blank plan on which they could draw their own additions. 'Children don't find it difficult to look at a plan and know what's what,' says Gibbons. 'They made some sophisticated suggestions.'

The children's designs, colourful and instantly communicative, were analysed and their requests ranked by frequency. Top of the list by a long way was play equipment, subsequently broken down into some 20 different kinds, but there were also ideas about planting, water features, and animals - not to mention some more radical proposals ('paint the school gold', 'cover the school with mirrors') that a conceptual artist might have made.

Thanks to a grant from the charity Trees for London, one part of the masterplan has already been implemented: a 'wildlife corridor' to enhance the approach to the school and serve as a classroom resource. It brings a traditional technique of woodland management - coppicing - to an urban setting, with the children planting willow, hazel and hornbeam in the 'corridor' and looking after them in the future. The choice of trees is significant, for each is usually coppiced at a different interval - willow every year, hazel every seven years, hornbeam every twenty. In the context of a Victorian school, already suggestive of history, Gibbons hopes that these varied cycles will capture the imagination of the pupils. Additional plantings add to the richness of this narrow slot in the city, with clematis and honeysuckle covering the walls, and daffodils and bluebells to announce the spring.

The range of work which J & L Gibbons has undertaken in the last 13 years is broad, from small domestic designs to major restoration projects: for example, the Arts & Crafts garden (1920-26) which Thomas Mawson made for Lord Leverhulme at Inverforth House, Hampstead Heath. But the viability of the practice has depended on commercial clients, a recent one being the Financial Services Agency (FSA) in Canary Wharf.

The FSA had moved into one of the blocks left unoccupied from the first phase of development there - 25 North Colonnade, by Troughton McAslan (1990). Clad in polished grey granite, the building steps back to form three north-facing terraces at third-floor level and a south-facing terrace at the 12th. Employees don't have access to them but these terraces make or mar the view; and, when the FSA arrived, they were marring it, being featureless apart from pebbles secured by adhesive because seagulls scooped them up and bombed defenceless heads below. The FSA had no specific brief for Gibbons; it just asked that something be done.

'We wanted to give the people inside the building some foreground before the longer view,' says Gibbons, 'and we wanted to provide some warmth and colour - it's very grey there.' She proposed a series of semi-natural parterres formed of framed rectangles of sedums between panels of cedar decking. In their natural habitat, sedums - a fleshy evergreen plant - survive on rocky ledges or with little soil, so they are suitably low- maintenance. They flower from spring through to autumn and the dried heads can survive the winter. As a simple but visually effective formula for a 'green roof', popular in Germany for 20 years or more, sedums are available in 2 x 1m rolls (Erisco-Bauder was Gibbons' supplier), so installation is relatively straightforward. Given the contrary aspects of the third- and 12th-floor terraces, the sedum-rectangles will reach a different natural balance at each level, so enhancing their overall effect.

Looking at this sample of the practice's work for contrasting clients, several continuities emerge. One is a flair for giving structure and definition to unrealised or 'left over' spaces and making them contribute to a larger urban whole: at Edward Square, there is a diagrammatic clarity in plan but not simply a blank canvas; at Canary Wharf, the bare terraces come alive in a contained but not too manicured way. In both schemes there is a preference for a limited palette of materials, reinforcing the desired sense of identity. The same holds true for the planting: 'We don't go in for fruit-salad-style planting - we want to keep it architectural,' says Gibbons.

While the community and school designs are practical in anticipating heavy use and no great investment in maintenance, they don't exclude less tangible considerations. In Gibbons' words, there is 'an emotional component to landscape,' as the orchard and honey-locust grove at Edward Square and coppiced corridor at William Tyndale confirm as much as the sedum beds at FSA.

Indirectly feeding these designs are, of course, influences from Gibbons' education (at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University under the ecological sway of Ian McHarg) and earlier experience, especially periods spent working in California and Capetown. Among older practitioners who have been a stimulus she cites Lawrence Halprin and Dan Kiley; of those in their prime, George Hargreaves, Gilles Clement and West 8's Adriaan Geuze.

But transcending these identifiable influences is a persistent scrutiny of the natural world and our interventions in it, reflected in the vast collection of 35mm slides - 6,000 or more - which Gibbons' practice has accumulated. In a refinement of the Landscape Institute's classification system, these have been been itemised for computer retrieval under as many categories as are appropriate - up to 10, if need be. They can be used for presentations to clients, community or commercial ('You have to show them the good things that exist,' says Gibbons); for tendering; and above all, as points of reference for a detail or a mood. The threads that link these images, drawn from disparate continents and cultures, suggest patterns of preference on Gibbons' part; they are the clue to the consistency of her practice's designs.

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