Inner city recreations A park designed to cope with the Notting Hill Carnival at its height includes a tranquil garden by C F A Voysey
Cezary Bednarski and Andrzej Kuszell of Studio E Architects cannot agree on exactly how derelict the Emslie Horniman Pleasance was when they were commissioned to undertake its regeneration - semi-derelict? totally derelict? desperate? But both readily acknowledge that the park was no longer being used by the people Emslie Horniman had in mind when he bought an acre of open land off Kensal Road, North Kensington and presented it to the borough. As Liberal mp for the constituency between 1906 and 1910, Horniman had observed that there was 'no place within a mile or so where children could play . . . nor anywhere for the mothers and old people to rest'. The area is as over-crowded and deprived now as it was in Horniman's day, and in recent years the park had become the haunt of drug abusers.
The relatively small 1.4ha park (it was expanded after slum clearance in the 1960s) is a rarity for several reasons: first, it contains a Grade II-listed structure, the Voysey Garden, commissioned by Horniman and designed by C F A Voysey in 1913; second, it fulfils a ritualistic role as the launch pad of the Notting Hill Carnival every August Bank Holiday weekend, when it is overrun by as many as 20,000 people, lorries, kiosks and a temporary stage; third, it lies at at the centre of a triangle formed by three distinctive landmarks: the Grand Union Canal to the north, the Great Western Railway to the south and, stretching heavenwards to the east, Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower.
Studio E won the commission through a competitive interview. Its design is the outcome of extensive consultation with local residents after research in literature and on visits abroad. But everything that the architect and the residents liked had to be submitted to the same criterion: would it survive the carnival? Says Bednarski, 'We were designing for two days in the year and spending tremendous sums of money to contend with vandalism which only occurs on two days of the year.'
From an early stage it was obvious that the £250,000 City Challenge money available could not meet the cost of the changes residents ideally wanted, and that Lottery funding would have to be sought on several fronts. Grant applications were made to the Heritage Lottery for funds to finance the refurbishment of the park under the direction of Studio E Architects, with Julian Harrap Architects in charge of the separate Voysey Garden restoration; to the Sports Lottery for a grant to cover the provision of a new sports pitch; and, under the direction of artist Peter Fink, working in collaboration with Studio E, an Arts Lottery application was also submitted.
The arts programme enabled the design team to designate various construction elements as 'art' - such as the gates, the signage, special fencing, and the children's playground. Kuszell believes that there is no rigid division between landscape architecture and art. 'The way we developed the vocabulary for the park, the way we used plants, the forms that surround and create the playground, the fences - it was a serious collaboration between ourselves and Peter.'
Studio E has made fundamental changes to the existing park layout. The sports ground (with new changing rooms) has been moved from the north- east to the sheltered, residential south-west corner and replaced by a viewing mound, which acts as an auditorium for park events during the carnival and at other times of the year is an effective bulwark against the busy Kensal Road. The children's playground, formerly in the centre of the park where it was regularly damaged at carnival time, has been pushed against the boundary on East Row, close to the Voysey Garden and tea kiosk, safely isolated from crowd activity. And a delightful 'quiet' garden, sensitively planted by edaw, has been sunk in the south-east corner behind the sheltering wall of a Victorian pub.
These moves make sense of the natural slope of the land, and have brought back the feeling of enclosure which disappeared with housing clearance in the 1960s; they have also cleared space for a large central area of grass. The two diagonal paths through the park have been laid to cross on the east-west axis with Trellick Tower, acknowledging this giant monolith's magnetic presence.
The success of Studio E's strategy depended on robustness of materials and appropriate detailing. The materials chosen fall into four groups: natural paving materials (such as large Scottish pebbles); standard benches in solid timber with steel frames; metalwork comprising bespoke entrance gates, steel fencing to protect the Voysey Garden, lighting and cctv pylons (one of the art commissions), and specially designed stainless steel signage; and, finally, specialised finishes for the children's playground - a colourful, tactile and safe environment, designed with Peter Fink to be busy without the addition of too much equipment. For Kuszell, the whole project was 'an exercise in the use of form and materials, a composition bridging between the practical and the almost abstract'.
The regeneration of the Emslie Horniman Pleasance was finished in time for a baptism of fire during the carnival last year. When revisited three weeks later it appeared unscathed: the new structures and planting had been tested to destruction point and survived.
When C F A Voysey was asked to design a garden for the Emslie Horniman Pleasance, his practice was in decline. The great houses on which his reputation rests (including Lowicks, designed for Horniman in 1894) were built between 1850 and 1911; he needed work and he must have been grateful to his friend and patron for this unexpected and unusual commission. Unusual because although he was exceptionally skilful at moulding his houses into their natural settings, Voysey was no plantsman; when he produced layout plans for the gardens attached to his houses he left the plant selection to others. (The plan for the Emslie Horniman Garden stipulates 'flowers'; at Lowicks he was more specific and wrote, 'tall flowers'.)
It takes little imagination to read Voysey's design - an inversion of the normal arrangement of central space and peripheral planting - as a twofold scheme: a pleasure garden for the primary purpose of delighting the community, and, covertly, the house he would like to have been asked to design, with castellated walls, grand entrance, moat, massive timber- frame structure clad in greenery, and outbuildings/pavilions.
When Harrap first visited the Voysey Garden, the pergola had vanished, the moat leaked, benches in the pavilions had been set on fire or hacked with knives, and only the sturdy East Row wall remained. It was a depressing scene, but one which Harrap is used to and can see beyond: 'What we're searching for all the time is the intellect within the ruin and here there were one or two doors, beautiful ironmongery - the sense of enclosure created so simply.'
Documentation for the scheme, researched by Wendy Hitchmough, proved to be exceptionally comprehensive and included Voysey's presentation drawings, Madeline Agar's planting scheme, newspaper reports and contemporary photographs. Working with this material, Harrap has endeavoured to restore Voysey's design, making structural improvements where necessary.
The reconstruction of the pergola illustrates this pragmatic approach. Comparisons between Voysey's plan and photographs revealed inconsistencies. Instead of stout cross-beams, thin battens had been used to link top members and would have given no lateral stability. Harrap suspects that Voysey's builder may have let him down: 'The source of the pergola's failure was there at the beginning,' he says. To improve on the original construction he devised a series of details and made some discreet changes. The stout top beams seen in Voysey's plan have replaced the battens and Harrap is confident about the result: 'We felt it would not only be stronger but would look stronger. We were really supporting Voysey's aesthetic judgement.'
Other elements of the garden have been subject to the same sensitive methodology. The moat has been almost entirely reconstructed, using the original system: Harrap saw no reason to abandon 'a good early-twentieth- century construction'. Patching the castellated wall was not easy. A render, like Scottish harling, had to be mixed and finished with a slurry to achieve a surface that approximated to the much-painted existing finish. 'There's been a lot of repair but I hope people won't see all of it,' says Harrap.
For the new park-keeper's kiosk, Harrap wanted a modern building which would appear to float above the existing garden level. English Heritage was apprehensive at first but was won over by a scheme which - by coincidence - combined elements Voysey had used at Perrycroft, near Malvern, built in 1893: a small tower - like an eyrie - rising from a rough-cast base to a clerestory and metal low-pitched roof.
The new planting of the Voysey Garden, designed by landscape architect Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, faithfully reproduces the original scheme, with modern plants substituted for the few varieties that were no longer available. In the absence of any record of climbers used to clothe the pergola, she has selected rambling roses with successive blooming periods from 1913 catalogues.
In its improbable and - to quote Harrap - 'cacophonous setting', the restored Voysey Garden should give as much pleasure to the people who now use it as it did to the local residents for whom it was created at the beginning of the century. Voysey would surely have approved.