What's my line?
What comes to mind when you think of landscape architecture? Granitepaved, soulless public spaces with the ubiquitous water feature carefully inserted between curtain-walled office blocks? Manicured green spaces with matching clipped hedges, bordering the glut of industrial parks sprawling outside our urban domains? Maybe it's more your Zen-style gardens with cosmically raked pebbles? One thing's for sure, you probably think of landscape as the background to whatever it is you are more interested in.
In many ways the design of the exterior spaces we live in is of great interest today. Never before has there been such an abundance of magazines, design-your-garden CD-ROMs and endless (but popular) gardenmakeover TV programmes full of ideas on how to shape your own space. Meanwhile the question of how to design our public space is met with stony (un-zen like) silence.
Compared to their architectural 'cousins' (or their garden makeover 'evil twins') there are few household names or books, let alone design press, in the world of landscape architecture. Public spaces, be they green or grey, where we meet and mix in our diverse society, remain abandoned and troubled - passive places where individuals simply pass through.
According to Maisie Rowe, landscape architect (or landscape designer - the labels are interchangeable), Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, the grandfather of British landscape design, got the profession off on the wrong foot from the start by decreeing it an 'art'. Seeing it as art sets it up to be reified and precious, untouchable, background.
Instead, she says, landscape architecture is about design: practical, iterative, something to be used. She believes the current troubles of the profession stem from this fundamental failure to define the practice.
Rowe says the typical landscape designer is a fleece-wearing, mild-mannered type complete with ecological attitude to the land that in itself can be 'anti-design'. They are often afraid of 'marking the earth', and instead are on a continuous quest for 'finding the genius of the place' - a well-worn landscape design phrase. There are also grey consultancies that are 'worthy' yet 'laddish'. Fortunately, there are a few interesting individuals and companies out there, she says, listing Gross Max, Lovejoy and Dutch practice West 8.
Rowe herself is not out of any of the typical moulds. She is not interested in what she calls 'Euro-landscape design', or the latest paving, street lamps, matching benches and bins.
To her landscape isn't garden design either - she is happy to leave this in the capable hands of Dan Pearson et al. But Rowe does get excited about nature and is not scared of 'marking the earth'. Getting her hands dirty is what she's good at.
After a Foundation course at Chelsea School of Art & Design, followed by a geography degree at the University of Leeds, interspersed with summer jobs in Regent's Park, Rowe became aware of her growing interest in maps and landscapes. This was enough to send her on to complete a Masters of Landscape Design at the University of Newcastle.
Newly qualified, Rowe's baptism of fire came while working with the Groundwork Trust in Hackney, designing small £10,000 community space and gardens projects with the residents in council housing estates, empowering them to design their own green spaces. This was Rowe's first chance to explore public space in all its dimensions. Not only responsible for the endless public consultations and subsequent design, she single-handedly carried out project management, contracts, fund-raising, implementation as well as organising the opening party and press.
With deeply entrenched internal politics within the community, the project often seemed to do the opposite to bringing local people together.
'It was like opening up a festering wound, screaming mums ranting at their neighbours, kids trading racist insults at each other.' While it was not easy to manage such tense, pseudoinclusive realities, Rowe managed to overcome the difficulties.
After that, her first experience with architects was six months working for Shepherd Epstein Hunter. There she detected a mildly dislocated attitude towards the landscape design team.
Projects failed to integrate landscaping into overall schemes, resulting in isolated solutions that sat uncomfortably with their surroundings.
Rowe believes this attitude is common to a lot of practices. There can be a lack of empathy for the skills a landscape designer can bring to a project, she says. At the same time, she believes that the landscape profession does itself no favours. 'Landscape architects tend to be traditional in attitude, unimaginative and not up for change - conservative with a small 'c'. It's this narrow-minded attitude that wrongfoots them with architects, who in the end think that they can design the outside bit themselves, ' says Rowe.
Although she has no grand theory of her own, Rowe's own intuitive approach is one that explores the dynamic relationship between people and their surroundings. While the fleece-wearing designers are blending in with their bland backgrounds, Rowe is bringing the background up front with a refreshing approach to the green stuff.
Following her decision to go freelance, Rowe found herself designing a series of gardens and school playgrounds in Dagenham, Hackney and Greenwich on limited budgets.
'It was about working imaginatively and appropriately with materials that will last outside in our damp UK climes, ' she says.
The first of these projects was the 'Treewalk' at Grasmere JMI School, Hackney. Commissioned to design a wildlife garden, Rowe's solution was to create a high-level timber bridge structure that spanned the garden, providing the kids with a safe route across to the school entrance while giving a safari view of their parents walking underneath. Embedded at a lower level into the timber fencing is a series of cheerful, highly artificial, candy-coloured Perspex tiles. These were so visually attractive that little children were regularly found licking them, thinking they were lollies.
Cited as the biggest play structure in a school in the UK, this 'anti-wildlife' garden has proved to be a great success, especially with the children.
Children's landscapes have been the perfect terrain for Rowe to develop her approach. School projects often involve lengthy observation and consultation processes. Rowe's preferred methods include connecting to the landscape in the way that a child does, often achieved by playing with the kids for hours on end. The experience of playing in a stream all day or playing on a raised mound of earth is her way of relating. It is this that she tries to capture in each of her projects. Call it tactile or intuitive, she just gets down to it.
Rowe's lack of preciousness about nature is probably most in evidence when she talks enthusiastically about a favourite project, the Hoover Dam.
For her, the project 'embodies the confidence and aesthetic sensibility of its engineers and of its designer, Gordon Kaufman. They had faith in their ability to intervene in nature and took pleasure in giving the dam a sculptural beauty.'
In parallel to her landscape career, Rowe has been closely involved with developing the studio of longterm partner artist/designer Thomas Heatherwick. From building the studio kitchen to interviewing for jobs and writing captions for Heatherwick's Conran Foundation Collection at the Design Museum earlier this year, the experience adds to Rowe's skillset and often comes in useful with her landscape projects.
Having started some collaborative consultancy work with architect DSDHA looking at new school buildings and the relationships between inside and outside space, Rowe feels she can now offer an awareness borne from her own work that goes beyond just where to place the swings and hop-scotch patterns. Working with DSDHA from the beginning, Rowe's input into the design process has helped the design team understand where the building sits on the site and which side of the playground will always have shade.
She has also been involved in examining the location of entrance and exit points, circulation spaces, where the kindergarten children go, how much covered space there should be and how to use it. All of these are masterplanning issues that are critical long before deciding on what materials to use. Rowe is not interested in trying to do what the architect does, but is happiest when breaking down some of those boundaries in developing the right solution for a project.
Ultimately Rowe is interested in process. Architects are great at what they do but can be too rigid, too trained, she says. Sometimes a project needs someone with her skills who can find ways of blurring the boundaries between exterior and interior space.
With the ongoing demand for new-build schools, Rowe hopes to continue collaborating with architects and designers. She would like to develop her interest in children's landscapes beyond playgrounds as well as her interest in the built environment in general. She is currently working on a Grade II-listed house in King's Cross, teaching herself detailing and picking up building skills along the way.
Katherine Skellon is an interpretative designer and lecturer in Creative Practice for Narrative Environments. She can be contacted at katherine@skellon. net