Half-way along London's Tottenham Court Road, connecting it with a parallel street, is an L-shaped patch of open space - Whitfield Gardens, a small urban park. Whatever merits it may once have had as a design are hardly evident, given its present forsaken air. An area of grass alongside the street is now almost entirely eroded. Paving is cracked and spattered with bird droppings; pigeons prowl around ceaselessly and watch from the plane trees overhead. A few benches accommodate the park's regular users, whose discarded cans and bottles litter the ground. A populist mural on a nearby building, its once lurid colours now drab, is the backdrop; its base serves as the regulars' urinal.
It is just such unrealised or neglected spaces as this that, in Barcelona in the 1980s, were stitched so successfully into the city's overall fabric. English equivalents for this creative civic surgery are hard to find, but a current project for Whitfield Gardens by Kinnear Landscape Architects looks likely to become one.
What Lynn Kinnear (who heads the practice) proposes is to subdivide the 'L'-shape into two areas, each articulated by a different material - metal for the rectangle to the south, and concrete for the larger elongated rectangle that links Tottenham Court Road with Whitfield Street. A giant timber bench, marking the northern boundary of the site, runs beside this concrete area, which gradually rises and falls in a gentle curve. At either end the seat height of the bench is ideal for resting a drink or snack; in between, whether adult or child, all users should find a comfortable place to sit.
Poised close to the centre of the curving concrete - the curve accentuated by a series of stripes on its surface, which expand and then contract - is a freestanding horizontal plane: a wall of water. A grid of lights is sunk into the concrete, while the adjoining area of metal, with its clusters of tough shiny seats (cast aluminium), will be 'pierced by squares of light'. It is hoped that the pavement and the walls of adjoining buildings will function as projection screens; the scene should be animated after twilight. As the final element in the proposal, the side street immediately to the south (Tottenham Street) will be pedestrianised and paved in brick.
Developing this scheme for Whitfield Gardens (on behalf of Camden Borough Council and Groundwork Camden) has involved Kinnear in a long series of presentations and discussions with a steering group of local residents and business people. Some of the former initially nursed notions of a green enclave, a nostalgic patch of rus in urbe - but Kinnear's vision for the site is surely more practical and appropriate. After all, Tottenham Court Road - lined by cut-price audio/video shops and colonised by three lanes of traffic - is a busy, messy, major thoroughfare, while Tottenham Street is typically inner-city in its mix of facilities: coffee bar, newsagent, fish-and-chip shop, graphic supplies, and the 'Erotica Video' store. A quiet stuccoed square in Belgravia, this isn't. Deploying a tough, durable palette of materials and crisp geometry, Kinnear gives definition and identity to an inchoate area, offering new amenities and visual pleasures too.
A new beginning
Kinnear trained at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University on an ecologically- oriented course strongly influenced by Iain McHarg. Having completed her studies in 1983, she became a design co-ordinator for the Liverpool Garden Festival, and then spent much of the decade working in large commercial landscape practices.
'I didn't enjoy the experience but there seemed to be little alternative,' she says. 'I was doing soul-destroying work on business parks - it was all high-speed and high-pressure. I didn't want to be on that treadmill forever and thought that I should try to change my career completely.'
To this end she took a foundation course at art school, which proved decisive - but in confirming, not changing, her choice of career. 'It allowed me to open up my mind and think about things in a different way. I realised it might be possible to find a satisfying way of working with landscape after all. I thought - to hell with money, I'm going to try to do something I really like and carve a niche for myself.'
Kinnear set up her practice in 1991, and one of her principal clients since has been the London Docklands Development Corporation. A park it commissioned at Hellings Street, close to the River Thames in Wapping (1995), gives a good indication of her approach to design. Kinnear enjoys working with artists, and both composition and colour of the Hellings Street Park derive from a painting - by her sister, Susan Kinnear. The plan shows four parallel, (almost) rectangular zones - the two central ones subdivided and furnished with various kinds of climbing equipment, the southern one a basketball court, and the northern one (with its off- centre path from the street) covered in grass and planted with Scots pine trees. A bold blue wall largely screens this area from that with the play equipment beyond, where the ground is swept up into concrete hillocks and finished with rubber in colourful concentric circles. 'I'm very interested in surface manipulation,' comments Kinnear - and a sense of almost geological activity recurs in her schemes.
Hellings Street Park expresses, at least to some extent, Kinnear's desire to create parks and playgrounds that aren't overly prescriptive: 'I want to make imaginative environments that are multi-functional, that can be used in different ways.' She believes that conventional playgrounds not only over-determine children's responses but exclude adults from the possibility of play ('Why shouldn't adults play?'). Working on the Hellings Street project helped her define the ways in which territory can be suggested without recourse to fences. Many boundaries there are distinct but not an obstacle.
This Wapping park was ideal preparation for a current London scheme, 'Galaxy', on which Kinnear is collaborating with sculptor and light artist Ron Haselden: a 'playspace' centred on Canonbury Infants and Junior School in the Borough of Islington. Once again, a busy main road is close by - traffic-clogged Highbury Corner - and the design aims to transform the immediate surroundings as well as provide a resource for the local community (not just schoolchildren).
Though the respective contributions of the two collaborators are probably identifiable - Haselden's light works, Kinnear's surface manipulations - the drawings and model for 'Galaxy' show a highly integrated scheme. The spaces surrounding the school are subdivided, compartmentalised, given a specific character - but juxtaposed, not isolated from one another. The main playground is 'a field of light', the matrix of lights illuminating sports pitches as required but able also to form different constellations, a changing spectacle. Another light work behind the school, set in a timber floor, is interactive, its sensors controlled by computers inside the building. The surfaces around and between these lit areas are richly varied: fans of granite setts, interspersed with coloured glass, at the entrance; red/white rubber strips (for running and riding on); hillocks, rock clusters, a paved and planted garden - and much else.
'Galaxy', funded so far by an rsa Art for Architecture award, is dense with provision and possibility: 'I like the sense of razzmatazz, of lots packed in,' says Kinnear. In its features, and in further interactive elements (such as the glass setts switching on and off when stepped upon), it is full of surprise: 'It's good when unusual things appear, when the place you go to is unexpected.' She compares this design strategy to 'a collection of postcards next to each other on the wall. Pieces of these different places are selected and arranged almost randomly. It is a way of making the landscape an object in its own right, not an invisible backdrop'.
This Canonbury playspace also reflects an interest in using 'run-of-the- mill materials' in unfamiliar ways, so turning budgetary constraints to advantage. That interest persists in what is Kinnear's highest-profile project to date, a collaboration with the artist Richard Wentworth and architect Caruso St John (Arts Council-funded) on the square surrounding the new Walsall Art Gallery. The decisive, unifying element in the landscape proposal is an overall pattern of 6m-wide stripes, 'like a giant zebra crossing'. This forms 'the datum that everything else is measured against'. The new twist to the run-of-the-mill comes in the treatment of the basic bituminous materials of road construction, with Kinnear exploring the effect of including glass aggregate or mineral chips in the mix to embellish alternate stripes.
A major issue at Walsall is resolving the different levels around the building; contrasting curved and faceted forms are brought into play. Tapering 18m-high light columns ('quite utilitarian') provide illumination; fixed seats are scattered in 'random conversational groupings'; materials throughout are 'solid and heavy-duty'. A huge window on one face of the gallery will be used for projections, devised by a further collaborator, photographer Catherine Yass.
Like other landscape architects of her generation, Kinnear laments the lack of any professional inspiration in this country after Geoffrey Jellicoe. In developing her own approach to design, she has looked to the Americas (Roberto Burle Marx, Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo) and to Europe - to oma and West 8. The last comes as no surprise. Certainly, on a smaller scale, there are resemblances between her Whitfield Gardens proposal and West 8's exciting (if imperfectly detailed) Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam (aj 13.11.97). They are found in the geometry, the boundaries, the concern with surfaces and textures, the tough, unsentimental language - above all in the underlying philosophy. Like Kinnear, West 8 creates a framework, suggestive stages for action, not a prescriptive realm. On such stages the imaginative user may well surprise the designer.
Finance for the first phase of Whitfield Gardens is now being sought; a funding strategy for the Canonbury playspace is under discussion; the Walsall square is already in hand. But Kinnear has ambitions beyond anything she has so far undertaken. With her persuasive entry for the Woolwich Riverside Park competition, which was placed second, she came frustratingly close to a truly substantial commission. 'It's at that scale at which our practice works best - the big, broad-brush scale,' she declares. Given an enterprising client, she should not need to wait long for that 'broad- brush' opportunity.