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Garden of memories

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LANDSCAPE STUDY: In commemorating officers of the Metropolitan Police who have died on duty, Churchman Landscape Architects has combined subtle planning with a rigorous attention to detail

When Churchman Landscape Architects was selected to design the Metropolitan Police Memorial Garden at the Peel Centre, Hendon, there was one precise requirement in the brief - the inclusion of 200 roses. 'We would not normally choose them, ' says Chris Churchman, 'they are such an archetypal garden plant, so reminiscent of public parks. But in this particular scheme we thought that we could make them work.'

They did. Then, last October, just days before the garden was due to be opened by the Queen, Churchman (and his client) discovered with dismay that - for one employee at the Peel Centre - roses were not enough.

Instead of the subtle play of colour he had intended in his planting, pansies - staple of municipal flower-beds and horticultural cliche if ever there was one - had been abruptly introduced.

The story is a reminder that landscape architects suffer just as much as architects from cultural conservatism in the UK - from dated expectations of what a park or garden should be. The restrained approach that Churchman advocates - 'We would only use five to 10 plants on a scheme, sometimes only one or two' - is hardly the norm.

His garden at the Peel Centre was first intended to commemorate just one policewoman who had died in service, Nina Mackay, but the concept expanded to include all officers who had lost their lives on duty. 'The original design was only to cover what is now the top terrace, ' says Churchman. 'But we persuaded the client to enlarge it and incorporate an area nearby.

That linked it to the parade ground and gave a structural logic to the scheme. We could think of it as a progression through a series of spaces - from a public, ceremonial zone at the parade ground end to an intimate place for reflection at the other.'

This route, focused throughout on the plane of the memorial stone, is also a gentle ascent up three terraces. The move from public to private is articulated by the Portland stone paving which, continuous beside the parade ground, progressively fragments as it climbs. The seemingly random placement of the slabs amid the grass on the top terrace, with each one isolated, encourages visitors to disperse and find a space to themselves for contemplation.

While this processional axis is dominant, it is countered by two water rills which stretch at 90infinity across the width of the garden, and beside them are the 200 roses. Parallel to these rills are three lines of paper bark birch which, like interrupted screens, further layer the space of the garden as a whole.

On the second and third terraces, steps lead down from the processional route to two self-contained areas, each clearly demarcated and with its own distinct planting. The first is a 'grass garden', with rows of miscanthus zebrinus and pennisetum alopecuroides - chosen, says Churchman, because both species have 'a strong threedimensional quality' - while the second, structured more loosely, is a 'fern garden' (with the addition of bamboo). Again there is the possibility of privacy within the wider scheme, and the most is made of its relatively modest extent - just 780m 2in all. As the plan reveals, these subdivisions are underpinned by a grid, but one that breathes as much as it constrains: note, for instance, the subtly staggered relationship of these two enclaves to the axial approach.

'One of our major interests is the way light and shade interact with blocks of planting, ' says Churchman - as the grass garden illustrates. It contains parallel bands of single species, with sufficient space between each band for the shadow line to tell. This gives a sculptural quality to the planting and reinforces the geometric definition of the scheme; while at the same time the grasses, waving in the breeze, bring fluidity where much is fixed.

By their nature, memorials encourage a symbolic response from their designers - which may be understated, as in Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, or as crass as the Korean War Veterans Memorial (with bayonet-wielding soldiers) that is its near neighbour. Churchman has duly introduced symbolic features into the garden, but not obtrusively - indeed, they may only register subliminally.

Hence the lines of birch trees represent 'the order and structure on which the police force is based', while rows of standing stones to the left of the memorial, and in the grass garden, 'reinforce the idea of combined strength'. In contrast, the three sandstone monoliths, each drawing the eye to a different part of the garden, 'signify the power of the individual'. Meanwhile, blue slate mulch supplies the colour associated with the police. Much of this had to be explained to me but, as these various elements are melded convincingly into the overall design, that hardly matters.

The most immediate symbolism comes with the water rills, which collect the fallen rose petals, representing 'the fragile nature of a human life'. The water itself circulates almost imperceptibly. 'We wanted a calm, reflective plane, ' says Churchman - but, with the gentle motion, the red petals gradually cluster towards one end of the rills.

This makes an interesting contrast to Pierre Granche's Canada Memorial - dedicated to Canadians killed during two world wars - in London's Green Park. There, water speeds down a polished granite slope in which bronze 'leaves' are permanently embedded; in autumn, real leaves float there briefly before being submerged. The symbolism is unmissable, and it is quite affecting, but it shows that the restraint of Churchman's scheme is not just in matters of planting.

Churchman remarks on 'the Japanese idea of colour marking the passage of time', and his Peel Centre garden consciously highlights the seasons - 'a brief autumnal riot of colour and then the white trunks of the birch trees strong in winter'; in doing so, it stresses the idea of cyclical renewal as the context for fallen petals and the loss of individual lives.

The primary focus of the garden is, of course, the memorial stone itself, whose treatment was not in Churchman's hands. It would be more in tune with the aesthetic of his scheme if the lettering was just incised and left ungilded. The memorial was also a casualty of the planting 'improvements' made before the Queen's visit.Whatever the time of year, there are bound to be floral tributes along the base of the stone, so additional colour in the flanking beds is only a distraction.

Assuming there are no more outbreaks of pansies - the Peel Centre has made suitable assurances - what detracts from the garden should be redressed over time. At present there is no obvious end to it beyond the memorial stone, but this is because the assumed backdrop of foliage - a 'barrier' of castor oil plants - was abruptly removed.

A nascent row of conifers should provide this limit before long.

Similarly, at its entrance, the garden seems insufficiently detached from its surroundings - from the jumble of cars parked on the parade ground, and the Peel Centre's curious mix of muscular 1960s architecture and bland 1990s recladding. But, as they grow, the first line of birches should speed that separation.

Churchman recalls a key period from when he was a student: the year out which, instead of working in a design office, he chose to spend 'planting trees'. That day-to-day direct encounter with landscape made a great impression. 'You see the effects of the seasons at first hand - which trees are first to shed their leaves, which shrubs still lend colour in the middle of winter. You begin to understand the way that light behaves - the difference between the pure light of early morning and the fuzziness of afternoon, when dust in the atmosphere diffuses it.'

This intimate appreciation of the natural world must have stood Churchman in good stead during the decade that he headed the landscape division of HLM. But while he was involved from 'day one' of HLM projects, and faced the challenge of many greenfield sites, he felt that - in terms of architecture - there was no 'clear design ethos' in the company. In this respect, it was the experience of assisting Stanton Williams, after he had set up on his own, that proved decisive.

In 1996, Churchman, 'very much in a technical role', helped Stanton Williams to realise the new public spaces around Sir Denys Lasdun's Royal National Theatre.

Since then he has contributed to several other of the practice's projects, including the hard landscape of the Millennium Seedbank at Wakehurst Place, the grounds of a private house in Wiltshire, and soft landscape for the Tower of London Environs Scheme, now in hand.

'It was a steep learning curve, ' says Churchman. 'With Stanton Williams, everything is questioned, revisited, and refined.

Design is an exhaustive process. Whereas many landscape architects work quite intuitively - they don't think through a design so thoroughly or see how every detail relates to the whole.'

For his part, Paul Williams says of Churchman: 'We are passionate about the landscaping of our projects and have definite ideas about it. In the studio, however, we try to get everyone to participate in developing a design - we try not to pigeonhole too much - and at the end it can be difficult to isolate one person's precise contribution.

But there is a rigour to what Chris does. It's born out of the same understanding as ours - you could call it 'like minds'.'

At the Seedbank, Churchman joined in the detailed design of the external circulation areas (falls in the paving, etc), and dealt in particular with drainage issues - not just to safeguard the new building but to avoid upsetting the balance of a nearby site of special scientific interest. Churchman managed to turn these requirements into a positive feature with a system of open, stone-filled channels, clearly expressing their function but integrated visually into the scheme as a whole.

With the proposed house on a hilltop in Wiltshire, Churchman's feeling for soft landscape comes to the fore. This is chalk downland country - open and expansive but for isolated copses - and the house will have a panorama of 360infinity. 'We wanted to keep that open character, ' says Churchman, 'and to emphasise the idea of a rolling plain in contrast to the building's exactness.'

Wildflowers now surge in profusion towards the ridge where the house will stand - a new meadow, the first of Churchman's interventions, and a reminder of seasonal change. A further move reflects the interest in light and shade that he spoke of at the Peel Centre memorial; in this case, effects caused by shifts in the ground plane.

These have been accentuated on one part of the site - an elliptical hollow which has been 'regularised' to give a stepped, terraced appearance, somewhat reminiscent of Henry Bridgeman's turf amphitheatre at Claremont in Surrey. Its forms are most dramatic when a low sun shines, while views out vanish as you descend, directing your attention to the grassy banks around you and the sky above.

There is an allusion here to an artist that Churchman especially admires - James Turrell, creator of 'skyspaces', (most monumentally in the extinct volcano of Roden Crater, Arizona). 'This concentration on the heavens, as if you were standing in an observatory, is one thing, ' says Churchman. 'But Turrell is so sensitive to the way that light interacts with landscape. Mist one moment, sun the next - a dynamic process that we try to explore in our designs.'

Another architect that Churchman has worked with on several occasions is John McAslan & Partners. Schemes include the new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park (AJ 2.12.99), where Churchman looked especially at the stepped connections between the bridge and nearby Glasgow University, and a mooted redevelopment of The Elms - a 19th-century villa and its grounds in Highgate, north London. Built in 1840 by George Basevi (for himself ), but subsequently much altered, The Elms stands in a large garden which has fallen into disrepair.

'There are some superb trees, ' says Churchman, 'but the sense of composition - the understated formality - of the original garden has been lost. We planned to reverse the process.' In concert with this, McAslan proposed a series of Modernist pavilions around the core of the original house.

Churchman's skillful perspective drawings, capturing the subtleties of light and shade that preoccupy him, present the scheme most persuasively, though it remains unrealised.

A current McAslan project for a residential development in Deptford, south London, has encouraged Churchman - commissioned by developer Brookmill Estates - to produce a 'landscape manifesto' to support his own contribution. Beside the River Ravensbourne, McAslan envisages a 25-storey tower and a curving apartment block rising from five to eight storeys. Churchman's complementary design includes an enclosed central courtyard (seen as 'a green oasis') and a 6m high aqueduct. His 'manifesto', specific to the site but applicable more widely, has a strong ecological bias; its objective is 'a sustainable urban landscape'.

It is an elegant document, with text and visuals carefully coordinated to make their point. Among much else, it examines habitat potential, reduction of UV radiation, the virtues of green roofs, and the ways in which local biodiversity can be increased;

while the moderating effect that water has on air temperature in summer, and the moisture it adds to the atmosphere, make the case for the aqueduct.

'It's an attempt to provide a more scientific basis for landscape practice, ' says Churchman. 'But we don't want just to be seen as ecologists. There are visual considerations too.'

As the story of the pansies crystallised one common attitude towards landscape in the UK, so this remark does another. To many people in planning or funding positions, an ecological argument is still stronger than an aesthetic or philosophical one. The manifold meanings that a landscape may embody, its abstraction as much as its naturalism, its symbolism, its solace, its visual delight - such factors as these take second place.

Churchman can play the ecological card with conviction but - as the Peel Centre memorial garden proves - his sense of landscape's potential is richer and more diverse. The profession in this country can recover its direction by the example of designers like him.

In 2001 Churchmans was one of four practices shortlisted for the landscape element of English Heritage's Stonehenge Visitor Centre project.The folds of the chalk downland and open skies of Salisbury Plain encouraged the practice to explore its interest in the ways in which light and landform interact. As the drawing above shows, Churchmans stressed the sequential nature of the 1.5 km journey from the visitor centre to the stones. It was seen as both a trip back along a time line and a progression through distinct landscapes from the River Avon valley to the Stonehenge plateau.

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