'Do you think it sounds like an escort agency?' Patrick James asks anxiously, when quizzed about the choice of name for his new operation, The Landscape Agency. The answer to which is 'no', although the three co-founders are presentable enough to moonlight in the unlikely event that times prove hard. What it does sound like is an employment agency, and that is not so far from the truth.
Set up last October by James with two landscape architects, the agency aims to offer 'a comprehensive and unrivalled range of skills and services in the planning, design, conservation and management of gardens, parks and landscapes', not by expanding but by drawing on the skills and services of a number of independent external consultants who are the best in their field. Almost all those he approached agreed to be involved, an indication of the strength of his connections.
James studied agriculture at the University of London and, after three years with Country Life, was commissioned by Macmillan to co-author the centenary history of the National Trust with Dame Jennifer Jenkins. Lord Rothschild then commissioned him to write The Heritage Lottery Fund and Land - How to Spend It?, and for the next four years James continued working for Lord Rothschild in his capacity as chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund. His responsibilities included helping to set up the Urban Parks Programme.
'Most of the people we are involved with are people I have come across through hlf projects,' James explained. His two colleagues bring a different set of connections and excellent pedigrees as landscape architects. Both were previously directors with Elizabeth Banks Associates, Tom Stuart- Smith since 1989 and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan more recently. Their portfolios range from designing the landscape for the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus to new gardens for a villa in Umbria; from an award-winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show to a landscape strategy with Allies & Morrison for the Horniman Museum in South London.
The projects they have brought with them have a historical character but, says Stuart-Smith: 'We don't want to get stuck in a rut. There is a need to transcend barriers.' He doesn't believe they should have a 'historic' label stuck on them, and says: 'Architects find it hard to understand that in our world it is easy to be eclectic. In landscape its much easier and more fun to move around a bit.'
They evidently relish the idea of a non-structured environment, and want to keep to their original core. James found when working on hlf projects that in almost every case it was necessary to draw in an expert, so the idea of trying to hold every skill within a single conventional organisation is a loser, unless that organisation is enormous. 'If there is something that needs to be addressed you must bring the best people in to look at it,' said Stuart-Smith. 'We are in a position to assemble that team.'
For the consultants, this should be a way of ironing out the peaks and troughs of sole practice, while allowing them to remain semi-detached. 'There are a lot of mavericks who want to indulge their own foibles,' says Stuart-Smith, explaining why, for instance, an expert in oak trees is not likely to want to knuckle down as a member of a permanent team.
The Landscape Agency founders hope that their enterprise will help them to break out from what they see as a vicious circle for landscape architecture in the uk. Much of what is produced is mediocre, and, says Stuart-Smith, 'architects are rightly suspicious of landscape - there is so little good landscape about'. But he also believes that there is a cultural problem, too often led by the clients who bring their personal foibles in terms of their own landscape and gardens into play when commissioning work. In addition: 'The big architects at the moment don't really give a damn,' and when they do want to do something imaginative, automatically look to landscape architects from abroad.
Both he and Longstaffe-Gowan are determined to remain active designers, whereas James' responsibility will be networking and bringing in the work. At only four months old ('we are still babies' says James) the practice is still reliant on projects the pair brought with them, including the remodelling of the vast garden to Aubrey House in London's Kensington, in association with Donald Insall and Partners, and work in Jersey and Barbados.
It has tenders submitted for four major projects, one of which is to produce a management plan for London Zoo with architect Wharmby Kozdon. Stuart-Smith says: 'It is rather ceasing to be a zoological garden. It would be fun to make it one again.'
Starting up is never easy, but the members of The Landscape Agency are confident that they have picked an auspicious time. 'People are becoming a lot more design-literate,' said James. 'They are more willing to express an informed view.'