Saturday, 14 November 2009

Elemental Design

I first learned of this thrilling piece of landscape architecture from the pages of 'Gardens Illustrated' where it was the subject of a short article two or three years ago. Having lost the magazine and forgotten the name, I was delighted to find it again in a book of contemporary landscape architecture.
The project is at Zapallar, Chile, in a location known as Punta Pite. Along the rocky coast which fronts a private development of houses and small estates the landscape architect Teresa Moller has created a walkway that has been fitted to the living rock, climbing the cliffs, meandering over the tumbled boulders, clinging to this amazingly sculptural margin between the land and sea. There are no handrails, just stone cut and shaped piece by piece into crisp pathways and vertiginous staircases. The bedrock is completely untouched, all the masonry fitted to it with astounding precision.
Just a glance at the photographs shows the strength of this approach - with absolute respect for the surroundings the design wraps around the landscape, the shaped materials marry with the environment, in their precision declaring the brilliance of the design and the skill of the masons.
There is something of the epic here - the pared back simplicity of the forms, the reduction of the design to the absolute essentials, the integrity of the materials and the workmanship, the risks endured in making and, presumably, interacting with, the trail. It has the stamp of the permanent, the timeless, the enduring, and as such it is both an amazing monument to the abilities of its creators and a truly inspired legacy.
What are the lessons? Be honest - the old 'truth to materials' creed of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth rises to mind - celebrate the qualities of the materials to hand and deploy them appropriately. Be bold - the whole world loves a big gesture, as long as it is sincere and can be carried off with aplomb. Be humble - work within the environment, for if you respect it your own work has everything to gain.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A New Start

I have known the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for most of my life. There are artefacts within its collections that I know well, but the recently reopened museum has thrown them into exciting new juxtapositions.
The dusty, frankly elitist, institution has been given a complete makeover, and £61 million seems good value. The new space is dramatic, welcoming and easily navigated - walls open out into glassed-in walkways over the open atrium, there are views through to the galleries that allow you to see where you will be going and there is an abundance of natural light. The materials and finishes are beautifully detailed and the exhibition style is clean and uncluttered. The arrangement of the exhibits allows a more interesting thematic exploration of the collections, and even the cafe looks terrific.
This new museum, created from the oldest in Britain, is an object lesson in managing routes of flow and expectations, with interest and surprises at key points in the journey around the galleries and enticements around the corner.
Go soon!

Monday, 9 November 2009


This blog is all about my sources of inspiration. This summer I visited the annual garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire with fellow students from the course at Oxford College of Garden Design. The show gardens are arranged in the grounds of the chateau, and although many of them change each year, some installations have been made permanent.

The valley at the end of the grounds is hidden amongst the surrounding woods, but as you near it the perpetual fog hugging the tree trunks and the dripping walkways announces the beginning of a short walk through a magical landscape. The valley from this point on is clouded with artificially produced mist, drifting and curling through the ferns and lower branches of the woodland, drawn rapidly upwards in the summer heat to hang in light-shot columns that appear to support the crowns of the trees.

This is a masterly intervention - it evokes the distant prehistoric past as we have imagined it, shrouds the view for short periods then clears, plays tricks with distance and sound. All is impermanent, evanescent, in the middle of an all too solid, ancient forest. This is the essence here - the tension between the established and the fleeting. In many ways it is an extreme version of other gardens - the evolving presence of flowers is transmuted into a rapidly changing landscape of mist, the architecture of hedges, shrubs and trees is reflected in the use of the original forest to hold and anchor the ever-changing transient elements of the scene.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


The word is the Persian for 'paradise' - a place synonymous in that ancient culture with the garden, something I am closely involved in with my design work. The main feature of the ancient paradise garden was its quadripartite form - divided by canals or rills into four rectangular fields, planted with productive and shade-bearing trees and shrubs. My image was taken on a warm moonlit night in the courtyards of the palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. A concert elsewhere in the grounds supplied a background of the haunting songs of flamenco, and the evening was scented with jasmine. The Islamic garden, perfected here in the territory of al-Andalus, evolved from the Persian model, retaining the essential features necessary for gardens in arid, hot climates. This photograph seems an appropriate opener for my blog - I love the blurred image and the colours - evocative of an evening of sounds, scents and sights that typify Andalucia for many, myself included.