11 MARCH 1995, Page 45


Adventure playground

Ursula Buchan

Ask a garden designer in what direc- tion she (for they are often she) thinks gar- den design is going in this country and the chances are that she will reply 'backwards'. Whatever her own preferences, her clients will be asking for a 'cottage' garden here, a `formal' garden there, a herbaceous border, even, somewhere else. So-called `contem- porary' garden style is for public and cor- porate spaces, if at all.

According to David Stevens, the Profes- sor of Garden Design at Middlesex University, the backward-looking, essen- tially plant-oriented approach to garden design, which is so often what the client seems to want, is holding designers back. He is quite right of course. Recently, in the trade magazine Horticulture Week, he deplored the lack of innovation in this country, saying that garden design, as prac- tised by the professionals, was 75 to 100 years behind the times. (He was referring, no doubt, to the still powerful influence of Miss Jekyll, with her colour borders and emphasis on profusion and informality within a formal setting.) He believes that part of the reason for this is that the Mod- ern Movement had far less impact in this country than in the United States, from whence he draws much of his inspiration.

Gardens in this country are too often, therefore, pastiches of earlier styles, wildly inappropriate to modern life, especially because they are maintenance-intensive and reliant on expensive 'traditional' mate- rials of limited availability. He would like to see much more use of newer materials — plastic for flooring, polyester for fenc- ing, even lightweight alloys for buildings which can be covered with rot-proof translucent fabrics — and the more imagi- native use of theatrical garden lighting.

David Stevens is an engaging and ener- getic chap, with whom I have happily col- laborated on a book, and, unlike so many of us, he is not unduly burdened with cul- tural baggage. He sees gardens as play- grounds and 'outdoor rooms', not refuges from the unfriendly world. That is why he has little time for cottage gardens, with all their complex resonances. If I understand him correctly, plants should be used for structural effect, or as contrasts to the `hard' features; their individual beauty can be secondary. The best kind of garden is a series of connected spaces, contained and softened by planting but never dominated by it.

There are some surprising similarities between the Modernist approach and that of the 'formalists' who take their inspira- tion from 17th-century gardens (although I should be surprised if they would thank me for the comparison). In the formal, sym- metrical, highly structured garden, the indi- vidual identity of a plant is often subsumed — into a hedge, into an avenue. Simple geometry is the keystone. The difference is that, in the formal garden, the shapes are mainly linear or circular and are under- pinned by traditional 'hard' materials gravel, stone paving, handmade bricks while, in the contemporary garden, shapes are often curvilinear, spaces are asymmet- ric, concrete and timber predominate, and plant groupings can be fluid 'rivers' of colour d la Burle Marx. In the 'contempo- rary' garden, stress is often laid on its place in the wider landscape and native plants are positively encouraged. More so than in the States, where the native flora is colour- ful, the use of wild flowers and native trees in this country lends the contemporary gar- den a more muted aspect than one planted on Jekyllian lines.

Why are we so resistant to a more for- ward-looking approach? It must be because most of us feel we only have one or two stabs at creating a garden in a lifetime; we do not want to make an expensive, time- consuming bish, so we fall back on a style of gardening that we have seen works in our climate. We open our gardens to each other, so the same ideas bounce back and forth. Intellectually, I appreciate David Stevens's position, and do usually find good examples of 'contemporary' gardens stimu- lating, but I have not the nerve to make one myself.

In this country we have a tradition of spending more time than money on our gardens. When a progressive garden designer tells us it will cost £15,000 to lay out a garden, what with the timber decking, the pool and the polished granite bubble fountain, we practically pass out at the very idea. In fact, our traditional formal garden, with its hedges and trellis, though cheaper to make, will end up costing more to main- tain.

Most alarming to us, the 'contemporary' garden requires both a great deal of fore- thought and, once made, it is made. The great advantage of a plant-dominated 'cot- tage garden', for example is that it can be fiddled around with, endlessly. It is, and never will be, finished, and that suits most of us just fine.