by Peter Thomas
One concept of what constitutes good design evolved together with modernism and was characterised by an emphasis on pure form rather than decoration. Within the field of garden design this concept is expressed through the use of a limited palette of materials and colours, and an emphasis on the functional — a format that is still prevalent today.
The glass, rock and metal combos often seen in contemporary gardens are generally applauded for their ‘restraint’ and lauded by fellow garden designers who may otherwise interpret more complex arrangements as cluttered or too busy for consideration. The trouble with restraint, though, is that one can get heartily sick of offset rectangles, overlapping circles and ‘cutting-edge’ gabions. The simple, clean lines of contemporary layouts are easy to set out and certainly quick to draw, but are we getting stuck in a rut? Just as a complex mosaic rewards the viewer’s contemplative inspection with treasures not enjoyed by a swift recce, the garden layout itself can be manipulated and worked into a structure that challenges and inspires rather than simply pacifying the mind.
I think we can afford to put aside, at least temporarily, some of our learnt mantras regarding minimum widths for paths, minimum angles for intersections, minimum spacing for patios and so on. Once we have mastered a basic grasp of the design principles handed down to us by the great and good, it’s a good idea to go back to some of those previously rejected ideas and ask again ‘why not?’. A good design does not necessarily need to belong to a particular time. Who is to say that gardens must always be pre-defined within an accepted framework of references?
Gardens that are ‘of their owner’ have a peculiar charm, which perhaps only the owner and designer can appreciate. The owner is one reference point, the environment another, and the principled designer comes along with his baggage. Although ‘good design’ may be the designer’s starting point, it may not always be appropriate to impose those strictures on the client. At times like these, the designer has to choose a way forward with a less predefined design style.
Normal, proportionately scaled garden space is fairly neutral since it neither makes the visitor feel particularly small or large, nor threatened. The garden is always enclosed and the view is always framed. In the photos of gardens the aesthetic point of all this can be seen, but sometimes the experience of being in a garden is evocative in a way that cannot so easily be captured with a single lens.
On a recent visit to the Hadspen Parabola within the walled garden at Hadspen Garden, Somerset, I was struck by the imposing presence of the sky — a presence not captured in any photos of the garden due to the camera’s narrow field of vision. Despite being a relatively large area within the walled garden, the space appeared to be completely dominated by the overhead panorama, while other vistas through the trees to the hills beyond provided secondary interest. Current photos of this garden show a blank canvas, but in reality the garden has become, in its emptiness, a huge staging point from which surrounding nature is temporarily held back. The human scale is diminished within such a setting but at the same time it feels like the spirit is allowed to reach out.
Peter Thomas – Chairman of the Society of Garden Designers
Peter Thomas’ website
This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal November 2007 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.
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