Gold at the Olympic Park by Bridget Rosewell

November 16, 2012

in Articles, Garden Reviews, General Interest, Reviews

Meadows now cover a multitude of sins – or at least, the term ‘meadow’ does. All part of the ‘naturalistic’ trend (see Michael King’s post and Sarah Price telling you how to do it at home here) Bridget Rosewell takes a look here at whether meadow is a term which makes sense in the context of the Olympic Park.

Anne Wareham, editor

Bridget Rosewell:

I saw a poster the other day describing the Olympic Park as the biggest urban meadow (possibly ever, my eye moved on).  This description points up the paucity of our garden vocabulary, since the Olympic Park planting is much more than a meadow and indeed I didn’t see anything I would really want to describe as one.

On the other hand the planting probably does not fit into any category which would be recognised by the great visiting public.  They might recognise cottage garden, herbaceous border, parterre and topiary.  So it is worth discussing what kind of categories the Olympic Park might fit into – and where meadows come into it.

I suspect that meadow carries with it that English trope of rus in urbe, bringing the countryside into blighted towns and also of wild flowers and gentle walks by or with girls in white dresses.  So perhaps the Olympic Park is about those countryside fantasies that seem to be buried in our psyches and emerge in suburban housing estates and the dreams of garden cities.  It certainly has some rolling banks on which to loll, while watching the big screens covering events.  It has waterside walks beside reed beds and canals.  But it also has more, and this is what needs further categorisation, since it is this that both gives it a distinctive character and some real pizzazz.

A starting point is that this is not a garden.  It is a public park, designed to allow people movement, especially for the Olympics, and people dwell times.  So the design flows too, being largely linear in nature.  And it has to accommodate large numbers of people too so the areas of hard standing prevent too much wandering.

Olympic Park 1. copyright Bridget Rosewell

In addition there are necessarily steep slopes, as the remade land edges the waterways.  Nothing much in this park at the South end by the stadium encourages contemplation or stopping.  Keep moving, people!  Of course this may change with redesign now the Games are finished, and it will be interesting to see whether the planting too becomes more punctuated, but at present it hurries on.

Olympic Park 2 copyright Bridget Rosewell

Indeed drift planting does tend to do this.  The sweeps of plants of similar types invites a pacing along beside them, rather than the earnest contemplation of small clumps.  I think this is the main distinction between this and the herbaceous border which invites contemplation of its picture, either close up or at a distance.  So this is the first new public park with planting to encourage drifting along.  Perhaps this is the source of the meadow concept – back to the girls in white dresses again.

The other element we might think of as meadow related is randomness.  Wild flowers do not grow in drifts, they are scattered.  In a real meadow in fact they are often quite clumpy but artistic license must be respected.  There were places where the random scatter was successful – but this planting was quite often swamped by the people.  For example, outside MacDonalds there was a planting of random white and purple which looked quite attractive early on before too many people were about.  Later, I couldn’t get near it.

Olympic Park 3 copyright Bridget Rosewell

Beside the Lea, smaller areas of planting sat beside the river edge path.  These areas were amongst the most successful, but perhaps also the most traditional.  Box hedges came into it for example.  So here was the opportunity for some punctuation in the planting and indeed even some benches.  And under one of the bridges an extraordinary fountain, where light played on patterns of water falling from a pipe and somehow spelling out words, which passed so quickly they could barely be read.

The art installations were some of the least signalled aspects and it wasn’t at all clear how they were supposed to fit in.  A variety of bits of telephone boxes for example had explanations of how the ground had been treated and its industrial legacy removed to create the park.  But they felt rather plonked in nonetheless.

Olympic Park 5 copyright Bridget Rosewell

This was the last part of the Park that I looked at and by this time tiredness was creeping in, so perhaps this made the more traditional more attractive, and certainly very different from the massed ranks of rudbeckia in the more striding out areas.

Olympic Park 4 copyright Bridget Rosewell

This review has looked at the Olympic Park in its Olympic capacity.  It was good, and pretty close to gold, but doubts perhaps remain.  The challenge now is to turn this into a continuing proposition as a permanent public park.  We will have to wait and see how, if at all, this can be achieved and whether the budgets for maintenance will be sufficient.

Bridget Rosewell

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Bridget Rosewell portrait 2

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Paul Ridley November 16, 2012 at 9:51 am

Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, who have devised this method of planting and seeding large areas with combinations of not-necessarily-native plants for long-season interest and low-intensity maintenance, describe the style as ‘pictorial meadow’. It seems a perfectly rational term, capturing the sense of ‘randomness’ (although I understand that there are more detailed and controlled areas of planting design at the Olympic Park within the ‘meadows’) whilst acknowledging the element of human intervention in the creation of these schemes. ‘Engineered meadow’ might also work as a term, I suppose.

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