The TARDIS Garden: thinking big about small spaces

November 3, 2007

in Events

Society of Garden Designers Conference, Imperial College, London

Reviewed by Darryl Moore

Whilst the SGD conference ‘The Tardis Garden’, passed in a seamless flow of well-presented talks, it didn’t exactly ‘do what it says on the tin’ in terms of addressing the topic of small gardens. As a consequence, it somewhat missed an opportunity to engage with the theme in an informative and productive manner.

Andrew Wilson started the day with much praise of the petit. His potted history of small gardens from Loudon through Brookes, to the current day, certainly addressed the day’s theme more than any of the other speakers. The talk was accessible and informative, although probably due to time factors, the simple linear progression did not really take into consideration the complexity of social relationships within and between each period of design. But perhaps the talk was a case of preaching to the converted? Shouldn’t an assembly of designers already know this history? If not, then there is surely something lacking in the garden design educational system, and an attempt should be made to redress this situation.

An important point he did raise was the very serious current issue of garden grabbing. But unfortunately the political, social and ecological consequences of governmental policy on this matter, got somewhat lost, making it appear that the main concern over this practice was a case of “there goes the neighbourhood” style nimby-ism. This is an important matter whether it is happening in Surrey or Southwark, which will have long term effects on our relationships with the environment and each other.

The disappearance of gardens due to their re-classification as brownfield rather than greenfield sites is a result of the urban density policies developed by Richard Rogers in the late 1990’s. His desire to make British cities more European, suffers somewhat from a loss of cultural translation. The implications of higher density, smaller dwellings, with communal outdoor space, are rather out of sync with the British character and lifestyle. Public parks are one social realm and private gardens are another. Gardens are entangled in notions of individualism and private identity, and seemingly in contrast with this move towards the public sphere. So questions need to be raised about what future aspirations and criteria will they be appealing to and fulfilling? If this is a large part of the new build sector, then it will have serious consequences for the spaces that garden designers are offered to work with, and this could have been an opportunity to address them.

The relationship between architecture and gardens has always been an uneasy one, both in terms of the importance and status accorded to each discipline, and how they actually physically interact. So it was interesting to see a couple of projects in Christopher Procter’s presentation that aimed at an integrated approach at the planning stage. This was generally reflected in the Islington project, although there was still a somewhat casual regard given to the planting side of the project. The Brazilian case study was more satisfying in this respect with more horticultural substance. Interestingly, this was largely due to the necessary adherence to local-planning regulations, which specify that roadside space must be planted and maintained by the residents. It would have been interesting to compare this situation to the regulations in this country. This could also have fed back into the matters concerning higher density developments and garden grabbing.

The Legal issues in Desmond Kilcoyne’s talk were interesting and informative, but weren’t specific to the day’s topic of small gardens. It came across more like a CPD session for designers, which isn’t a bad thing in the right context. Kilcoyne stated that he was unable to produce supporting documentation in time to hand out to delegates, and that this would be made available on the SGD website. Yet it transpired that although non-member delegates had paid the full conference fee, they would not be allowed access to this! Most of the matters discussed in his talk should really be made common knowledge for not only designers but for all garden owners, in order to encourage more informed and positive neighbourly practices.

An international perspective on small gardens can be very useful and refreshing, and Vladimir Sitta certainly provided a series of visually stimulating images from his work in Australia. But unfortunately most of the gardens were neither of a small scale, nor one imagines, of small budgets. In fact, Sitta boasted with a certain arrogance, that he has never even worked to a budget! Infinity edge pools blending seamlessly with Sydney harbour certainly provided a wow factor, but their relevance to design culture in this country is debatable. There was little explanation given for the design strategies utilised, which would have helped to contextualise the repetition of his designs and materials. Consequently the most recent examples seemed to differ very little from his classic work from 14 years ago.

Whilst his style of presentation was no doubt intended to be irreverent and humourous, it became less coherent and relevant as his talk progressed. His continual statements that he did whatever he liked without regard for the client, may be fine for someone with such a ‘Superstar’ international reputation, but hardly helpful for the rank and file designers in attendance.

During the Q&A session, the mandatory question about climate change may have been rather pedestrian but it nevertheless deserved serious consideration, as the implications for garden design could prove to be of an unprecedented magnitude. Unfortunately the response, that  because this summer was the wettest we have had, and the previous one was the driest, we will therefore need to change our planting styles, was really quite unhelpful. Does this suggest we need bog plants or desert plants? It showed little understanding of the effects that climate change is actually having, and also how altering planting may be a part of a feedback loop, which may actually hinder as much as help the situation.

Whilst the talks may have been interesting enough on their own, they didn’t really fulfill the conference brief of ‘thinking big about small gardens’ – especially as fulfilling a brief in an imaginative manner, is an important part of any designers mandate. Obviously the timeframe may not have been long enough to address all the related issues that could have been raised, but then perhaps there is a need for another context in which to do so.

Darryl Moore

Moore Design website

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