I never promised you a rose garden

Avant-garde homeowners are creating conceptual gardens that are predicated on ideas rather than plants. Far out, says Nicole Swengley.

October 03 2009
Nicole Swengley

Forget the formal parterre. Dig out the naturalistic planting. Homeowners are developing surprisingly unconventional schemes as they warm to conceptual or narrative gardens. Characterised by vivid colours and unashamedly artificial materials, conceptual gardens generally spring from a single, site-inspired idea. Some offer social, cultural or historical comment, others are based on visual humour or even tell a story about the owner. Whatever the theme, a stroll though a conceptual garden is a visceral experience likely to generate a strong emotional response.

The term “conceptual garden” was coined by Tim Richardson, a gardening and landscape writer and critic, whose recent book, Avant Gardeners (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), delves deeply into this architectural style of landscaping. They’re “predicated on ideas rather than plants”, he says. “It’s a way of adding richness, meaning and emotion to a design. Often these gardens have a readable narrative, although an understanding of the underlying meaning was never deemed a necessity by the designers. Colour, texture, humour and sensuality are just as important as conveying an idea.

“Homeowners who commission conceptual gardens tend to be confident and imaginative,” adds Richardson. “They’re drawn to the individuality, personality and joie de vivre of these gardens. And the designers themselves are very individualistic people. They tend to have magnetic personalities and develop strong relationships with their clients.”

Evidence of the trend is reflected in the number of conceptual designs at leading garden shows. Three of the 13 full-scale show gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show were conceptual in nature. The Hampton Court Palace show presented a conceptual gardens section for the fourth year running, while the new Future Gardens show in Hertfordshire is primarily conceptual. All of which has ruffled conservative feathers in the more traditional gardening world. “Gardens without plants are seen as heretical by some,” observes Richardson, drily.

So what are the pros and cons of commissioning an ideas-based garden? “You get something very original and personal,” says Richardson. “It could be autobiographical or reflect your particular interests. Designers can turn a tiny space into something special, and they’re perfect in urban settings. However, the artificiality of some materials can be a disadvantage. You might need to replace elements after five years and the design could date quicker than a plant-based scheme, although like any garden it will change and develop over time.”

Manhattan-based Paula Hayes mixes natural elements with highly artificial objects – pink plastic chairs next to stripped logs – and uses native plants. Having studied sculpture at New York’s Parsons School of Design, she knows the sculptural possibilities of plants and hardware. Big, organic-looking silicone planters at a house in East Hampton, whose translucency reveals lichen-covered root balls, act as outdoor sculptures, while a winding, concrete-paved path guides visitors through drifts of grasses and seaside plants with pennisetum, blue-stemmed grasses and shore junipers blurring the boundaries between the garden and surrounding Long Island dunes. “I wanted to create a flowing sensuality, while remaining respectful to nature,” says Hayes. “I feel that residential landscape design is portraiture of my clients – mostly their deepest desires.”

This dreamy biographical approach is exemplified in Cao Perrot’s work. Vietnamese-born Andy Cao created a glass garden at the rear of his Los Angeles house using 45 tons of recycled coloured glass pieces (plants grow through this mulch) to conjure impressions of his homeland’s agricultural landscape. Teaming up with French landscape designer Xavier Perrot, the pair create gardens with a sensual, meditative quality, working from studios in Paris, Los Angeles and New York. “Our work blends landscape and art to create a place for dreaming,” says Cao.

This is achieved with simple planting – sweeps of textural grasses or strong, single-colour schemes – and innovative hardware, such as glass walls made from recycled medicine bottles. “We use materials to create environments that defy specific meaning yet invite visitors into a contemplative world of colour and sensuality,” says Cao. At a recently completed garden for a Malibu residence, they suspended a cloud of stainless-steel mesh infused with cut crystals and air plants (Tillandsias) above a ground-plan of flat, triangular reflective glass panels and contoured swathes of bent grass. “We wanted to explore everyday materials and their interaction with light,” says Perrot. “Our work has always been about total environments – a blending of landscape and art.”

Horticultural installations by British landscape artist Tony Heywood also achieve this blend. At London’s Fine Art Society this year, he displayed Beauty Spot, an installation based on his own childhood memories. Combining natural ingredients, such as native pine trees, pine cones and sand from Formby Point, with artificial materials – carved foam decorated with mirror-backed, resin “jewels” – he created an extraordinary walk-through vista rich in imagery and metaphor.

Heywood says, “I see the work as mind­scapes as much as landscapes. If a homeowner has a special memory about a particular place, I can codify it by going there to gather natural debris. I’ll incorporate this with manmade materials to recreate an atmosphere that resonates with them. It’s an approach particularly suited to modern landscapes and neglected spaces in hard-edged urban settings.”

Not all conceptualists have pruned back on plants. Amsterdam-based Lodewijk Baljon believes they are the building blocks of landscape architecture. “The line of a concrete wall is different to that created by a green hedge,” he says. His schemes combine an architectural modernist approach with looser, naturalistic elements, such as intermixed roses and grasses. Fruit trees are a favourite. “I try to create an orchard if there’s an opportunity,” he says.

Several of Baljon’s concepts in the Netherlands are a direct response to a property’s architecture and the surrounding landscape. A serpentine beech hedge snakes around wide, ivy-covered, drum-shaped columns screening a house from the road in Aerdenhout. A small garden in Haarlem, meanwhile, is visually enlarged by creating a long, rectangular pond with the sky’s reflection in the water opening up the space. Elevated canals, embedded in box hedges, gently connect the pond to a terrace surrounding the house. “The long lines make the garden look larger and there’s a fine contrast between the taut box hedge, loose planting and the craggy stems of the Koelreuteria [golden rain tree],” says Baljon.

Introducing theatrical effects will also enliven awkward spaces. Paul Cooper, a British landscape designer and former sculptor and set designer, is a dab hand at creating outdoor drama. A north-facing London garden overshadowed by trees was transformed by using free-standing, back-projection screens. At night, the screens form part of a light show that turns the space into a lively spectacle. Cooper also employed elaborate lighting effects in a small, north-facing, conifer-fringed garden surrounding a modern house in London’s Golders Green. Meanwhile, an allegorical interpretation of evolution has given a Gloucestershire garden a Zen-like ambience. Suspended stones hanging over a pool ripple the surface when blown and gently spill water into an adjacent bog garden.

Unusual materials combined with vibrant colours are the hallmark of conceptualist pioneer Martha Schwartz. The impromptu redecoration of her Boston town-house garden with a double row of varnished (real) bagels on a path and a grid of pink geraniums at its centre kick-started the trend. Schwartz has achieved an international reputation for witty, innovative gardens and recently opened a London office in addition to her US studio.

Her humorous pop-art-influenced style was recently given full rein by the owners of a property in Westphalia, Germany. Schwartz chose 51 ornaments from garden-store chains and positioned each on a separate plinth. “Because of their ubiquity, these ornaments reflect, in a shared sense, who we are and how we’d like to be seen,” says Schwartz. “They symbolise a larger collective landscape, as they are often seen in people’s gardens, and represent areas of cultural similarity and differences.”

While not to everyone’s taste, there’s a punchy rhythm to the Westphalia design, as there is at Anne and Sam Davis’s garden in Texas. After living with an English-style garden for 25 years – albeit set within the dry landscape of El Paso – the owners commissioned Schwartz to create an additional garden. “They wanted the garden to have a Mexican influence with low-maintenance desert plants and be visually separate from the existing one,” says Schwartz. “I made an interpretation of a Mexican walled garden using a palette of concrete walls, paint, gravel and cacti. The design is based on a series of boxes – gardens inside gardens – to create the metaphor of a house. Each one contains a symbolic statement in stone, metal and cacti.”

Pattern and rhythm are also evident in the work of San Francisco-based Topher Delaney. For one city homeowner she created a series of enclosed courtyards paved in coloured concrete and decorated with large planters in Cor-Ten steel (a metal that fosters a rusty-like patina). Each space spills into another, creating a feeling of motion and culminating in a “music room”, with suspended bamboo trunks drumming against each other in the wind. Zoom up to the rooftops for another Delaney project. Here the colour blue unifies a small terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay. Bright blue neoprene rubber – diving-suit material – is woven onto galvanised metal walls, while Astroturf, cut around skylights and air shafts, covers the floor area and stainless-steel boxes are used as garden seats. For Delaney, such a site is “a stage transformed by the theatrical devices of grading, planting, constructed walls and ornamental interventions such as fountains, planters and lights. Invite an audience of butterflies, ants, birds, cats, gardeners and let the show begin.”

Clever hardware is similarly employed by Hamburg-based studio WES & Partner. “Let’s forget green,” says partner Wolfgang Betz. “We work in cities and we work with spaces, not landscapes.” For a penthouse garden in Hanover the concept was “an outdoor living room with the starry sky as its ceiling”. The white polished marble floor used in the penthouse flows seamlessly into the polished white crystal quartzite used outside, where a turf “carpet” is enclosed in a stainless-steel frame. Four-metre tall silvery “curtains” are made from a type of waterproof plastic used in swimming pools, while a high-gloss “wardrobe” conceals the hydro­logical equipment needed to pump cascading water over a glass wall. “It’s the outdoor extension of a loft-like living space,” says Betz. “Sculptures, objects and pictures can be found inside but also in the garden.”

Sometimes a sculpture is already in situ, as Hugo Nicolle, a London-based designer, recently found. “One client has two imposing pieces of modern sculpture so I planted two mature trees – a weeping silver birch and blood-red Japanese maple – to balance them and prevent them overwhelming the small garden. In contrast to an unashamedly modern interior, I created a textural garden softening strong geometry with dry-stone walling and textured plants – ferns, Japanese mondo grass and a cascade of sculpted buxus balls.”

At another property, Nicolle used a rigid grid pattern inspired by the house layout to create a geometric design that attracts the eye when viewed from a first-floor kitchen and dining room. The lawn was replaced with honed sandstone paving, while a hardwood timber catwalk, leading to a seating area, mirrors the first-floor balcony. Nicolle hand-built a water feature inspired by the work of New Zealand sculptor Chris Booth, and used a limited selection of plants, pleached hornbeam, sculpted box and olives to create a simple yet sophisticated scheme that’s also low maintenance. “My clients say they’ve used the garden more in the first few weeks than in the whole of the previous decade,” he enthuses.

Familiar objects are often given a new twist – either miniaturised or oversized – in conceptual schemes. French-Canadian landscape designer Claude Cormier inserted a gigantic, white fibreglass flower-pot within a client’s estate. The 2.2m pot sits in a birch glade and is intended to complement the property’s white columns. An adjacent, lakeside slate terrace is shaped like a freshly fallen birch leaf. “Our work celebrates manmade nature,” says Cormier. “We are committed to the specific qualities of each site – its natural conditions, its cultural history, its sociology, its politics. We want to translate each unique situation into a bold and pleasurable design that will connect with people physically, sensually and playfully. Our work may be artificial; it’s also anything but fake.”

Equally conscious of blurring boundaries between the artificial and organic world is London-based Spanish designer Fernando Gonzalez whose company, Metagardens, is currently installing its first residential project in an interior courtyard at a London apartment. Gonzalez uses advanced computer techniques for both designing and building. “Without these tools, the complexity of organic geometries and also the computer-aided manufacturing of them in the factory would be very time-consuming,” he says. “They also allow me to create extremely realistic scenarios that help clients visualise the garden better. What you see is what you get.”

To those who question his digital approach to nature, he responds: “Gardens have historically been a reference in the relationship between man and the environment, and we shouldn’t forget that man has been manipulating and organising the natural world since prehistoric times. Now the spheres of the natural and artificial are emerging into a new symbiosis.” Which is precisely where conceptual gardens excel.