The most cutting-edge – and some would say the smartest – form of landscaping among go-ahead private owners just now is land-forming or turf sculpture. The idea is simple: beautiful, flowing berms of turf shaped into curves, swirls, steps or gentle slopes, often offset by arc-shaped pools of water or still, black ponds. It is a surprisingly versatile look, which can be made to appear formal or abstract, achievable on a large scale or in a relatively modest acreage – though it must be said that this is not an option for the town house in Putney.
The subtle pleasure of landform lies in the play of light and shadow on the green grass, not just during the passage of the seasons but even across the trajectory of a single day. Imagine waking up at dawn to look out of the window and watch the indistinct blue-grey forms of a turf sculpture gradually take on life as the sun’s rays reach it. Droplets of dew catch the rays and twinkle like thousands of tiny spotlights, before the sun starts to light up the grass and the whole scene begins to warm up and glow. Frost will have a magical effect, of course, but an August dusk can be equally beguiling as the sharp edges of the grassed forms start to melt away, melding with each other as day dissolves into night. And even in the uncompromisingly strong light of midday, when shapes and colours alike tend to be flattened, landforms have a trick to play in that many and various shadows come alive, creating intriguingly intense patterns on the green canvas.
Landform has been with us in Britain for millennia. Think of neolithic sites or ancient fortifications such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, with its rings of earthern ramparts. The medieval tradition of ridge-and-furrow agriculture has produced a distinctive wavy landscape in many parts of Britain’s countryside. The medieval and Tudor period saw a vogue for mounds in gardens (there is a fine example in the garden of New College, Oxford) and in the 18th century a craze emerged for formal amphitheatres, such as the one at Claremont in Surrey.
British gardeners were renowned for their skill with grass, deployed to best advantage in the bowling greens which were de rigueur in British gardens in the first half of the 18th century. Then Capability Brown came along and made extensive landforming for picturesque, naturalistic effect the must-have accoutrement for landowners. And, of course, the humble lawn still has a central place in the gardening culture of this country.
In the mid-1990s, however, the resilient cult of landform was given a new fillip through the example of the American architectural historian and landscape architect Charles Jencks (who has lived in Britain since 1965). Inspired by the landscaping experiments of his late wife Maggie Keswick, an expert on Chinese garden history and the “bones of the earth” traditions of feng shui, Jencks brought in the bulldozers to devise an astonishing landform garden at their estate in Dumfriesshire, called The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
The intellectual basis was an amalgam of various scientific and cosmic theories – including folding, the double helix of DNA and fractals – expressed by the central move of the space, a magnificent S-shaped grass berm offset by pools. Whether or not visitors understood all of the scientific underpinnings (and most did not), the sheer tactile pleasure of walking these mounds, or just gasping at the otherworldly scene, made it one of the most notable gardens to be created in the closing decades of the 20th century.
It took a while for Jencks’ influence to percolate, for the style seemed so much his own. But in the new century a number of others have made landform a key element of their visual vocabulary. The best designers are no mere Jencks copyists; rather, they have adapted landforming very much to their own sensibilities.
Kim Wilkie is one such. Last July he completed an astonishing landform, entitled Orpheus, for the Duke of Buccleuch at Boughton House in Northamptonshire. This is basically a geometrically designed hole in the ground, with a shallow grass path leading down into the bottom of the space, a square black pool. It was designed to complement an existing 18th-century mound on the opposite side of a canal in Boughton’s extensive formal landscape, and has an extremely strong presence in context. “Each of my landforms is responding to the site and saying something specific,” Wilkie says. “You can’t just ‘do it’ for the sake of it – there has to be a clear rationale.”
One of Wilkie’s first major projects with landform was in 1995 at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, where he created a fan of grass terraces for private clients to replace a rather dull Victorian scheme immediately behind the house. “I love working with shadow and mist and the times of day and year,” he says. “It’s nice when something comes alive at a special moment.”
Wilkie has completed at least a dozen landform projects and is now working on several more for private clients. These range from a relatively formal landform in the shape of a knot to a subtle scheme of sinuous channels designed to rejuvenate a watermeadow. And in the garden of his own smallholding in Hampshire, Wilkie proves that a large acreage is not always necessary for an effective landform, in this case a small burial mound inspired by the 17th-century mounds along the edge of the Thames.
Dan Pearson is another notable designer who has worked in the medium of landform. “It’s a comparatively cheap way of creating space and it doesn’t leave a huge ecological footprint – future generations can leave it or change it quite easily,” he says. Like Wilkie, Pearson is adamant that there has to be a practical reason for landforming and strong conceptual thought behind it: “I’ve seen quite a lot of misused and misguided landform. There is work out there in this vein and you think, ‘Why?’”
Done well, Pearson believes turf sculpture can be a particularly suitable medium in the UK. “In the States they tend to use landform in the desert,” he explains, “but the beauty here is the possibility of softness – it can become voluptuous and tactile.” He is currently working on a landscape for a private estate on the coast of Lincolnshire, where a new house will be offset by a two-acre lake, the spoil from which Pearson will use to create a landform that mimics the patterns sand makes on the seabed.
Pearson’s biggest foray into landform – perhaps the biggest anywhere – is under way in Japan, where he is masterminding the creation of the Tokachi Millennium Forest, an ecological park on the island of Hokkaido. The landforming was partly a way of solving a problem. “Visitors arrive at the base of a mountain,” Pearson explains, “in this huge, undefined space; it’s like standing in the middle of a football pitch where you can’t see the edges. I wanted to create an enticement for visitors to walk through the space and up the mountain.” There have been some unexpected benefits, too. “It’s remarkable how the acoustic changes when you are among the landforms, and also the way the mountains feel pulled towards you,” he says.
So what does Jencks himself make of it all? Over lapsang souchong and shards of chocolate at his London town house, he is characteristically generous towards those who have become as beguiled as he is by green landforms. But he, too, is adamant that the aesthetic imperative is not enough on its own. “All of my work is content-driven,” he says – something of an understatement, given the complexity and detail embedded in his designs. Archaeology is now as much of a preoccupation for Jencks as cosmology. “Did you know that there are 1,000 stone circles in Britain?” he queries. He says he has visited 40 or 50 such sites over the past 20 years, a factor that adds a valuable emotional, even spiritual dimension to his work.
Jencks’ most recent major landform, still unfinished, is Life Mounds, a design based on the structure of cells, situated either side of the main drive to Bonnington House in Scotland. Here, owners Robert and Nicky Wilson have commissioned site-specific sculptural works by artists including Antony Gormley and Andy Goldsworthy, and rechristened the estate Jupiter Artland. They opened to the public for the first time last year.
As a client (though in reality, being a sculptor herself, she has played an active creative role in the project), Nicky Wilson professes delight at the reality of living with a landform. “What is nice about it is we don’t have to make a pilgrimage to view the art,” she explains. “We drive through it and interact with it four or five times a day.”
She has been especially gratified by the way an open-air class used the landform as a way of helping to understand how cell structure and cell division works. On the other hand, she describes the landform as a visually soothing experience: “It’s a very beautiful thing to live with. It’s soothing because I know that it has been considered very carefully and that all the lines are true and right. We’re very proud of it, really.”
And so to practicalities. Wilkie has his colleagues map “down to the last millimetre” the positioning of his turf features, and praises the “incredibly skilful digger drivers” they work with. “For Orpheus,” he says, “I would say there is only one digger driver in Britain [at Miles Waterscapes in Suffolk] who could have done it.” Pearson makes a card or plasticine model to present to the digger driver “because it’s so much more tangible than a plan on paper”, as does Jencks. As for maintenance, these turf mounds only need mowing but they must be kept pristine. Any bare patches in the grass or sagging of mounds can ruin the look. Nicky Wilson says they have one man mowing the landform two days per week in summer – which adds up.
Pearson also acknowledges that the high level of maintenance can be a drawback for some. On the other hand, perhaps we would be remiss not to exploit a medium so suited to the British climate – even compared with the rest of Europe – with its fairly reliably wet summers and quick rejuvenation of grass. Pearson puts it more succintly than anyone: “We can do it here because the grass stays green.”