Think of minimalist design and some of the words that spring to mind are elegance, tranquillity and understatement, while among the negatives would be cold, characterless or forbidding. Flicking through glossy magazines filled with all-white interiors, glass walls and beechwood floors, how many of us have inwardly wondered, “Where do these people put all their stuff?”
The world of gardens is more forgiving than that – it has to be. Interior designers can leave a set of rooms looking just so, which the owners can subsequently at least attempt to keep in pristine order. But you simply cannot be a control freak when you are dealing with the great outdoors. The closest to real minimalism in gardens is the so-called Zen tradition of Japanese garden design, with raked grey gravel, carefully placed rocks and perhaps a maple or two. But these gardens tend to look somewhat kitsch or absurd far away from their homes in Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo and Osaka.
Minimalist modernism has nevertheless remained popular as a favoured garden style among those who abhor clutter inside the house, and don’t see why they should put up with it outside either. The truth is that it can work extremely well as a style – the architectural emphasis makes it easier to effect a transition between indoors and out, often by continuance of the same stone or other materials, and by the installation of large plate-glass windows. Swimming pools and associated decks often work very well in a modernist setting, as do geometrically arranged dining and seating areas, or a fire pit for a wilderness feel. Conservatories, detached pavilions and fabric awnings can create a refreshing feeling that one has entered a different zone, a room outside, while simple changes in material (from smooth stone to river pebbles, for example) can create drama with little fuss in the minimalist milieu.
The danger remains that minimalist design can appear somewhat soulless. A good garden designer will therefore allow the space to express itself, with a little more oomph than might be the case inside. Indeed, planting design has become an unexpected bedfellow of sleek minimalism in recent years, leading to a trend for what might be termed “maximalist minimalism”, where plants and sculpture or topiary and other clipped forms introduce a sense of character and place in an outdoor setting. Christopher Bradley-Hole in Britain and Ulf Nordfjell in Sweden have led the way with this movement towards minimalist architecture and big plantings (especially grasses and other perennials). But a new generation of modernist garden designers has its own ideas and is now making a mark.
Philip Nixon is a London-based designer who says he began his career as “a Modernist with a capital M. Perhaps I started off a little bit rigid,” he admits, “but I’m not like that now. I shy away from the modernist-minimalist tag because it immediately makes people think of something hard and dry, and a bit too serious.”
Nixon specialises in urban gardens of all sizes that are highly architectural in their engineering, but at the same time bursting with plants. At one of his projects in Primrose Hill, north London, for example, he used black-rendered concrete to define a stark geometric ground plan, with a lap pool running almost the length of the garden and a “frame” at the far end, which marks a “cave-like entrance” to the children’s play area beyond. Several large rectangles of planting are incorporated into the geometric plan, each filled with low grasses and perennials such as cranesbill geraniums. “I use big blocks of plants, because that’s the way you get the drama,” Nixon explains. “I love the lush fresh greens you get with hemerocallis [day lily] or hakonechloa grass – those almost fern-like colours.” There’s a similar balance between soft plants and clean-lined architecture at one of his Chelsea gardens, in The Boltons, which features cool limestone, clipped-box cubes and a grid of multi-stemmed Euonymus alatus, offset by deep runnels of planted beds, with feathery pennisetum grasses, purple salvias and Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle). “I always start off with a structure and a geometry that is concept-based,” he explains, “but then the letting-out of the breath, if you like – the relaxing bit – comes from using perennials, looser shrubs and multi-stemmed trees.” He says he uses the latter because they “provide a release”.
One of the benefits of the modern look is that the garden earns its keep in winter. Nixon says, “Clients are amazed that the garden can look great in February as well. That’s when the internal structure really pays off.”
Del Buono Gazerwitz is a design duo based in Shoreditch, east London, consisting of Florentine Tommaso del Buono and American Paul Gazerwitz. “Our style is very structured and architectural, but we hope not too rigid – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” says del Buono. On the other hand, there is a pronounced horticultural aspect to their commissions and they agree that their style has been influenced by the fact that they are working in Britain, with its forgiving climate and tradition of plantsmanship. Indeed, their planting is English in tone, involving roses, verbascums, hostas and foxgloves.
One of Del Buono Gazerwitz’s most successful recent designs is a garden in Holland Park, a large plot by the standards of the area (60m by 20m). The key to this muscular formal design is scale – big scale – and it is this that makes the minimalism seem so maximalist.
“The trick was to use almost oversized or out-of-scale plants in the relatively small space,” says del Buono. “We started by selecting the plants – mature boxwood topiaries, hornbeams and evergreen oaks. We went to nurseries in Belgium, Holland and Germany in search of the right specimens.” A sleek Portuguese limestone terrace and a perfect lawn is balanced by a simple stone pavilion and the confident forms of the topiary. Flanking lines of pleached hornbeam trees create a different texture and seasonal variety, while a single magnolia creates a splash of pink in spring.
Andy Sturgeon is a Sussex-based designer and a past winner of the best-show garden award at the Chelsea Flower Show. Like Nixon, he considered himself a modernist designer earlier on in his career: “I suppose I started off looking forwards, and now I’m looking backwards,” he quips, referring to his recent public “confession” that the English Arts and Crafts style of the 1920s and 1930s has been as influential on him as the modernism of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. In fact, the two styles have more in common with each other than the promulgators of either would probably care to admit – witness the modernist credentials of early-20th-century British designers such as Edwin Lutyens, Oliver Hill and Clough Williams-Ellis. “Modernism allowed me to see the simplicity of things,” says Sturgeon, “including the fact that spatial design is just as important to the Arts and Crafts tradition.”
The private gardens Sturgeon has designed in the past few years do indeed represent a confident melding of modernist principles with more traditional English ideas, notably in terms of romantic planting and the idea of the garden room, or partly hedged enclosure. Sturgeon likens the insertion of modernist ideas in a historic setting to “taking an old house and putting a modern kitchen in it”. It’s the approach he took at one garden in West Sussex, completed in 2010, where the generously curving form of a sleek terrace encloses a lawn fringed with romantic plantings, and provides a platform for views over the South Downs and Weald. At another, larger Sussex garden, he topped dry-stone walls with smooth limestone, dramatically juxtaposing materials associated with Arts and Crafts and modernism respectively. “The spatial design sets the structure, and with the planting I’m trying to create atmosphere and character,” says Sturgeon. “I think I design gardens to be in, not just to be looked at.”
Luciano Giubbilei was brought up in Siena but trained in landscape design in England, and now has a thriving garden-design practice based in London. Giubbilei brings an Italian sense of spatial proportion and understated style to metropolitan gardens and courtyards. His designs are unapolegetically formal and minimal in tone, using clipped box, hornbeam, smooth lawns, grey stone and still water, but he maximises his minimalism through sculpture, lighting and planting.
Working with sculptors has proved revelatory to Giubbilei: “They push me in a way nothing else does,” he says, mentioning his regular collaborations with Stephen Cox, Nigel Hall and Peter Randall-Page, all artists who tend to work with large organic forms carved in stone. Giubbilei came across Hall’s work in Majorca and later visited his studio in London; they are now regular collaborators at projects such as a garden in Addison Road, Kensington, where an elegant phosphor-bronze sculpture by Hall forms the centrepiece.
Night lighting has a transformative effect on urban gardens. “In the city, most of the time you are looking at your garden from the house interior,” Giubbilei says. “So at night, when you put the lights on, you have another room to look at, perhaps with sculpture as an element. I have an unchanging rhythm and spacing throughout my designs. I just light all the voids between the elements. I’m as fascinated by artificial light as I am by natural light.” Giubbilei has only very recently begun exploring the possibilities of planting design, and is currently in the discussion stages of two projects with Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the fabled Great Dixter in Sussex. “I’m experimenting with ideas around flowers and light,” he reveals.Giubbilei is well aware that the pared-down approach can look a little austere in books and magazines. “The spaces can look clinical – intimidating, even. But in reality, of course, these gardens are alive. I use a lot of hedges and trees, which are very green. There is light, and the seasons, and the wildlife comes into it.” Giubbilei is at pains to point out that he designs gardens for families, where people interact with the space: “I don’t design gardens just to be looked at.”
Giubbilei tells a story about a small, pristine garden he designed in Pelham Crescent in Chelsea with a stone plinth fountain set in a sea of grey gravel, and a trio of multi-stemmed amelanchier trees set against clipped box and hornbeam. “This boy had made piles with the gravel and was playing with his cars in them,” he recalls. “He was having a great time and I was just delighted about it. It was a moment you couldn’t design.” One of those moments, perhaps, when minimalism gets turned up to the max.