June 15, 2012 7:29 pm

Habitats for harmony

Acclaimed landscape architect Kim Wilkie on two projects he has undertaken in fragile environments
A 17th-century causeway in Solovki that acts as a breakwater, creating protected pockets for farming fish©Kim Wilkie

A 17th-century causeway in Solovki that acts as a breakwater, creating protected pockets for farming fish

In the total volume of the planet, we inhabit the thinnest layer on the surface of the sphere and rely on a meagre band of atmosphere that hovers above that layer. The cross-section through the earth is 12,756km (7,926 miles) but the habitable crust is only 50km and the atmosphere is less than 12km high. This places life in a very fragile band around the planet. Landscape architecture has to start here, in this extraordinary film of biosphere. Landscape is our physical and cultural relationship with land, water and air.

Over the years I have worked on a few projects that have shown great ingenuity in basic survival and long-term stewardship of the land. Two in particular – the Solovki archipelago and the Saxon villages of Transylvania – give insights into the way that we might look at the principles of settlement afresh.

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The Solovki archipelago has formed at the junction of tectonic plates in the White Sea on the edge of the Russian Arctic Circle. The earth’s crust is unusually thin at this point and geothermal heat reaches the surface, contributing to a microclimate that has helped humans to inhabit the remote islands for at least 5,000 years. It is a place of spiritual intensity. Over the millennia, people have shown their veneration with structures from early pagan stone labyrinths to one of the most sacred of the Russian monasteries. Solovki was also the first labour camp in the Soviet gulag and a place of murder and torture.

Solovki embodies life on the edge. In the fragile environment of the far north the monks evolved a system of land management from the 15th century onwards that was balanced on the limit of survival. They experimented with growing and storing sufficient food and fuel in summer to last them through the six months of dark isolation during the Arctic winter. They managed to drain enough bogs, to grow enough hay, to support enough cattle, to produce enough manure, to fertilise enough vegetables, to survive. They knew just how much seaweed they could harvest without upsetting the micro-environment around the shore and they banned any logging of trees, allowing only collection of fallen dry wood for fuel. A small botanical garden was grown for medicines and for bees, as much to provide wax for candles and winter light as for honey.

A Neolithic labyrinth on Great Zayatsky Island in Solovki©Kim Wilkie

A Neolithic labyrinth on Great Zayatsky Island in Solovki

Solovki was much destroyed during the Soviet period and the brutal passage through the gulag, but the monks have now returned and the archipelago has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site. I was commissioned by the Prince of Wales’s Business Leaders Forum to provide initial advice on how to restore and sustain the historic cultural landscape. In many ways this project epitomises the relationship between man, land and fragile cultural existence. I worked with the Russian botanist Artyom Parshin, and my role as landscape architect was initially a kind of triage: to identify what was most significant, most vulnerable and most urgent to restore and repair. It was a delicate balancing of political, cultural and natural priorities. There were sensitive questions, such as which 20th-century buildings should be removed to reveal the monastery in its dramatic setting without distorting some of the darker history of the place, and how new facilities could be included without destroying the harmony of the whole.

I tried to capture the essences of the place. The work in Solovki led on to a similar project for another World Heritage site, the Siebenbürgen in Transylvania for the Mihai Eminescu Trust and the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation. The Siebenbürgen are a group of Saxon villages in the centre of Romania where the community and way of life have changed remarkably little since the 12th century, despite a rather violent and turbulent history. From 1241 onwards, the settlers faced raids by Mongols, Ottomans, Hungarians and Romanians as well as the plague. After the second world war the majority of the adult Saxon population was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in the Soviet Union and only about half of the deported Saxons survived to return to a communist Romania. Then in 1990, following Nicolae Ceausescu’s removal from power, the Saxons were invited to repatriate to Germany seven centuries after their original departure. There was a mass emigration.

Astonishingly the Saxon villages still just manage to survive as the closest thing to a medieval landscape in Europe. There is the remnant of a beautiful balance between settlement, cultivation and nature. In the gentle, rolling countryside, the villages are tucked economically into the valley folds, and defensible, fortified church complexes stand at strategic highpoints. Everywhere there are animals: horses, cows, pigs and poultry in the villages; wolves, bears, lynx and wild boar in the forests; and eagles, owls, storks and larks in the skies. The meadows are lush with wild flowers and streams run fresh from hillside springs.

Each dawn in Viscri a young boy leads the village cattle out to pasture and the courtyard doors of the houses open for their cows to follow him in single file down the street. In the evening he returns and each cow peels off nonchalantly to her respective address, as the villagers welcome them back with a shot of local vodka. It is the kind of harmony of human settlement in nature that we can only dream about in the 21st century.

A Saxon village in Transylvania©Kim Wilkie

A Saxon village in Transylvania where agriculture, wildflowers, farm animals, wildlife and humans are all mutually dependent

Since the 1990 exodus, the villages have emptied. The remnant population of the Saxon villages clearly wants to rise out of subsistence farming to enjoy the benefits of modern life.

My task was again to follow a triage of landscape assessment of the most significant, vulnerable and viable. Keeping some form of labour-intensive agriculture is the key to the survival of this remarkable landscape, as well as employment and community. The challenge is to stimulate sufficient local and specialist markets to keep farming viable, to use mechanisation at a scale that does not destroy the land and to encourage the young to return to the villages.

There is no simple way to catapult the 12th century into the 21st. Although it might feel as though Transylvania holds some magic recipe for the Arcadian ideal of living with the land, few of us would put up with the severity of that existence. Our contribution was to attempt to highlight the most important and fragile aspects of the landscape and natural environment, while at the same time finding sensitive and economic ways of introducing running water, local natural sewage treatment, co-operative agriculture ventures, internet connections, outside funding possibilities and sympathetic architectural conservation.

Kim Wilkie, who designed the V&A’s renowned John Madejski Garden, will discuss his life and work at the V&A on Monday June 18, 7pm-8.45pm £15 (including reception and book signing), tel: +44 (0)20 7942 2277

Edited extract from ‘Led by the Land’ published by Frances Lincoln, £35

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The Thames’ landscape

The river Thames lies at the physical and spiritual centre of London. As well as bringing light, space and wildlife into the centre of the city, it offers a menacing reminder that flood and drought lurk as sudden possibilities. London has less per capita annual rainfall than Israel but, if the Tidal Barrier were to fail, the central corridor of the city could be flooded, threatening 1.25m people, 400 schools, 16 hospitals, 13 mainline stations, eight power stations and much of the Underground system.

The river changes character as it runs through London and turns greener and more residential towards Kew. Between Kew and Hampton the Thames meanders through a unique landscape of parks, palaces and working communities.

‘Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday’ by JMW Turner (1819)©Tate Images

‘Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday’ by JMW Turner (1819)

The Thames Valley at Richmond was the cradle of the English Landscape Movement in the 18th century. With apparent mutual respect and affection the wife and mistress of George II – Queen Caroline and Henrietta Howard, living on opposite banks of the river – joined forces to patronise a radical new landscape philosophy. They befriended and employed the leading landscape architects and thinkers of the time: Alexander Pope, Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Their projects along this stretch of the Thames set the pattern for a more natural and fluid appreciation of landscape. Views and vistas were carefully merged to create a pastoral landscape where garden, river, man and beast were part of a seamless whole. I became involved with this upper Arcadian stretch of the river more than 20 years ago.

By looking at historic maps and paintings, it was possible to trace the way that the upstream section of the London Thames was linked by ancient sightlines and vistas that worked with the topography of the land and the bends in the river.

An extraordinary sequence of views still survives that stretches right across London, linking Windsor Castle to a Neolithic barrow on the top of Richmond Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral to Greenwich.

Later, with the help of a remarkable range of inspired and dedicated people, we managed to prepare the Thames Landscape Strategy: Hampton to Kew. Instead of analysing the place in terms of specialist layers of zoning, we explored the river landscape as a whole: what it looks and feels like and how it makes sense to the people who live and work there. The strategy was based on three years of daily observation of the river landscape; interviews with more than 180 local interest groups and 50 official bodies; and extensive public consultation. It charted the historic, natural and recreation landscapes, crossing borough boundaries and legal jurisdictions to agree policies and projects for the next hundred years – the time it takes for an oak to reach maturity.

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