Chelsea Flower Show: the new gardenesque

A new global trend is emerging that I call “gardenesque”. Let me explain: as the pace of globalisation and urbanisation has accelerated, so too has the demand for public space to take on a more human scale – an intimacy to offset a world in which, for the first time in history, more of us live in towns and cities than in the countryside.

Green spaces within urban areas have become widely recognised for their environmental, aesthetic and generally life-enhancing qualities. However, a few trees protruding from a paved piazza are no longer deemed sufficient. The current trend is to break down these areas into more personal spaces that have a heart and soul, to give communities an identity and to push nature to the fore.

In places such as the High Line in New York and the Potters Fields gardens along the Thames footpath in London the balance is tipped away from hard paving and built structure towards plants and greenery. These places take on some elements of our private realms, our own gardens. Hence, gardenesque. In the 19th century the term was used mostly to describe a style bigging up trees and shrubs. I use it to donate a style which brings human scale to monumental city developments.

Feedback from commercial clients from Hong Kong to London is that, even in large public landscapes, they want plant-heavy schemes on a more intimate scale. They are turning their backs on the hectares of granite paving typical of the late 20th and early 21st century’s corporate and public landscaping. Many of the big landscape architecture practices involved in planning new cities in China and the Middle East are increasingly accused of “drawing interesting shapes” on paper that fail to translate into the human scale place making that people actually need.

Hudson River Park in Manhattan

This brings into sharp focus the distinction between landscape architecture and garden design. Until recently they were considered two different disciplines, and the one tended to have little respect for the other. Landscape architects typically look at the bigger picture of parks, urban planning, large-scale developments and the spaces between buildings in towns and cities. Garden designers focus more on the fine grain – the detail – with an emphasis on a strong horticultural bias and, usually, on a much smaller scale. The overlap between the two disciplines has always been blurry and small, bordering on non-existent, but now this overlapping area itself is thriving – and beginning to take centre stage.

For instance, the old massed plantings of dogwoods and berberis are on their way out and, with a bit of luck, the miles of schefflera that line the highways in the subtropics will soon become an eyesore of the past. Those ubiquitous shrubs chosen to provide bulk rather than texture and subtlety are now supplemented, or even replaced, by grasses and perennials and a far wider palette of plants. This approach requires more time and skill to manage, with the attendant higher maintenance costs, but build costs – the capital cost – can even be reduced. Put simply, clients can expect to pay about £350 a sq metre for hard landscaping and £100 a sq metre for soft landscaping (the plants) in prime London sites today.

I am working on a series of new London squares and courtyards where the client frequently refers us back to my plant-rich Chelsea Flower Show gardens from 2010 and 2012 with the word “urban” virtually banished from design meetings. Each space will be different in character and these idiosyncratic places are intended to create local identities and atmospheres, addresses and postcodes for the new towers of glass, stone and steel. The background to this gardenesque movement seems rooted in the way that the world has changed so quickly in recent times.

Twelve years ago, when I decided to move my landscape and garden design studio 50 miles out of London to Brighton, the business suffered at the hands of geography. Gone was my respected London phone number and postcode and, along with it, an unknown number of prospective clients whose perception was that I was no longer located at the convenient and logical centre of their universe.

Yet in little more than a decade horizons have utterly changed and location seems almost irrelevant as the market is no longer London centric or even countrywide. It is global. So now merely being in the UK is good enough as long as I am near an airport and willing to spend a lot of time in the air.

The High Line in New York

With the rise in super-prime residential, investors will happily go to a property show in Singapore to buy a multimillion-pound apartment they have never seen in a golden postcode in London. So why not recruit a landscape designer from the other side of the world after a few minutes searching the internet and a brief exchange of emails? It is a psychological shift in attitude to procurement. People, it seems, have lost their geographical anchors and, to many, there is no longer such a thing as “foreign”. Those who use a private jet to nip down to the Caribbean for a party, or pop over to Paris for a fashion show, never think twice about shopping for consultants around the globe.

In Hong Kong, where our UK-based practice is working on a landscape concept for a high-end apartment building in Kowloon, the architect is Australian and the interior designer is Canadian. Architects have always travelled – Le Corbusier worked in Moscow from the late 1920s for instance – but nowadays they have no geographical limitations. Landscape designers have followed in their wake.

London’s cultural supremacy and growing reputation as a design capital has been good for business and, combined with England’s long tradition of garden-making, it means that global clients frequently beat a path to the doors of UK-based landscape architects and garden designers. It seems if you want a well-designed chair, you look in Milan; and for gardens, England is the obvious choice.

The landscape budget has always been intrinsically linked to the value of the real estate, so the rise of super-prime residential properties means these budgets are also heading north. Latest figures from international real estate agents Savills show prime central London property stands at £2,000 per sq ft, while prime real estate in Hong Kong and Singapore is reaching £2,500 and £900 per sq ft respectively. In comparison, landscaping typically costs between £100 and £200 per sq ft for private gardens in London (although they are less than half this for commercial schemes, where profit margins rule). So, as property prices soar in global cities, the cost of flying in a landscape designer to mastermind the garden and surrounding environment has become increasingly viable to developers and in many cases invaluable, as they strive to stand out in a competitive market.

While the UK is the perfect base for Europe, Russia, north Africa, the Middle East and the US, a significant number of British architects, including Foster and Partners, Terry Farrell and Paul Davis and Partners, have opened offices in other regions, including Hong Kong, to capitalise on the growing Asian market.

Roof garden in Hong Kong

Although my practice is minuscule in comparison, I too have opened a small office in Singapore, teaming up with two Singaporean landscape architects and a garden designer from Australia to form Garden Design Asia. It was becoming obvious that life would be considerably easier with a hub in Singapore to reach growing markets as disparate as China, the Maldives, Malaysia and Indonesia. It will also be a gateway to some of the growing economies in Cambodia, Vietnam and, perhaps, Myanmar.

And as these various global economies grow, so too do their gardening industries and their horticultural aspirations. The Garden City of Singapore leads the way but many other countries are trying to catch up. Often using the Chelsea Flower Show as the model, new garden shows and festivals are popping up all over the place. The biennial Singapore Garden Festival, launched in 2006, now attracts 300,000 international visitors over nine days. Other places to jump on to the bandwagon in the past few years include Malaysia, Moscow, St Petersburg, Bahrain and now Dubai.

The latest Asian country to catch the garden design bug is South Korea. Last month I put the finishing touches to a show garden for the 110-hectare Suncheon Bay Garden Expo, which runs in Suncheon City until October this year. It includes wetlands, an arboretum, a medicinal herb garden and international contributions from the US, Japan and Europe. The interesting prospect here is that event organisers have pledged to create the Suncheon Bay Ecological Park on the site after the event closes, incorporating all the garden exhibits.

This sort of urban regeneration is the future and it is encouraging that garden scale, or gardenesque elements, will be at their heart.

Andy Sturgeon is a former Best in Show winner

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