Down to earth

Fay Sweet digs up a new breed of landscape designer that talks to all the creatives on a project, creating harmonious designs where all the elements fit together

Landscape architecture is suffering from an identity crisis – at least on the part of the consumer. For many, landscape design equals pretty rolling parkland designed by Capability Brown, or a screen of trees to disguise a new reservoir. It’s true that parks and scars have been a specialism of the landscape architect, but with our increasing environmental awareness, the skills to mould and shape outdoor space are becoming highly prized.

As a creative discipline it is part of the mix of many three-dimensional projects, and is looking to improve its standing among other practitioners, particularly architects.

The current trend for major 3D projects should help to raise the profile of landscape architects among the public, but more importantly, other creative practitioners. In projects big and small around the country, landscape architects are working their magic, whether it’s in the amazing Eden Project in Cornwall, the Earth Centre in Doncaster, or the Bluewater shopping centre. Certainly, Lottery money and millennium projects have boosted the opportunities on offer – the revamping of the huge Mile End Park is just one example where there has been considerable freedom to reinvent what was formerly a dull, linear London park. The first phase is due to open at the end of the year.

“People might not consciously notice a particular piece of landscape design, but they certainly know when a place feels goodä when it feels comfortable, safe and interesting,” says Charlotte Hare of landscape architecture practice Elizabeth Banks Associates, which has made a reputation for its work in sensitive historical settings. Recent projects include the beautifully sculpted roof garden of the Lexington apartments in the City of London, and landscape consultancy for the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire.

“And that’s the dilemma,” Hare adds. “A building is a very obvious piece of design. You notice it and decide whether you like it or not; very often landscape work doesn’t jump out and make a statement, it works more subtly. However, it’s up to the profession to create awareness and to raise its own profile, and that’s to be achieved by producing the best quality work and demonstrating what’s possible.”

Despite the successes, many in the profession feel their work continues to be underrated, not just by the public, but also by fellow professionals, including architects. “I’m sure plenty of architects can’t stand us and think that we are an irritant, and that’s exactly what we are,” says Kim Wilkie, head of Kim Wilkie Associates. Wilkie’s recent projects include an urban design assessment in Southwark, south-east London, hotel landscaping in Beirut and the campus of the New York University in Florence.

“However, when the relationship is equal and it works, the end product can be very imaginative and powerful,” he adds. “The public has become extremely sophisticated in understanding and reading the landscape, so it’s no longer enough to create a building that’s an isolated set piece. When that building is sensitively-sited there’s real appreciation.” Wilkie is extremely unusual in the way he works – he is often the lead designer on a project. “It makes sense, doesn’t it, to create the vision of the landscape before a building is placed into it?”, he says. It’s a sentiment backed up by the professional body, The Landscape Institute.

Wilkie continues: “If I’m in at the start I can also make suggestions for maintenance and sustainability, as well as long-term running of the site, things like collection and use of rainwater and recycling grey water. The way an environment works is just as important as how it looks.” Usually employed by the developer or site owner, Wilkie is often asked which architect he recommends.

Also for Tom Lonsdale of Camlin Lonsdale, landscape design is a great deal more than a visual experience. “We like to see landscape in a broad historical, geographical and cultural perspective.” Camlin Lonsdale has established a reputation for approaching projects as artists, and will often bring together teams composed of designers and artists, who work as an integrated and inseparable unit from the start. Projects cover a vast spectrum, from business parks and urban design work to a cemetery and, on site now, revamping the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with architect Howarth Tompkins. “We are interested in promoting a way of thinking which brings the best out of the team and the site. We stray unapologetically beyond the bounds of what is expected of us, and our philosophy is to compete with the quality of our ideas so that we do more than appeal to the client – we make ourselves irresistible.”

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{storyLink (“DW199910290053″,”The Teleport – Kim Wilkie Associates”)}

{storyLink (“DW199910290054″,”Saga HQ – Camlin Lonsdale”)}

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