Early in my career, I attended a memorable lecture by garden designer Arne Maynard at the Oxford Botanic Garden. As we sat in the unique and historical surroundings, he spoke about creating gardens with a ‘sense of place’, something evident in his work, and now central to my own.
When I first encounter a garden, I have an immediate sense of its character – warm and welcoming, cold or standoffish, vibrant with energy and colour, or calm and contemplative. A garden’s personality develops over time, from the moment of its creation through to the present day. As a designer, I am perhaps more attuned to sensing a garden’s character – or sense of place – than most, but I am sure that everyone who visits a garden will feel it in some way.
Spirit of place
A further contributing element to a sense of place can be revealed by what is unique, distinct and cherished about it, often described as a spirit of place. In the opening pages of Dan Pearson’s book Spirit: Garden Inspiration, he describes trespassing in the neglected 18th century Painshill gardens as a young horticultural student in the 1980s. He beautifully captures the romance of the lost garden, the dereliction and the archaeology of the remains.
Clearly, the spirit of place at Painshill deeply affected Pearson. A garden’s relationship with time and nature; its personality and place are themes that permeate his work. This can be seen in his twenty-year project creating a community space in Tokachi, Japan, where the spirit of place is unmistakable. Here, he was inspired by Japan’s deep respect for nature and created a natural woodland setting with indigenous plantings that gently flow with the landscape.
So, how can we use these ideas to create successful gardens?
If we work to understand a garden’s evolution through time, we can create a sense of place that respects its innate personality, but also takes it somewhere new.
1. Be sensitive to the garden’s innate character
Any experience of a garden is layered. We have an innate response - an immediate response to how a space makes us feel. It determines whether we might linger or leave. And then, we have an informed response, where knowledge and cultural understanding guide a more intellectual reaction.
Using these ideas to inform a design starts with sensitivity. It demands looking and listening closely to a garden, to recognise its underlying character. As designers, we can guide and shape a garden but we must also let it speak for itself by respecting its personality.
In my gardens, I try to shape a sense of place through tangible elements such as materials and craftsmanship. I work with the stimuli I can find or encourage – like sound, scent, movement, light and shade – to provoke a response by harnessing people’s senses.
2. Embrace the personality of the garden owner
A place that has long resonated with me is the garden and landscape of Villa Cetinale near Florence. This garden’s history goes back centuries, to monastic ownership. It has developed over time as various owners have invested in the villa and left their mark. However, its dominant feature remains the unchanging natural landscape, with the garden and villa evolving at its heart.
Until recently, Cetinale was owned by Lord Lambton, a colourful UK politician who left the country under the veil of scandal. He spent 40 years restoring the gardens. His garden is romantic, understated and divine in its creation. Today his successors run the property as a wedding venue (a necessary commercial venture to earn its keep), so the garden is embedded in the special memories of the many, rather than one, single owner.
3. Look forwards as well as backwards
In my experience of working in historical gardens, a ‘sense of place’ is important to both me and my clients.
Three years ago, I was commissioned to design a garden masterplan as the setting to the lives of a young family who had recently moved from London to the country. The property had a deep history, the most apparent of which was from the early part of C19th. And, it was located in a National Park.
Although I proposed significant changes to the layout of the garden, I managed to retain and reveal the fabric of the original. Old flint walls, signature mature trees, and the natural open landscape were central to the design strategy. It was about creating a place where the family and the garden could grow together, adding their own style to the garden as it becomes a backdrop to their lives.
4. Connect the pieces to find cohesion
Occasionally, I’m asked to make or improve a garden where it is obvious that the heart or spirit of place has been compromised. This can be a challenge.
Often, the remedy is to design a scheme that heals by finding a cohesive way forward for the competing elements. A sensitive design vision can be found in something as simple as choosing an existing feature – a tree or a building – to inspire a new scheme. And carefully designed planting can help heal a fractured garden too.
Creating an authentic sense of place can be challenge. But it’s one that I relish. It’s all a question of feeling the garden, being sensitive to its character, then thinking through design solutions that complement its origins.