The Best of Times – Part 2

The Palmstead Conference, and particularly the presentation on the Olympic Park got me thinking about what it’s like being involved in garden and landscape design today, and I couldn’t help feeling that maybe this is the best of times. Sure, competition is greater and money tighter, but that also means that professionalism and standards are consequently on the rise, which in turn will heighten the esteem in which this undervalued profession is held.

It’s hard to see pictures of the Olympic Park without thinking of other major works of public landscape architecture such as the High Line in New York, the world’s most successful park ever, by most ways you could imagine measuring it. New York in turn (for me) evokes The Velvet Underground, and the analogy that if everyone who heard the VU went out and started a band, after seeing the High Line, every landscape architect surely dreams of designing a high-profile public space that transforms a former wasteland into a much-loved public space. There the metaphor runs out of steam, since the VU sold only a handful of records in their lifetime whilst the HL is the most visited attraction in NY and was well-loved from the start. And that’s where I’ll stop flogging that particular dead horse.

What both of these great projects do though, is to engage people with landscape and with architecture, and to get them thinking, consciously or subliminally about the Language of Landscape and how we read it, and maybe makes people actually see things which previously slipped below their radar. After seeing the High Line, a park will never be ‘just a park’ again, because the definition of what a park can be, has been enriched and expanded. Similarly, in a country that pretty much wrote the book on self-effacement and passive aggression, i’ve not heard a bad word said about the Olympic Park – it seems like most visitors fall in love with the landscape, regardless of their opinion of the various buildings on the site.

All of this can only be good for landscape design in general: although not all of the ideas displayed in such projects translate easily to the small canvas, naturalism as a movement has been growing for three decades, and now has some flagship projects to raise awareness of these kinds of approaches to landscape and planting, which will hopefully feed through into the tastes of both the owners of private gardens, and those who commission commercial and public landscapes. In time, maybe this will lead us away from the more wasteful, outdated and contrived styles in private gardens, and from the dreadful and dull utility landscapes of evergreen shrubs in public landscapes. One can but hope..

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