Sculpting the Land

Britain is a good place for earth works. The climate, the soils and the topography encourage people to go out and build turf-castles. Since the pre-historic Avebury Ring and the chalk sculpture of the White Horse in Wiltshire, there has been a tradition in the British Isles of sculpting the land into sensuous forms, held firm by close-cropped turf. Rain helps to grow abundant grass; sheep and rabbits can keep the surface short and smooth; and the low northern light shows off the subtle shapes to perfection – particularly with the accent of ground frost.

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The magical forms of tumuli rising through autumn mist have stirred imaginations from Spenser to Hardy. Viking barrows, sacred circles and earth mazes form a deep sediment of landscape memory in the national mind. Early earth works were usually carefully placed on ridges or knolls to take full advantage of the strategic view and make maximum impact from a distance. Their presence still dominates the landscape millennia later. Even when the earth works were defensive rather than sacred, such as Maiden Castle, Silbury Hill, Old Sarum, Offa’s Dyke and even Palmerston’s anti-Napoleonic redoubts, they were brilliant land sculptures.

Ironically earth forms tend to survive even longer than buildings and are repeatedly re-appropriated. Burial mounds, such as the one in Richmond Park, have been re-used for hunting high-points and communication lookouts. The Richmond Park mound aligns with St Paul’s cathedral and is now named King Henry VIII’s mount. Henry supposedly waited there for the signal from the Tower that Anne Boleyn had been beheaded and he could ride off to marry number three. The Thames landscape was dotted with similar viewing mounds. Francis Bacon created mounds at Twickenham Park (as well as Gray’s Inn) in the seventeenth century and during the eighteenth century, a whole series of mounds were raised along the river, notably for Princess Caroline at Richmond Lodge and Alexander Pope in Twickenham.

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One of Caroline’s protégés, Charles Bridgeman was a particular genius with geometric land sculpting. While breaking away from the surface intricacy of French and Dutch parterre design, Bridgeman worked with a more subtle formality on a massive scale, using the grass-clad shape of the land itself. Changing light and shade revealed the planes of his designs, while a looser frame of woodland trees directed views out into productive agricultural land beyond. Many of Bridgeman’s crisp, turf forms were later smoothed away by Lancelot Brown, but where his work survives at Stowe, Rousham and most particularly Claremont, it shows a wonderful dramatic artistry. For much of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more informal and naturalistic earth shaping became fashionable, but geometric turf sculpting was revived with art deco in the 1930s. Percy Cane’s grass terraces at Dartington Hall, are a good example.

Bridgeman’s landforms at Claremont, set beside Aislabie’s moon ponds at Studley Royal, reveal a tradition which has reemerged in contemporary landscape design such as Charles Jencks’ and Maggie Keswick’s work at Portrack and is now inspiring mounds and earthworks throughout Europe. Some of the most imaginative new directions have been led by environmental artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Andy Goldsworthy’s Taking a Wall for a Walk in Grizedale, for example, humorously combines memory of the old field patterns with a sensuous form that weaves between the trees and land.

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Across the Atlantic in the United States, earth works have also drawn on a separate tradition of native American design. The materials, scale and light are often different, tending to work with massive rock projects in desert areas. Some earthworks in the United States are also clothed with grass, very much in the English tradition. At his farm in Maine, James Pierce has consciously drawn on burial mounds, military redoubts and turf mazes to create a series of sculptural earthworks. Pierce’s ‘Earthwoman’, is a particularly witty addition. A female form with fecund buttocks lies face down in the meadow, the long grass on her flanks rippling in the wind.

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My own work has been greatly influenced by this tradition. One of my first projects at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk involved massive earth movements. Heveningham is one of those perfect eighteenth-century country houses that had the best designers of the day. Sir Robert Taylor built the hall; James Wyatt did the interiors; and Lancelot Brown designed the landscape. Unfortunately Brown died the year after the design and it was never implemented, but he left behind exquisite 10 foot long plans that we have now been able to implement two centuries later. 2 kilometres of lakes have been dug and a 40 metre 3-arched stone bridge will be built shortly.

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Behind the hall the land rises sharply to the south and the garden front has always posed a problem. A typical Victorian parterre had been built on the site in 1877, but the scale and ornamentation jarred beside the 80-yard long Georgian façade and retaining walls blocked the views from main reception rooms. The registered garden beside the Grade I listed house was clumsy for its setting, shaky in its foundations and, to be a little brutal, not very good design. In a ground-breaking decision, English Heritage consented to demolition and replacement with a completely new garden of sweeping grass terraces. The terraces flow with the rising land, arcing in a Fibonacci series fan that encompasses the veteran trees and gives the house space to breathe. The design was inspired by the landform, the setting of the hall and the scale of the landscape. I hope that it managed both to shed the mistakes of the past and yet respond to the needs and memories of the place.

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At Great Fosters in Surrey the problems were different. Great Fosters has had many lives: from a moated, seventeenth-century Windsor Great Park hunting lodge; to one of the houses that belonged to Jane Austen’s brother; to an aristocratic lunatic asylum; to the first country house hotel on the Ascot and debutante circuit, celebrated by Noel Coward in Private Lives. The hotel and elaborate Arts and Crafts gardens have been lovingly restored, but the M25 amputated the last third of the axial avenue and exposed the Grade I building to the noise and fumes of the congested motorway. After years of ‘discussions’ with the Highways Agency and acquisition of the neighbouring fields, we were able to find the funds to build half a mile of protective earth bunds and a 6 metre high grass amphitheatre as the new terminus to the avenue. The sculptural landform cuts out the noise and sight of the motorway and gives a focal end to the axial vista. To celebrate the opening we held a concert with a string quartet, just 25 metres from the busiest motorway in the country. The acoustic was perfect.

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The owners of Great Fosters continue to commission modern gardens to fit within the eclectic pattern of the place. We are currently working on a final pair of enclosed gardens beside the moat. An oval viewing mound on one side of the axial path, spirals down to an oval dell on the other, linked by a rill of water fed from the moat.

Land sculpting can even work in tight urban spaces. At Hyde Park Corner we are emphasising the natural fall in levels by forming a sweeping, south-facing grass bowl. The north-eastern corner is being raised by a further 2.5 metres, while the south-western corner (nearly 12 metres lower) is held by a 35 metre long water wall. The water wall has been built by the Australian government as a war memorial and the upper bowl is being created by the New Zealand government with exciting bronze sculptures in the pattern of the Southern Cross for their own memorial. With the new pedestrian crossings, the combined effect will be to turn Hyde Park Corner from an impenetrable traffic roundabout into a peaceful and protected fulcrum in the middle of the Royal Parks.

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The courtyard of the old County Hall has been similarly transformed. The old concrete roof grate in the centre of the court has been turned into a turf sculpture. Weight restrictions lead to some unorthodox use of polystyrene as subsoil and growth mats for vertical grass faces, but the final result is a kind of ziggurat of turf in a very hard and austere urban space.

Even in small suburban gardens the odd bit of land sculpting can work. Just 300mm changes in elevation can turn a flat lawn into a series of waves. When the crests are differentiated from the troughs by alternating species of grass, the effect can be exaggerated. Yorkshire Fog left to grow and flower can produce creamy waves that move with the wind and contrast with the smooth green planes of mown grass.

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Sculpting the land is an ancient and very British tradition. It is one of the most dramatic and yet playful ways of designing in the landscape and enormous fun. The subtlety of the form, often hidden in flat light, can become tremendously powerful at dawn or dusk or in frost and low mist. Combined with different patterns of grasses, grazing or mowing, the scope for imaginative design will keep me absorbed for the rest of my life.

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Kim Wilkie xi.05