Shackled or Inspired by Our Past


The problem with the word heritage is that it makes it sound like something that happened a long time ago to someone else. We need to understand the past as a living pattern that shapes how we see the present and gives us a rich and vivid language for the future rather than leaving us tongue tied and constipated. I often wonder what we really see when we look at landscape? Our reactions are coloured by many different factors. On a personal level there is mood: the mood of the weather; the mood of the children on the back seat; the way we are feeling at the time. And there is use: what exactly we are trying to do in the place and whether it works. But possibly what unite our images of landscape most effectively are memory and association. We are culturally tuned to pick out familiar scenes and patterns and we will tend to see what we expect to find and often edit out the elements that do not fit the concept.

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A beauty spot can say as much about the culture that chooses to find the place beautiful as it does about the character of the land. The iconic view from Richmond Hill was selected as the epitome of a benevolent, rural idyll by Alexander Pope and Princess Caroline in the eighteenth century. The view became the cradle of the English Landscape Movement: the sinuous bend in the river, the softly wooded banks and islands and, most importantly the cows grazing on the fertile water meadow that symbolized a secure and settled ideal of man in harmony with a productive and cooperative nature. As a landscape, the Arcadian Thames was a complete contrast to the formality of Herrenhausen, where Princess Caroline had been brought up. The differences were not only physical; they crossed over into political, religious and even scientific attitudes. The rigid and contained symmetry of Herrenhausen spoke of a divine hierarchy in both the social and natural worlds, where man was seen as separate from nature. The concept of beauty was determined more by eternal structured and geometric patterns, than the Augustan ideals of living on the land.

Our cultural lives can be seen as a continuous process of digestion: accumulating, absorbing and discarding images and ideas. From chintz to topiary, our notions of essential adornments burn and fade. The decisions about what to keep and what to lose are made as much on a cyclical social level as a personal one. The accumulated memories and associations give us a whole vocabulary of design. Rapid synapses can link topiary through Alice in Wonderland and the Draughtsman’s Contract to the Hard Rock Café in LA.

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For designers, every colour and shape has a growing history, in the same way that for writers every word and phrase has an accumulating nuance. In Russia each species of garden shrub and flower holds a heavy, Chekhovian significance. Good design is as much about understanding and using this established vocabulary as creating new ones. The association of associations is a fine art. Nelson’s column in the freshly paved Trafalgar Square has survived as a marker for the centre of city and the nation, even though in a recent survey apparently 80% of passing people guessed that the figure at the top was Napoleon.
Our spiritual lives go deeper. There is an extraordinary exchange between a place and the lives lived within it. The lives affect the place and the place shapes the lives. Land absorbs memories of its own: volcanic entrails, glacial scarring, alluvial mudbaths, as well as murders, marriages and moments of perfect peace. Adam Nicholson captures the relationship beautifully in his book Sea Room:
‘I have felt at times…no gap between me and the place. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain. Almost everything else feels less dense and less intense than those moments of exposure.’
Perhaps the most challenging and important part of design is learning how to listen to the memories shared between a place and its people.

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Partly this will involve talking to those who live there and partly researching the history in archaeology, maps, writing and illustrations. But there is no substitute for simply spending time in a place and allowing its character to seep into one’s consciousness. Only with the full awareness of memory and association should we really choose what to absorb and what to discard. Only then can we become eloquent with the inspiration and resonance of our past.

We need to avoid a mechanical accumulation of heritage that spills out of the attic and down the stairs into the whole house, crowding and suffocating our lives. Mao and Henry VIII had clear solutions. The cultural past had to be eliminated to make way for a bright new political future. Each generation has to decide what is important: buildings, hedgerows, skylarks, airports? The decisions reflect our cultural and political priorities and the changing aesthetics chart our social values. In many ways the ebb and flow of aesthetic values are as fascinating as the objects themselves. However tentative, design is an active engagement in the collective process of selection – choosing what and where to build and how.

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In the process of design and selection there are three general guides which could be helpful:
1 Memory and meaning
• What memories are stored in a place?
• How much and what does a place mean to the people who live there now?
• Does the place have a wider significance and appeal?
2 Use and relevance
• How well does a place work for its current inhabitants?
• Is the land use still relevant and successful for human and natural life?
• Does the role of the place have an importance that transcends immediate needs?
3 Good design
• Have man’s modifications of a place been elegant, successful and appropriate?
• Even though something is old or was made by a notable designer, was it actually good design in the first place and is it worth keeping?
In his fourth Epistle to Burlington, Alexander Pope had a sound piece of advice: ‘all must be adapted to the Genius and the Use of the Place and the Beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’.

I shall explore three case studies that try to address these issues:
• Heveningham Hall – a large country estate in Suffolk
• Victoria & Albert Museum – an enclosed courtyard garden in London
• Ham Lands Floodscape – traditional flood meadows beside the Thames

1. Heveningham Hall

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Memory: Heveningham Hall is a classic ideal of a country seat. Built for successful city bankers, the house was designed by Sir Robert Taylor, the interiors by James Wyatt and the landscape by Lancelot Brown. Inconveniently Brown died the year after he drew up the designs for the park and his perfectly detailed plans were not implemented.
After nearly two centuries of untroubled ownership by the same family, Heveningham entered a turbulent few decades from the 1960s. The hall stuck on the market in the early 1990s; the house fire damaged and the estate dismembered. Eventually Heveningham was bought by a young English family, determined to restore the place as a home.
In the eighteenth century, the estate had been amalgamated with Huntingfield Hall to straddle the Blyth valley and link with vistas to the surrounding parish churches. The memory of the complete valley landscape with the great grade 1 house at its centre, ringed by villages and churches, remained strong, as did the plans of Brown’s final and unfinished work. Memory here was nevertheless a complex issue. The main part of Brown’s plans had not been built and the completion of the symphony could neither count as restoration nor strict memory. It would even involve the removal of earlier landscape features and a recently designated local nature reserve.
Following 18 months of research and consultation with the surrounding parishes, the local authorities and English Heritage, it was agreed that the Brown landscape was so special that it should be created two hundred years after it was designed. The estate was gradually reassembled. The two kilometre lake through the centre of the valley was dug. The alder carr nature reserve was lifted and relocated downstream. Over 300 hectares of arable land were returned to parkland. The woodland was brought back in hand and a further 135 hectares of woods are being planted.

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Use: The restoration of Heveningham as a family home ran counter to the fate of many large country houses, often converted to schools, hotels or offices. Return to its original use has allowed the house and estate to flow together as one comfortable social and agricultural unit. More importantly the layout of the countryside still makes sense. Each year the local fair is held at the hall, jointly planned and run by the owners and the surrounding four parishes, with the substantial proceeds being divided equally between the four churches. The form of the land, the relationship between the villages, the hall, the fields, hedges and river all still connect and work together as they have for centuries.
Design: Behind the house 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 listed 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.

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We argued that in the evaluation of what to keep and what to discard, the Victorian garden should go. 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 room to breathe.
The design was inspired by the landform, the setting of the hall and the long tradition of earth sculpting that so suits the British climate. I hope that it managed both to shed the mistakes of the past and yet respond to the needs and memories of the place.

2. Victoria & Albert Museum


Memory: The V&A buildings cover over 5 hectares of south-west London. At the centre is a large courtyard that has gone through gardens like thin pairs of socks. The grand south-facing façade of the courtyard was originally the entrance to the museum. As the museum expanded, wing after wing was added and the grand entrance disappeared inside a courtyard. A garden of cherry trees and a Buddha was replaced in the 1980s by an Italianate design with dark incense cedars and alders. Film and pigeon netting covered the windows and few visitors were even aware of the space.
The V&A, perhaps more than any other place in London, has the most accessible treasure trove of memory – the greatest collection of artefacts in the world. At the same time, the museum has managed to become a major patron of new design. The garden needed to respect both the history of the architecture and also continue the tradition of exemplary new design. The starting point was the grand north façade – a loud and richly ornamented Victorian design of dark red brick and terracotta bas relief columns. The façade demands space to be seen and sets up an expectation of axial symmetry that has rather gone out of fashion.

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Use: As the first part of the V&A Future Plan, the Trustees decided to make the courtyard the focal hub at the centre of the museum, directly on axis with the Cromwell Road entrance. Bucking the current trend to cover courtyards and convert them into interior spaces, the museum chose to stay with open sky. They held a competition for a new garden to work as a tranquil green space during the day and a dramatic performance and reception area at night.
Entry to the museum is free of charge and one of the most satisfying things about the new garden is the way that it has immediately taken over as a public space for London. The quiet tranquillity of the courtyard encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to sit beside or slowly paddle through the water. At night or for events such as the Kensington village fete the garden transforms into a bustling urban space with a central stone arena.

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Design: Some of the competition entries were exuberant with fish tanks or cypresses in giant golf tees, but in the end the V&A chose the simplest of the designs. The new garden has tried to meet the rather demanding requirements of museum logistics, respond to the character and setting of the building and at the same time offer something fresh and intriguing, emanating from the place. Originally the facade was designed to be seen from below and, inspired by the recent curving steps to the main entrance on the Cromwell Road, the new garden removed the mounds of earth from the courtyard and dug down to create steps and ramps up to the former entrance.
An ellipse of dark red sandstone opens the centre of the space, flanked by squares of lawn that bring in the fresh green of an Oxbridge quadrangle and help to resolve the quirky angles of the flanking wings. The sunken ellipse can be flooded to make a shallow reflecting pool that emphasises the architecture and gives a greater sense of space. The ellipse can be drained or flooded in less than an hour to be calm and reflective or filled with people, whichever the museum needs at that moment. Along the southern façade, 14 glass French windows line the new sculpture gallery. A broad new terrace now allows the gallery to open to the garden with the cloister rhythm of pilasters picked up by metre cubes of glass containing lemon trees in summer and holly obelisks in winter.
This is new design, but it has been inspired by the evolving memory, use and character of the space. The garden aims at understatement, acting as a neutral space that allows the building architecture and people to dominate, yet it also tries for a strength of line and material that gives the place a bold identity in its own right.

3. Ham Lands Floodscape

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Memory: Ham Lands lie in the crook of the Thames between Kingston and Richmond and formed part of the seventeenth-century Ham House estate. Historically these low meadows have provided a vital flood plain at the point where the upstream river and the tidal Thames meet. Between the wars, much of the area was mined for gravel and then, after the Second World War, the bomb rubble from the South Bank was dumped on the site. In places, the ground levels have been raised by up to 5 metres above their natural levels. Initially the bomb rubble brought an interesting floral diversity, but since the cessation of farming in the 1970s, the grassland has quickly succeeded to scrub, sycamore woodland and Japanese knotweed. The centuries old landscape of avenues, cows and flood meadows that forms part of the famous view from Richmond Hill has largely been lost in a few decades.

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Use: Ham House is now owned by the National Trust and Ham Lands belong to the local authority. It is an extraordinary area of public access connecting the Thames path with Richmond Hill and Richmond Park. Much of the area has been designated as a Local Nature Reserve and the historic landscape is included in the English Heritage Register as one of the most complete Carolean estates with 3 miles of avenues.
The bomb rubble, scrub growth and noxious weeds are now undermining the use and purpose of the landscape. The nature conservation value is reducing year by year as the meadow grassland disappears. Physical and visual access by the public is being steadily impeded by thorny scrub growth. And most importantly, the critical flood alleviation role of the land has been blocked by dumped spoil.
Design: This is a perfect example of how traditional landscape and land management can be completely relevant to modern life. A combined project between the Thames Landscape Strategy, the local authority and the Environment Agency is proposing the removal of over 40 hectares of spoil. The former water meadows would be restored to their pre-war levels and act once more as a vital storm surge storage area. The cows that still graze Petersham Meadow would be supplemented to extend through the whole network of meadows and link upstream to Syon and Osterley and downstream to Bushy Park. Rather than a flying flock, there would be a floating herd. And finally the Great River Avenue would be replanted, with low points raised, to act as a flood defence to protect Ham and Petersham from major flood events.

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In each of the projects conscious choices have been made. Historic landscapes have not been conserved without question. New design has been introduced where appropriate and has tried to take its inspiration from both the memory and the use of the place. History remains alive and exciting if it is challenged and provoked, otherwise it can become marginalized as bulk heritage and cease to inspire tomorrow’s landscapes