A LAYERED APPROACH TO LANDSCAPE. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award winning landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan brings to his garden design a sense of the complexities of our relation to the past that is informed by his training and experience as an architect, landscape architect, cultural geographer and historian.
This interview is also available as a Podcast
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, how was your childhood?
I was born in Canada and left it when I was a boy. Now my parents are back in Ottawa after living for years in Chile, Panama and Barbados. We had to take English lessons for new Canadians when we moved back, because we spoke Spanish at home. I went to the University of Manitoba to study architecture.
Most of my family are doctors, but I was always keen on design. After a few years I changed the course of my studies to landscapes and won a scholarship to Harvard.
What does the study of landscapes comprise?
Everything from cities to mountains. I came to London, where there is a great appreciation of landscape and geography, to do my PhD on historical geography.
How did you start your landscape career?
In October 1987 a great gale wiped out hundreds of millions of trees and decimated much of the south of England. It made my career. People were needed to write landscape management plans and my PhD allowed me to drop into that world.
What was your work?
I had a landscape architecture job in Elizabeth Banks and Associates, who specialised in conservation for historic parks and gardens. I did conservation management plans and landscape design for the big estates, working with the National Trust and English Heritage and private landowners. After a while I thought I could do it by myself and started on my own, which I have been doing ever since.
I have always had an academic interest in art history, landscape and social history, and I was first invited to do research on royal palaces after the terrible 1986 fire at Hampton Court. One thing led to the next. The director wanted someone sympathetic to revitalise the landscape and I got the job. Over time I have been the landscape advisor to five royal palaces in London: Kew Palace, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Banqueting House and the Tower of London. The overall aim was to re-present these neglected palaces and to bring more people in to visit them. Landscape should be guided by its history, and the British approach is about keeping the historical layers, not about recreating just one period.
“The garden square is the most delightfully imaginative piece of English design ever.”
Charterhouse Square in Central London was formerly a mediaeval burial ground. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan recently redesigned the 0.5ha garden which has not been open to the public since the Carthusian monastery was founded in c.1375.
These layers are the co-existence of different periods of time, and you are adding modern layers?
Yes. For example, we created a new kitchen garden within the precincts of the old kitchen garden, the first productive garden at Hampton Court Palace since the 18th century. We planted avenues and made countless improvements. Our conservation management plan for the next 300 years for the palaces was to see the refurbishment of major landscape features. These palaces are like museums. The royals don’t live there now, so they are palaces only in name.
Who do they belong to?
To the reigning monarch. They are run by the charity Historical Royal Palaces who I work for. I do not work directly for the Queen who is represented on the charity’s board by the Director of the Royal Collections.
What is the story with Kensington Palace?
Kensington Palace had royal dukes and duchessess and German titled people who came to live within it from the 19th century. It was known as the ‘Great Aunt Heap’. Princess Margaret had the most important apartment there and when she died they decided to open it up and reconnect the palace to the park. I had been doing years of research on the palace and won the competition that was held. My intuition was to look back to the early 18th century. For 150 years the planting had been compartmentalised and made for privacy, but the layout of Kensington Park is baroque and I wanted to reconnect to this, which meant removing sixty trees in front of the palace and opening up the views. When Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge moved in they wanted more privacy but we only had to make some minor adjustments for them.
Did you mind cutting down all those trees?
I love nature, but there are moments when there are opportunities to tidy up and come up with a coherent plan. There were thirty or forty bodies who had to approve the new scheme. I had to show them the view from the 18th century to prove that I was not being a horrible pirate chopping things down willy nilly. It took a very long time to gain approval and was complex, but we were able to do it because we had a firm historical basis to proceed on. We were working towards an aim that was implicit in the design.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, what about your work with London garden squares?
Garden squares started in London. Initially in the early 17th century the squares were for air, ventilation and light. Being English they decided to turn them into gardens. From the late 18th century they were semi-private communal gardens for the use of residents who paid for their upkeep. In my view the garden square is the most delightfully imaginative piece of English design ever, copied all over the world. It is a social organism more than a landscape, and I wrote my book The London Square, published by Yale, as a social historian.
“I like the anonymity of planting a tree for future centuries.”
When working with gardens, what kind of plants do you like?
It depends on where we are working, but I love oak trees. I am a colour blind plantsman and I like to use plants as tools of variety and surprise, to create an effect. A garden is a theatre, and a landscape is nothing without people.
Where else in the world do you like to work?
I believe in the spirit of a place, the genius loci. On the Greek island of Hydra there was a decayed 18th century garden on a series of terraces, and I wanted to use native plants so that it would look like the island within the walls. I have worked in Trinidad for twenty years and because I grew up in a tropical country I know the flora very well and use that interest to inform my design. I always try to use neglected native plants.
Have you worked in New York?
Yes, on the Morgan Library & Museum. It is a small landscape site, and I wanted to make a very European response, because JP Morgan was all about taking European culture to America. Every project has to be approached on its own merit, as determined by the client and the local circumstances.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, what kind of landscapes do you personally like to make?
Landscapes that are responsive to people and the idiosyncrasies of the individual owners. My clients have all had a genuine interest in the capacity of landscape to enhance their lives. Landscape will endure for as long as there is some natural cycle to life. There is both an immediacy and a kind of hope in landscape – it’s all about future planning.
Who are your mentors?
The great impresarios, like William Kent. He was someone who thought about the whole picture. Being part of a bigger view makes you feel like you are contributing to a more coherent view and just adding another layer. There are people coming after me and I like the anonymity of planting a tree for future centuries. I like being responsive to the ecology and conservation of the location. I really enjoy arriving fresh somewhere and I like Humphrey Repton’s approach. He spent his life travelling around giving ideas to people and guiding them by having an informal exchange of ideas.
Which city do you like working in best?
London, where there is a genuine love of gardens and landscape. I am the Editor of the Journal The London Gardener. I am part of the London Parks & Gardens Trust. We have a database of 3000 spaces that are significant in the metropolis, and I publish articles on bizarre aspects of London gardens and the range of stimuli. The most significant London landscape spaces are small vernacular gardens. I made it my home because it has a landscape tradition. There has been a desire for four hundred years for almost all classes of people to create landscape and to live close to the ground and have immediate meaningful contact with the land.
Can you make a good living here?
There is a lot of private work and many wonderful international clients have an Anglo connection. There is a lot of work one can do here that one can’t do elsewhere. I like to do different things to a high standard. I have also worked a lot on Italian gardens and I love them. But I go where the work is, even Taiwan for instance.
What are gardens’ defining characteristics?
Pleasurable places to be in that give joy. And an element of surprise to give something you don’t expect.
A private garden by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan. This idiosyncratic London garden is intended to evoke the playfulness of a c17th Dutch town garden.
The refurbishment of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace was among the most scholarly and ambitious to take place in Britain. An aerial view of Hampton Court Palace, one of the five Historic Royal Palaces on which Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has worked.
The Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace was dramatically recast following a devastating fire in royal apartments in March 1986. The new layout evokes the garden created by King William III in the late c17th.
The East Gardens at Kensington Palace in London were redesigned to mark the Diamond Jubilee of HM The Queen in 2012. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge reside at the palace.
Sir Simon Jenkins, former Chairman of the National Trust, remarked that ‘the redesign of Kensington Gardens seems to me a model of respectful reinstatement and of imaginative innovation. The approach from the park has been cleared of cluttered vegetation. The palace has emerged in all its glory , and the new gardens are designed wonderfully to offset the main avenue. The whole quarter has been refreshed and repopulated’.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has created and refurbished several tropical gardens. He collaborated with Jamie Fobert Architects at this West Indian property.
“I love the romance of decay.”
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, which is your favourite English garden?
Rousham in Oxfordshire. What I like is that it is an incredibly strong 18th century design and is such a strong concept that it still works, even as it has changed over time. I like a relaxed view of the forces that are beyond your control. I love the romance of decay. It’s about recognising the interesting layers that evoke memories. I like to scratch below the surface, and I like continuity. My memory is everything. I spend my life in museums and galleries and churches.
Isn’t Rome the great example of layered continuity?
I was born 22 November on St Cecilia day, and I love Rome and try to go every year for my birthday. Everyone who loves landscape loves Italy, and so much in Britain comes from peoples’ travels abroad.…. the English habit of bringing things back and making them English.
Are you also part of this English tradition of making a collection?
Collecting is a passion of mine, starting with shell collections as a boy. My house is like a museum. The house and collection is my world. My garden is very relaxed and like a park, with a beautiful cedar tree, a grotto and a temple. I have three lives: academic, landscape work and collecting.
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