I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a few weeks now. And I’ve got the photos. I can’t decide whether it’s a completely cynical project by developers who maybe controlled and perverted the intentions of all those who took part and created the thing, or whether they’re all just astonishingly stupid.
Shell have demolished most of their monumental office complex on the South Bank and the site is being redeveloped. There will be a lot of flats – no information is given about how many of those will be ‘affordable’, and there will also be lots of cutting edge vibrancy. The now commonplace display on the perimeter fencing of the history of the site mentions the war, and the almost irreparable damage done by the bombing. Irreparable damage is best done by developers.
On the east side of the site, by the busy pedestrian route to Waterloo station is an art display.
Can you read it? I’ll pick out the best bits: DESCRIPTIONS OF PHYSICAL QUALITIES, ATTITUDES, FEELINGS AND EXPERIENCES…… TOPOGRAPHICAL MAPPING….. IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES A PLACE SPECIAL OR UNIQUE….. SELECTIVE, PRECISE AND TRUTHFUL……. RICH, PERSONAL
And this is what you get:
Nothing you see has any relationship to the aims – not merely aims, the blurb seems confident that they have been realised – expressed in the promotional intro. These big words express the death of ‘special, unique’ places, they are unselective, imprecise and untruthful, they are shallow and impersonal. No point going into a rant. I said to some friends, (in their thirties, so maybe they’ve known such bollocks most of their adult lives and take it for granted) ‘and they’ve shamelessly exploited children! It’s child abuse!’ They said, ‘oh, they do that all the time.’ Maybe it doesn’t matter too much; all the time I was there – I went twice – and for a while sat on the ground with my camera – not a single person in the brisk homeward crowd looked at any of it.
As if to make the display even more impersonal the length of the hoarding – 60, 70 metres? – means that most of it is repeated. It’s EPIC FRESH RELAXING and then it’s EPIC FRESH RELAXING.
I thought – hasn’t anybody noticed the homeless? the dirt? the dirty money? the diesel fumes? the mocking palaces of finance? the poor old BFI forced to raise a few bob by keeping the IMAX relentlessly covered with huge sexy adverts for trainers and smart phones and perfume? the squalid approaches to Waterloo station? the bindweed in St John’s churchyard gardens? (That’s another story. To follow.)
here’s the IMAX cinema:
Then I went to have a look at Jubilee Gardens, the fab new open space by the river, between the old County Hall and Hungerford Bridge.
There’s a little previous history here. When I worked for Putting Down Roots, St Mungo’s gardenng project, one of our gardens was in St John’s church yard, just opposite Waterloo station. Plans were being made to re-make Jubilee Gardens and for it to be run by a trust involving lots of local organisations in a partnership. There was a possibility, never more than vague, that we might be involved.
I was trying not to be an old ranter, but then I saw the phormiums:
Only one greedy block of them, licking a brown bottomed box hedge, so it looked as if something else had failed, and the designer being long departed, a contractor said, what can we stick in there then, and someone said, I know the very thing, tough as arseholes.
(see phorms and cords)
And these plants were only just hanging on
You know all that stuff about nature being good for you, how people’ spirits are lifted by living green things, and people in hospital with a view out over trees get better quicker than people who can only see the car park? They’ve done research that proves it apparently. But a park like this can only remind you of disease, neglect and death. And even the successful planting just reminds you of the army, or family oppressions, or very long boring journeys. This isn’t a good photo so you can’t see it but this bed is on a slope and the soil has eroded so that the uppermost roots of the plants are exposed and withered.
Then I thought it was time to approach Waterloo again and go home. This is where things get properly vibrant and epic.
This special foot massage bit is fun
sorry, I know my satire is feeble. Here’s Mrs May:
and some fury:
I love this. Anybody can run our railways – but not the bloody French!
So I got the Waterloo and City line to Bank and walked to Liverpool Street,
and felt the stirrings of a truly creative response to the south bank word display: if I could play around with colours and fonts I could do
BOLLOCKS LIES NONSENSE FUCK OFF
I gave the woman begging a quid. Not sure if a very crowded spot like that is a good place to beg; it’s easier to ignore a beggar when you’re in a crowd.
A few days later….. I was very unfair to Jubilee Gardens. ‘Disease, neglect and death’ was ridiculous. I skimmed through online the 83 page document which details and trumpets Jubilee Gardens. A painful exercise because it appeared on the computer screen at right angles and I couldn’t get it the right way up. But I read enough to find another split between aspiration and reality, or between lies and truth. For example:
‘Topography is a critical parameter in the park’s success. As much as possible the park will be shaped and sculptured in the tradition of the English Garden. The topography rises and falls, whilst the pathways are kept relatively level. This creates a “design language” – pathways either raised above the landform or cut into it. Paths, viewlines, trees and slopes are integrated in a subtle composition, which triggers the unconscious.’
The term ‘English Garden’ is capitalised to give it the kind of status which nowadays is always referred to as iconic, and to hide the fact that it’s so vague as to have very little meaning.
‘An exceptional quality of flower beds is proposed – beds maintained by the Royal Parks are the reference for desired quality. Vibrant colours will be replaced at least three times a year to reflect seasonal change and to achieve a high quality visual effect.’
Here the word vibrant, another contemporary favourite, is used to cover up the fact that they haven’t given any thought to what the colours might be. And I think ‘high quality visual effect’ means pretty.
‘The landscape was designed by landscape architects West 8, a cutting edge practice which delivers ground breaking urban parks and public spaces worldwide…… a wonderful green vision for gardens in London’s most vibrant area.’
Do you think whoever wrote this believed in what they were saying, or believed that anybody else would believe it, or take any notice of it?
But I decided I should try to see beyond the phormiums and go back and have a proper look at the gardens, trying not to be a an old moaner. And yes, the trees are excellent. Big when put in but already well established. And the paving in granite blocks is beautifully done. Nice lines to the curving paths. If they’d only left it at that…. The main flower bed, backed by hedging or shrubs in clumps is a finely pointed, undulating flame-like curve that looks exciting on paper. But it’s too narrow, even at its widest, for anything but dwarf bedding, and there isn’t any bedding. Nothing that could be replaced ‘three times a year.’ Instead they’ve used perennials and shrubs in distinct blocks in the almost universal municipal manner. There is no attempt to mingle different plants in a naturalistic manner which would fit with what is a strong tradition in many English gardens if not the English Garden.
A good few of the 83 pages are given to a careful and detailed description of the species of trees chosen… and to their cultivation, for example their plans to avoid the dreaded ‘sump effect’ which is created when the planting hole for a tree with a big root ball is deeper than the top soil.
But when the document comes to consider the ‘flower beds’ the Royal Parks are invoked, to give a blessing to the completely unspecified planting. We’ll just copy them. They’re cutting edge and they’ve got the power of heritage. It’s another dream. The word ‘bedding’ isn’t used, but bedding is indicated by the intention to change the plants – the document actually says change the ‘vibrant colour’ , so a plant becomes simply a colour – at least 3 times a year. It’s as if all this crazy activity in itself authenticates the project. Not a single plant or ‘flower’ is named, no style of flower garden is mentioned, but the trees all get their full names in two languages. Anyway, there is no bedding. And this made me realise again what a strange dream the internet can be. The 83 page document was never edited to say – we’ve decided not to go the Buckingham Palace way, we’re going to go for blocks of perennials and some blocks of small shrub roses and top it all off with a couple of big clumps of phormiums. It didn’t go out of print. No friendly librarian to say, no, that’s out of date, this is the one you want. Nothing in the internet to explain the change of plan or hint at the debate that must have taken place.
Bergenias and persicarias in blocks, purple heucheras at the back:
The document, in its discussion of social factors, explains the landscaping concept of ‘desire lines’. When you make a new design for a park, don’t try to cut through well established short cuts with a flower bed; people will just go on walking straight through it. A good design should create new desire lines, quietly suggesting that the people walk where you want them to walk. But in Jubilee Gardens they’ve laid down these tapering skinny beds which end with a point like a piece of pie – you can’t get a plant to grow in the shape of small triangle. And it’s obvious that many people walk straight through the bed, not just at its tip, but in a broad band about two metres wide.
But for a place so heavily used, notice the good quality of the grass.
I took some photos of the trees too, to show how good they look, although it was raining at the time.
I wonder why redwoods and Douglas firs are so rarely planted in cities. They might be able, after many years, to stand up to the huge new buildings.
It’s obvious that there’s a whole part of this story which doesn’t appear in the planning document or in the publicity and reports produced after the park was opened by the Trust which administers it. In a survey of park users in 2016 98.5% rated Jubilee Gardens as good or very good and 97% said the landscaping was well maintained. That’s excellence on a north Korean scale! I think it would look better if they didn’t plug the gaps trampled in the planting with sections of green plastic fence. I would use rose and pyracantha prunings. Still, one time at St John’s when things were bad they just set fire to the effective thorny barricade which a couple of our volunteers had carefully built.