The SeeAbility garden at Chelsea was one of those charity-sponsored gardens that got it right. It’s not easy working with a design brief that a garden should somehow reflect a particular charity. A too literal interpretation can make anything from second-rate design to really naff. But designer Darren Hawkes made a beautiful garden that anybody, whether vision impaired of with the sight of two pretty good eyes would love to be in. His Silver Gilt award for what is his first-time Chelsea appearance was well deserved.
For me, good garden design is all about shapes and spaces. People need to feel comfortable in the place a designer puts them, whether that’s walking along a path, sitting, or standing in wonder. It should also enclose and protect but make you want to look all about – up, down, along and through, providing different experiences or provoking responses from different perspectives.
I looked at the very popular ‘People’s Choice’ Arthritis Research UK garden, designed to describe the 3 stages of coming to terms with arthritis, and saw one part of it had a gloomy, unappealing woodland room and another part a long walkway in which you would have no reason to stop either (despite the colourful flowery border), although it did lead to a spectacularly arresting sculpture at the other end. A great vista but that’s not a garden I wanted to be in at all. I felt that the designer, Chris Beardshaw had indeed made an interesting and symbolically ‘arthritis’ garden but one for looking at from outside that did not beckon me to come inside.
The SeeAbility garden designed by Darren Hawkes invites you in from 3 different entrances to its strong central, circular core, protected by a spreading Sorbus arnoldiana ‘Shoutan’. Although that central space beckons, it felt somehow a little bit holy to just go blundering in, so I made my pilgrimage first around the outside, stopping at each of the innovative screens.
The metal screens trace a sinuous line both in plan view and elevation, intersecting and winding back around through the planting. Both the curving lines and the way Darren used those screens to separate areas without totally blocking them off helped to make the garden felt much bigger than its 10m plot size. Although that makes a fair bit of hardscape, the screens never overwhelm the luscious planting as they curve away and disappear, no matter from which angle you view them.
And here comes the clever ‘I’m talking about vision impairment here’ bit – each of the screens represents a type of vision loss, from glaucoma (tunnel-vision corten steel tubes and vertical oak timber blades) and macula degeneration (curtains of polished steel spheres) to cataracts (frosted glass) and diabetic retinopathy (water flowing over strings of metal spheres).
All horrible diseases/conditions that I and everyone I know moving beyond middle age dread we may develop. My mother-in-law has kept a macula degeneration test on her fridge for some years and I furtively check my eyes whenever we visit. Incidentally, for all you Australians and South Africans, this condition is even more likely in those whose eyes have been exposed to intense UV light, so wear your bloody sunglasses!
Added to the screens are the different textured surfaces that vision-impaired people might enjoy, like the sharps strands of directional Welsh slate paving set on its edge (20,000 hand cut pieces); sand-blasted glass; polished and reflective stainless steel; smooth oak slats and posts, as well as strong contrasts in the colour block planting.
I suspect some people might not like the mix of several materials in this garden, especially the stainless steel. But I’ve come to like a bit of bling in a garden, and also something that’s a bit unexpected, rather than sitting neatly on the side of quiet and tasteful. I think it would make me feel happy to see it, a bit like loud flowers or slightly risque sculpture.
Even the newly-leafing hornbeam sentinel trees around the garden made appealing contrasting ‘V’ shapes against the sky, although it was a weepy, dull sky the day I was there. All those different materials could easily have turned into a dog’s breakfast of competing elements in less competent hands but I reckon Darren pulled it all together.
Apart from those basic and beautiful elements, a Chelsea garden sinks or swims on its detail. When I saw the radial slate paving in the central circle, and the incredible energy it created I was quite excited. As I’ve been thinking and writing about design for over 20 years now, I’m sad to say that it takes a fair bit to excite my design sensibilities these days but wow, this I really liked. It looked like that tree had speared itself down into the middle, sending out a shockwave of splintering and fractured slate. I read that it’s symbolic of the radial pattern of an iris but I don’t care, it’s pure energy to me.
I also really liked the colour block planting after seeing so many of the traditional Chelsea fiddly planting combos. Dark purples came from maples, Atriplex, Sambucus and geranium; lime and yellow from euphorbia, heuchera, origanum, achillea, anthemis and a vibrant golden carex; and fresh greens from hosta, pittosporum, box and hornbeams.
Darren’s website has a very candid blog about his Chelsea build, covering the last minute plant substitutions brought on by the freezing cold spring, the nail-biting ‘will it stop raining in time to clean the slate?’, and unforeseen damage during tree delivery. I don’t know how these designers have the stomach for these garden show nightmares, when they are so professionally exposed. However I have it on good authority from Wes Fleming and Jim Fogarty that show garden making is highly addictive and, as Darren suggests he’s already thinking about a 2014 Chelsea build, it must be true. We can look forward to some mighty fine gardens then.
Enjoy this short video of Darren explaining his garden (and the sponsors, Coutts, if you want).