Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Gibberd Garden, Essex, UK

The last garden we visited on our trip to the UK in May (yes, I’m a little behind!) was the Gibberd Garden. Sir Frederik Gibberd was an architect and landscape designer who started his practice in the 30’s and was quite influential in his time. One of his major projects was as chief architect planner for Harlow New Town, a new development not far from London designed to relieve congestion in the city. He himself decided to live in Harlow, and this where he spent the rest of his life, which in large part was devoted to his garden.

On its website, the garden is described as: “No high brow horticulture here. It is landscape as theatre” (Hugh Johnson). And that’s exactly what it feels like – dramatic, staged and expressive. But don’t imagine a glitzy theatre production – it reminded me more of a show that has settled into a long run, with the stage set a little run down and worn away, and the actors aging into their roles. Not that it’s a bad thing. It suits the garden perfectly, and in fact seems to be necessary to create the special atmosphere of this garden. The touch of wilderness and crumbling stone add the romance and mood that make this kind of garden great.
The garden is quite large and covers a sloping site with mature trees leading down to a brook. The design radiates out from the house, with the formal areas closer to the house giving way to more informal and wild areas at the far edge of the property. One complaint I have is the organization of the direction of the visit. Following the provided map, you start from the wild areas and make your way back to the house. It’s always nicer to experience a garden the way the designer intended, which in this case, and most cases, is starting from the house.
Around the house, the design is geometrical, in keeping with the 1960’s design of the house itself. One can tell that views from the large windows were carefully considered – there is a staged view from each of the main sides of the house, including this lovely view from the main windows.
The other sides of the house have views that are just as interesting, such as this small corner with a great water feature and sculpture off the west side.
The design concept of the garden is that of garden ‘rooms’, where one passes from one enclosed and unique space to another. Sir Gibberd approached garden design from an architectural perspective, so definition of three-dimensional space was key to him. As you move away from the main area of the house, a series of garden rooms feature include simple lawns and hedges, a pavilion, pools and many staged areas for sculptures. The garden features over 50 sculptures, which can sometimes overwhelm in a garden. In this case, I found that they were all well placed and in harmony with the garden rather than in competition with it. The rooms are a little bit disjointed so you never quite know what to expect. For example, there is an alleyway of huge plane trees smack dab in the middle of the garden, which, unlike any other alleyway I have ever seen, doesn’t align with any major features or views. Unconventional, but definitely theatrical.
By the time you get to the furthest area from the house close to the brook, things are quite wild. There is giant bamboo, small winding paths and jungle-like growth. After the super manicured gardens we saw earlier in our trip at Glen Chantry and Beth Chatto, this had a wonderful untamed character.
Overall, I found the garden to be original and unique. Really great gardens have their own special mood and provide visitors with a distinctive experience. In this garden, you can definitely feel the strong design perspective, but also a quirky, playful and eccentric character.

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