Interview

Dan Pearson

As the new Garden Museum opens in London, garden designer Dan Pearson talks to Magali Robathan about his inspirations, the role of green space and his sadness at the fate of the Garden Bridge


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The Garden Museum recently reopened in Lambeth, London. What do you think of Dow Jones Architects’ redevelopment?
The architects have done a remarkable job of turning a heavy building into a place that has life and light.

The new extension and the interventions inside the building feel effortless and elegant. They’ve created spaces that draw you from the inside to the outside in a very natural way.

It’s 100 per cent better as an experience now. It’s not just going to be a place for the garden community; it’s really become a proper destination.

You created a new garden for the museum. What was your inspiration?
The new extension surrounds a beautiful courtyard, with the tomb of the great plant collector John Tradescant in the centre.

Tradescant really inspired the way that we put the plant collection together. It’s been designed to feel like a garden of curiosities. It has a slightly exotic feel to it; a feeling of having travelled from somewhere else, because Tradescant went out into the world and brought plants back that people would have never seen or known about.

It was a wonderful project to be given.

How did you choose what to plant in the museum?
We wanted to create a garden in which every plant had something noteworthy about it.

We’ve got horsetails, for instance, which are equisetums – prehistoric plants found in fossils – growing in there. We’ve got a fig called afghanistanica, with these wonderful, finely-cut leaves – figs were some of the first things that the Crusaders brought back to the UK. We’ve got plants that are considered to be auspicious in China and that have their own story.

Everything has its own little message, that can be drawn out.

You’re working on Aman’s Amanyangyun resort in Shanghai, which involved relocating an ancient forest and dwellings. What’s your involvement?
The story started with our client, Mr Ma [Shanghai philanthropist Ma Dadong]. His village, which is 700 miles from Shanghai, was being flooded by a dam, and with it forests of 1,000-year-old camphor trees and 18th century merchants’ villas. Mr Ma managed to do a deal with the government to earmark a site in Shanghai and then dismantle these buildings and transport them and the camphor trees to that site.
Mr Ma teamed up with Aman Resorts; together they created this extraordinary 25-acre resort development with a park, which we also designed, and a lake separating the development from the park, so the park becomes the backdrop and the green lung of the project.

How did you approach the project?
I worked closely with the architects, Kerry Hill, who’ve done an amazing job of creating the masterplan for the site. This embeds the original merchants’ villas, and also a series of new villas they’ve designed, into the space.

We designed the streetscape, all of the public realm, and the individual gardens for all the villas, as well as the public park.

We started by visiting lots of Chinese gardens and Chinese heritage towns. We were very inspired by them in terms of materials and the way that the buildings co-exist, as well as by the way people move through these ancient towns.

We also looked at what makes Chinese gardens different from Western-style gardens. It’s helped us to create a language we can use that will make the site cohesive and give it its own identity, while still ensuring it’s very much embedded in China.

What was the most surprising thing to come out of your research?
China has an absolute wealth of some of the best plant material we grow here in Britain in our ornamental gardens. The biggest surprise was that they tend to only use around 20 different plants in their gardens. And they don’t have a nursery trade like we do here in Britain. So finding good plant material was extremely difficult. I’ve had to find different ways of using the same plant, so it doesn’t feel like every other development.

What were the biggest challenges?
You can’t just say I want this or I want that, because their natural reaction is to just go into the forest and dig up whatever you ask for, and we obviously don’t want that.

Also there’s a tremendous history of garden-making in China, but much of that trade was wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, along with all of that skill and craftsmanship. China has become a land of industrialisation and not of growing.

We wanted to do something very specific and beautifully crafted, and keeping the standards high has been surprisingly difficult. We’ll have achieved it in the end, but we had to put a lot more effort into it than one might have thought.

What are your thoughts on Sadiq Khan effectively pulling the plug on the Garden Bridge project?
It’s a great source of sadness for us that the project has become as political as it has.

We were commissioned to create a garden. One of the things I felt very excited about was the opportunity of making a place that resonated in the very centre of London – a green strand which connected two parts of the city and allowed people to decompress and be in touch with nature.

Gardens are tremendously influential places; you don’t have to be interested in them to be positively affected by them. Somewhere along the line I think people forgot that the Garden Bridge was also a garden, and that had real impact on the way that it became politicised. It’s sad.

Did you understand the concerns about the project?
We had to look at the concerns, and some of them were very real. But we had to remain positive because we felt the project could have tremendous value, and that would go beyond the things that were dragging it down. Long-term it could have been a remarkable addition to the city.

We remain positive about the big idea [behind the Garden Bridge], which is really a very interesting one.

Are you still hoping it might go ahead one day?
We are. We haven’t been told it’s cancelled by the Trust.

Has the relationship between landscape designers and architects changed since you started your career?
Definitely. The architects approaching us now are wanting to have a proper synergy between the architecture and its context. When I first started out, there was less of an understanding about that synergy. I think architects tended to view landscape as secondary to the buildings.

I feel very positively about the climate having improved, and the fact that many architects are now seeing the space around their building as being of equal value to the building itself.

What is the role of green space in our cities?
We’re spoiled for green space in London. We’ve got these huge parks, which are connected by all these arteries of tree-lined streets that go on and on until you reach the outskirts.

These big areas of decompression are incredibly important to cities. People are becoming much more aware of their value, and of the importance of preserving them and making the most of them. But we’ve got a parallel thing happening, which is that funding is being cut for these public spaces on a constant basis.

Some of the best public spaces now, I think, are those being taken over by companies such as Argent, the property developer behind the King’s Cross development. They maintain control of all the green spaces in that development, even though it’s still public space. They’re setting the standard of excellence and are able to finance it. It’s an interesting model.

In our cities, parks are one of the few places that the rich and the poor are side by side, and everybody is equal
Totally. That’s the interesting thing about the Amanyangyun development. An extremely exclusive environment is being created within the development, but our client is also creating a 30-acre public park. It’s a huge open space where people will be able to fish and play board games and run in the grass and do what they want. It’s such a good feeling to be working on those two different projects, side by side.

What are your thoughts on the trend for incorporating green walls, trees and greenery into buildings?
It’s a really fascinating development.

My concern, though, is about whether these buildings will be properly maintained. If they fail, it could undermine the whole idea. The green walls need to have maintenance contracts very carefully built into them from day one. It’s just as important as a cleaning contract. If they’re built in, it’s fine, and if they’re not then you have an issue.

Overall, though, I’m very pro the unexpectedness of those spaces. Everybody is affected by greenery in a positive way. It’s calming, and it has a cleansing effect both on the environment and on the mind.

When did you decide you wanted to be a gardener?
When I was five or six. I discovered the alchemy of growing things and something just clicked.

I knew quite early on that I wanted to combine plants and to use them in spaces, rather than just garden them. I never studied landscape architecture – I have landscape architects working in my office but my training is horticultural.

Although I’ve always been interested in space and composition, I wanted to learn about horticulture first, and I’ve found it to be a good way of doing things. Landscape architects often have gaps in their knowledge because horticulture is such a vast topic, which is why landscape architectural schemes are often very simple.

Here at Dan Pearson Studio we pride ourselves on having a deep level of understanding of horticulture, which means that we can work anywhere and in a more interesting way. You can create different moods that are driven by the way that things are planted and integrated.

Which of your projects are you proudest of?
I think probably the Tokachi Millennium Forest project, which is a 400 hectare site in Hokkaido, Japan.

We were involved in the masterplan and we’ve created four big public spaces there, which are about giving everyday public access to extraordinary environments.

What would be your dream project?
Probably another version of the Millennium Forest. It’s great to work on a large scale, with a client that’s committed to the idea of creating something that’s beautiful, sustainable and thought-provoking in terms of making a connection with the landscape.

What do you have planned for the landscaping around Wright & Wright’s Lambeth Palace Library in London.
Wright and Wright have created this beautiful building, which will be built in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. It will sit on the very edge of the property, emerging from the Palace gardens perimeter wall so that it impacts the garden as little as possible.

We’re making a woodland glade that surrounds a pond which laps up to the edge of the building. The building is hermetically sealed, in order to protect the collection it will house. People aren’t encouraged to go out into the garden, but they are encouraged to connect with the garden with their eyes, with the light sparkling off the water onto the ceiling and with the trees that are visible through the windows.

We’re using predominantly native British plants, which of course aren’t the first thing growing in the centre of London. We’re providing an ecosystem and a habitat for wildlife and wild plants, right in the very heart of SE1.

What else are you working on?
At Chatsworth House [in Derbyshire] we’re renovating a part of the garden that’s been neglected. I think we were the first designers to be asked to work there since Paxton, so it was quite something to be asked there by the Duke and Duchess.

Further north I’m working at Lowther Castle [in Cumbria], where we‘ve been implementing a landscape and gardens masterplan to create a new visitor attraction in the grounds of this historic property. This has involved garden restoration, the creation of new gardens, land and woodland management.

For the last six years Dan Pearson Studios have been working on about 12 projects at King’s Cross, London; a series of public spaces which wrap all the way around the site to create a train of different gardens.

There are garden on roofs and over a viaduct and along the canal... That’s been another great project for us, because there’s been proper commitment from the client [property developer Argent] to creating an excellent public space.

I’m an honorary garden advisor at Sissinghurst Castle [in Kent], working with head gardener Troy Scott-Smith as a sounding board for his plans to rejuvenate this iconic garden.

We’ve recently been appointed to create a landscape and gardens masterplan for the Dartington Hall estate in Devon.

It’s an exciting time for us.

The Garden Museum renovation

The Garden Museum reopened in May in Lambeth, London, following a £7.5m, 18 month renovation by Dow Jones Architects

The Garden Museum is housed in a grade II listed former church next to Lambeth Palace. The renovation project saw the existing museum building redesigned, and the addition of a new extension providing 550sq m of facilities set around new landscaping.

Three new pavilions house a large and a small education room and a café, which open out onto a courtyard garden with planting by Dan Pearson. The new buildings are clad in bronze tiles, inspired by the bark of the plane trees on the site.

Internally, additional collections galleries and a landscape archive have been added, along with a special gallery recreating the Cabinet of Curiosities belonging to royal plant-gatherer John Tradescant, who is buried in the churchyard.

The new extension includes a garden classroom and surrounds a courtyard planted by Dan Pearson
The new extension includes a garden classroom and surrounds a courtyard planted by Dan Pearson
The new extension includes a garden classroom and surrounds a courtyard planted by Dan Pearson
The new extension includes a garden classroom and surrounds a courtyard planted by Dan Pearson
The Garden Museum renovation
The Garden Museum renovation
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