Tucked behind Tate Modern on London’s South Bank, amid the new Neo Bankside residential development, lies an extraordinary piece of contemporary design. Created by Gillespies’ landscape architect Stephen Richards, this inspiring green space is an oasis of calm at the heart of an otherwise urban landscape.
Stephen Richards, Gillespies
The extraordinary location of the site demanded a strong scheme that could hold its own against iconic architecture such as St Paul's Cathedral.
Finding a visual language that would enable the garden to sit comfortably with the combination of new steel glass towers and the Georgian London-brick almshouses that line one side was one of the many challenges Stephen faced. He also had to come up with a design that would suit an awkwardly shaped site built on top of an underground car park, and which would work both as a public right of way and as a private refuge for the residents of the luxury apartments.
To define the intersection between old and new, Stephen planted Quercus robur (common oak) between the garden and the Georgian almshouses.
Stephen realised early on that the landscape would be critical in 'holding the site together'. Rather than building a plaza, he created a garden that could be experienced while on the move, so he designed the space as a network of routes that can be explored.
To navigate the space, a central axis leads you straight through the garden, while smaller paths cross on the diagonal, with varying paving styles and scales helping to differentiate between public and private areas.
The real beauty of the Neo Bankside garden, though, is the interplay between the strong linear forms and what is essentially woodland planting. As Stephen says, 'The structure is very crisp, so we could afford to make the planting loose. We steered away from topiary as the space itself is clipped.'
Light, airy birches and alders were grown especially for the site and create continuity with the planting around neighbouring Tate Modern. Unusually, they were deliberately produced with up to 26 feet of clear stem, which has resulted in the trees having a more spindly form than normal. This, in turn, has provided the garden with a delicate screen that feels and looks balanced with the surrounding buildings, not to mention the contemporary statues dotted around the site.
A cloud-pruned Pinus contorta 'Bonsai', seen to the right of this picture, is one of the few living sculptures within the garden.
The garden can be enjoyed all year round. The understorey planting is evergreen and deciduous - perennials, ferns and grasses - with seasonal accents. To enable the residents to engage with the space, the plants have also been selected with nectar and foraging insects in mind to help improve the biodiversity of the site.
The thriving ecosystem is reinforced by clever visual imagery within the design, where paths appear to crumble away at the edges. 'This sense of erosion, of plants taking over, signals a healthy place,' says Stephen. As the plants continue to bed in, the transition from awkward urban city space to inner London woodland will become complete.
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