One of the highlights of my Chicago trip was visiting some of the city’s great parks, including Humboldt Park, which has some great examples of Prairie School architecture and landscaping.
Humboldt Park is on Chicago’s Northwest Side and is the name not only of the park but also the wider neighbourhood, which has a distinct identity. The clue was in the huge metal structureswhich the bus I was on drove through as it entered the area on Division Street. These structures are 59-foot high abstract Puerto Rican flags, welcoming me to the ‘Paseo Boricua’, the only officially recognised Puerto Rican neighbourhood in the USA.
Humboldt Park itself is one of three great 19th century West Side parks (along with Douglas and Garfield) linked together by a historic tree-lined Boulevard System. Originally designed by William Le Baron Jenney – better known as the ‘father of the skyscraper’ – in a picturesque style, Humboldt Park was developed in the early 20th century by Jens Jensen. He introduced prairie style landscaping to the park to mimic his beloved Illinois countryside, including sinuous lines of grasses along the waterways, creating naturalistic garden features way before this idea was popular.
The Humboldt Park Refectory and Boathouse (1906-07), designed by Chicago firm Schmidt, Garden and Martin, is a fine example of Prairie School architecture. Thehipped roof appears to hover over the building’s arched open-air room, emphasising the horizontal design. Elsewhere in the park, lanterns in the same style echo this building. As luck would have it, my visit coincided with a musical event. Hearing the fantastic La Excelencia playing salsa dura, Puerto Rican bomba and Columbian cumbia to an enthusiastic crowd dancing under the building’s arches only added to the atmosphere.
I’ve written for some of the UK’s leading garden magazines, including The Garden, The English Garden, Garden News and Grow Your Own. Here’s a small selection of my published articles.
‘Buried treasures’, Inside Story, Spring 2019
A piece on Hampton Court Palace garden’s large scale spring bulb displays, written for Historic Royal Palace’s Members’ magazine. Read the article here.
‘Edible exotics: Tomatillo’ Grow Your Own, September 2017
A piece about growing the unusual tomatillo fruits, great for salsas. Read the article here.
‘Boxing Clever’, The English Garden, March 2017
An article about how to treat box hedge problems, particularly box blight and box tree caterpillar, including interviews with leading RHS scientists and also some suggestions for using alternatives to box. Read the full article here.
‘From stumps to stars’, The Garden, October 2016
A ‘how to’ piece on pollarding trees and shrubs for decorative effect, including using some unfamiliar examples. Read the full article here.
‘Grow like a pro: Blackberries’, Grow Your Own, December 2015
A piece about growing cultivated blackberry varieties in your garden or allotment. Read the article here.
A visit to Sintra, taking in the Parks and Palaces of Pena and Monserrate, the Peninha Sanctuary and Guincho-Cresmina dunes
The Eurogard VIII congress I attended a while back included an exciting all day coach tour of Sintra. ThisUNESCO Cultural Landscape, about an hour’s drive west of Lisbon, is famed for its palaces and landscapes. It’s a huge area, which, ideally, I could have spent days exploring, but here’s the highlights from a whistle-stop tour.
The Park and National Palace of Pena
Located in one of the highest parts of Sintra, the extravagantNational Palace of Pena, was built around a former 16th century monastery, which was transformed by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century. Restoration work is ongoing and craftsman were restoring a courtyard during my visit, a good example of Sintra’s‘Open for Works’ policy: “every restoration that does not jeopardise visitor or worker safety … is done on display to the public”.* The Palace is surrounded by well-maintained landscapes, including display beds with towering echiums, the formal Queen Amelia’s Garden and one of Portugal’s finest arboretums.
The Park and Palace of Monserrate
Nearby is the Park and Palace of Monserrate, with medieval and oriental influences, it is, after Pena, one of the foremost Romantic Architecture sites in Portugal. The original house, built by an English merchant in the neo-Gothic style, was visited by Lord Byron when it was already in ruins and its sublime appearance helped inspire his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This poem encouraged other foreign visitors to visit, including wealthy English industrialist Francis Cook, who in 1863 purchased the site and developed a new house here with architect James Knowles.
I ate lunch sat on grass that was said to be the first lawn in Portugal and then explored the gardens. The work of master gardener Francis Burt, landscaper William Stockdale and botanist William Neville, one of the most notable areas is the so-called ‘Mexican Garden’, chock full of agaves, aeoniums, yuccas and a superb dragon tree (Dracaena draco). So actually not all Mexican, but interesting and impressive, nonetheless.
On the walk up to Monserrate’s Fern Valley, I saw fine native trees and shrubs, including large cork oaks (Quercus suber) with deeply-textured, spongy bark, and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo). The latter is a Lusitanian endemic, a group of 15 plants which only grow in the Iberian Peninsula and South West Ireland. Fern Valley’s humid microclimate, protected by large plane trees, provides ideal conditions for over 40 types of fern. Also found here is a suitably romantic ruin, built around 1790, and now almost engulfed in a vigorous Australian rusty fig (Ficus rubiginosa).
As well as being picturesque, the huge Sintra-Cascais Natural Park (in which the Sintra Cultural Landscape sits) is full of nature conservation sites. I visited two on the trip. Peninha sanctuary, overlooking the Atlantic coast, is one of Sintra’s highest peaks and it was difficult to speak to the other tour members in the extreme wind.
Peninha is a biological micro reserve of high botanical value, and I saw here the endangered sea thrift (Armeria pseudarmeria), and also Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica), wild hoop petticoat daffodils (Narcissus bulbocodium subsp. bulbocodium), more familiar to me as an ornamental in UK gardens, and an unusual crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria).
The Guincho-Cresmina dunes
Before heading back to Lisbon, we stopped at the Guincho-Cresmina dunes on the Atlantic coast. This dune system has a long circular boardwalk over the sand, so visitors can enjoy the nature reserve without causing any damage. The habitat management techniques include ‘Palisades’, natural fences made from dead plant material, which slow the movement of sand by the wind, and plantings of European marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) to help stop erosion. Here I saw verbascum, beach juniper (Juniperus turbinata) and Armeria welwitschii, an unusual Portuguese endemic commonly known here as divine-herb or divine-root.
Armeria welwitschii is an interesting plant within Portuguese botany, linking plants with history and colonialism, as it’s named after botanist Friedrich Welwitsch. An Austrian, Welwitsch collected extensively in the 19th century on behalf of the Portuguese government in Angola, then a Portuguese colony. His most famous discovery is the strange plant known as a living fossil, Welwitschia mirabilis, but that’s another story.
* Pimentel, J, C. Marques, A. Mingote and D. Silva, 2015. Parques de Sintra Management Model: The Palace of Pena case study. Proceedings of the II Internacional Conference on Best Practices in World Heritage:, April/May, pp. 971-985.
An impressive but under publicised garden can be found not far from the centre of Lisbon, which I visited while attending the Eurogard VIII congress.
Amazingly, this garden was never intended to be permanent. From around 1910 an old quarry in Lisbon’s Parque de Eduardo VII was used to shelter tree species from around the world that were intended for planting on the nearby Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s premier shopping street. However, World War One slowed down the plans and the plants started putting down roots here instead. And in 1926, painter and architect Paul Carapinha initiated a plan to turn this site into a greenhouse, which was realized by the early 1930s.
There are four areas here, the main Estufa Fria (which means cold greenhouse), and two smaller areas, Estufa Quente (warm greenhouse) and Estufa Doce (sweet greenhouse), the latter two opened in 1975 for tropical plants. Plus there is a small outdoor garden with a lake. The main Estufa Fria is the most impressive area, consisting of a large planted landscape of around one hectare which is covered with a wooden lath (slat) roof held up on extremely tall – and I mean extremely tall, up to 280 metre – metal columns. It is said to be the “largest wooden lath house in the world”.* The slats provide shade rather than warmth for the plants here, including many tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) and rhododendrons.
I walked ever higher up the paths of the Estufa Fria to the top of the old quarry where I had a superb view over the planted landscape. High up, in the Estufa Quente and Estufa Doce, were a range of bromeliads, succulents and cacti. I saw particularly nice examples of bitter aloe (Aloe vera), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and the Eastern Cape blue cycad (Encephalartos horridus).
Visiting the Estufa Fria just before Eurogard VIII got me in the right frame of mind. This garden contained many themes relevant to the congress: ex-situ conservation of endangered species; garden interpretation; visitor management; and educating audiences. It is a garden that deserves to be better known and could perhaps be regarded as Portugal’s ‘Eden Project’.
*Segall, B., 1999. Gardens of Spain and Portugal. London: Mitchell Beazley, p. 118.
I’m finally updating my blog with some highlights of gardens and buildings visited over the last couple of years. One of the most interesting gardens I visited was Lisbon’s Tropical Botanical Garden. I saw this and other Portuguese gardens while attending Eurogard VIII, a major botanic garden conference, which I attended thanks to an RHS bursary.
Originally called the Colonial Garden, the Tropical Botanical Garden was created in 1906 to grow species from Portugal’s colonies and teach tropical agronomy (the science of growing crops for economic means). After various institutional manifestations, it is now part of the University of Lisbon. Holding approximately 2000 plants, from 600 species and 100 botanic families, it holds around 29 species on the IUCN’s threatened plants Red List. As well as ornamental, medical and culinary reasons, the plants were originally grown to assess their worth as economic crops in the Portuguese colonies, particularly Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.
The Portuguese World Exhibition was held in Lisbon in 1940 to mark 800 years since Portugal’s foundation and 300 years of independence from Spain. The event is described on the Visualizing Portugal website as “the first major cultural event of the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship and marked the high-point of its ‘nationalist-imperialist’ propaganda”. Several exhibition pavilions and other features were built in the gardens so-called ‘exotic’ environment, including the Director’s House, complete with tiled walls showing colonial scenes, and a series of sculptural busts by sculptor Manuel de Oliveira of natives from the Portuguese colonial empire, including, for example, Guinea-Bisseau.
.For someone more familiar with northern European garden flora, this garden’s plant collection was exciting and fascinating. There were rare cycads and palms and many unusual tropical trees, including the flame coral tree (Erythrina coralloides) from Mexico, the custard apple (Annona cherimola) with edible fruit from South America, and the jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia), used as an ornamental and timber tree and now listed as Vulnerable on the Red List in its native Argentina and Bolivia. I managed to buy their excellent catalogue in English of the entire plant collection, which will inform my knowledge of tropical flora for years to come.
Within the gardens is the 17th Century Calheta Palace, a former aristocratic summer residence, which houses the Tropical-Agricultural Garden Museum. Here, in the colonial era, timber in its raw and processed forms acted as a reference ‘library’, to assess its suitability for timber production, such as furniture making. Just one example, from Mozambique, is the panga panga or partridge wood tree (Millettia stuhlmannii).
This garden and timber collection raised uncomfortable questions about colonialism, seen most obviously in the sculptural heads and other features made for the Portuguese World Exhibition. Although former colonial gardens are perhaps ethically questionable today, they were created in another era – and thus serve as reminders of Europe’s colonial past. An article*, published in 2017 by academic’s Lourenço and Dias, described Portuguese science museums as “time capsules” and I think this term can equally be applied to this garden too.
Although there was an interesting range of plants in this garden, sadly when I visited in 2018 some areas were very run down. I was therefore pleased to read recently that the garden and its buildings are undergoing a major restoration.
*Lourenço, M. C. and J. P. S. Dias, 2017. “Time Capsules” of science: Museums, collections, and scientific heritage in Portugal. Isis, 108(2), pp. 390-398.
Letchworth was the world’s first garden city. The city was the realisation of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas: an ideal city would combine the social and economic benefits of a town with the health benefits of the country. Howard never specified a physical form for the garden city, so his ideas were adaptable. By 1903, a site had been found in Hertfordshire and the winning plan drawn up by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, which is partly based on Wren’s 1666 plan for London. I organised a tour of Letchworth for the Twentieth Century Society and here’s a few highlights.
The Spirella Factory, 1912-20, by Cecil Hignett, is one of the most impressive Arts and Crafts style factories in the UK if not Europe. It was built for Spirella, an American company that revolutionised corset design with spiral wound springs. Known locally as ‘Castle Corset’, it was a progressive factory for its day, the workrooms received maximum natural light through large metal windows and the welfare and social facilities included a choral and orchestral society, library and even a ballroom. It was refurbished in 1999 as a business centre.
The Settlement by Parker and Unwin, 1907, was originally ‘The Skittles Inn’, the ‘pub with no beer’. As a temperance inn, it served only non-alcoholic drinks, including Bournville Drinking Chocolate (Cadburys contributed to the cost), Sasparilla and ‘Cydrax’, a non-alcoholic apple wine. The temperance movement had a major effect on the Quaker-influenced Garden City and, incredibly, the town did not have a licensed premises until the 1950s. This, along with other aspects of Garden City life (vegetarianism, sandals), provoked satire and ridicule in the popular press. The Settlement contained a billiard room, skittles alley, exposed beams, cosy inglenook fireplaces and a large shaded porch (or ‘stoep’) with fixed settles. It has been an adult education centre since 1923.
Parker and Unwin’s former offices and studio, 1907, now houses the International Garden Cities Exhibition. Based on the medieval thatched hall, their drawing offices were in the main hall, which was lit by concrete mullioned windows. The steeply pitched roof is made from Norfolk Reed, the walls have a roughcast finish typical of the Arts and Crafts style and the gardens were designed in the cottage style of Gertrude Jekyll.
Bennett and Bidwell’s Art Deco Broadway Cinema, 1935, contrasts nicely with the nearby conservative Neo-Georgian buildings. The cinema has beautifully intricate traceried windows in the foyer and a concrete vaulted roof.
Bennett and Bidwell worked in different styles, and also designed the Arts and Crafts Howgills, Friends Meeting House, 1907. This is partly based on Briggflatts, a 17 century meeting house in North Yorkshire, particularly the stone mullioned windows. Letchworth expert Mervyn Miller describes the wood panelled interior as “sober and beautiful”.
The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906, is an unusual building, which the previous Twentieth Century Society Letchworth notes* describe as “a bizarre E.S. Prior-ish confection faced in flint, Suffolk bricks and Purbeck stone facings”. Built for Miss Annie Lawrence, an enthusiast of theosophy, callisthenics and suffragism, it housed a school of psychology, but, to quote the notes again, “most people in Letchworth didn’t have a clue what it was all about and suspected that Miss Lawrence and her disciples weren’t much the wiser either”. An Art Nouveau fountain in the central hall had twin basins, the lower one divided into eight sections for ceremonial hand washing. Communal meals were taken at a marble-faced dining table raised on an altar-like dais and residents slept in hammocks in the Cloisters Garth arcade, men and women strictly separated. It is now the home of the North Herts Masonic Lodge.
*Andrew Saint and Hetty Startup, Spread the People, Twentieth Century Society Tour Notes, 1986
I’ve long wanted to visit Turin’s Fiat Factory, famous for its rooftop test track. But when I finally arrived there the track was closed for maintenance. No randomly tried lift or stairs would get me to the roof, only to Italian office receptionists bewildered by an Englishman asking about the roof (Renzo Piano has converted the factory into offices and a shopping mall). For now, I’ll have to settle for the magnificent views of the track seen in the Italian Job. But at least I managed to walk part way up the spiral ramp leading to the roof, which is a particularly fine early example of reinforced concrete technology.
Critic Reyner Banham declared the Fiat factory “the most nearly futurist building ever built”, referring to the Italian art movement that emphasised speed, technology and cars. Built from 1916-23 in Turin’s Lingotto district, the factory was designed by engineer Giacomo Matte-Trucco. Visits by Fiat officials to Ford’s Highland Park car factory influenced the concrete framed building’s design. But there is one major difference between the two factories. Ford’s car production process moved from the top floor to the ground; at Lingotto it went from the ground floor to top, and then, in spectacular Futurist fashion, completed cars would drive around the test track and exit down the ramp.
From the factory, I walked across the Arco Olimpico footbridge, which spans many railway tracks, to see the former Olympic Village. The bridge became the symbol for the Turin Winter Olympics, 2006. Designed by architects HDA, the bridge’s 150m long deck is suspended from cables held up by a 70m high red steel arch. The inspiration for the bridge came from the parabolic arches of Umberto Cuzzi’s nearby former fruit and vegetable market. Described as the “only real rationalist project in Turin”, the market includes seven pairs of 100m long parabolic arches, which were incorporated into the athletes’ shopping area. Although Cuzzi’s arches look startlingly modern today, the area now lies forlorn and empty, which one critic blamed on a “lack of far sighted reconversion policies”.
From here, I took the bus to the edge of the city to see Fiat’s Mirafiori factory. Even as the Lingotto factory was finished it was outdated, so in 1936 Fiat management discussed creating a new plant. They visited Ford’s massive River Rouge plant, the successor to Highland Park. River Rouge replaced multi-storey car factories with single storey buildings that consolidated the manufacturing process on one floor. This reduced unnecessary transport of materials and saved workers’ energy, refining rigid Fordist management practices. Designed in-house by Servizio Costruzioni Fiat, the Mirafiori factory was visited by Mussolini in 1939. According to John Foot, in Modern Italy, he was received by an unresponsive workforce, who were still mostly but secretly communist. The factory is on a huge 376 hectare site. At one point, this employed 50,000 workers, had 10,000 telephones, 37 entry gates and a canteen designed to accommodate 10,000 workers. It includes assembly lines, workshops, forges, a power plant, a network of underground tunnels, a surface test track and railways. The factory has had a chequered industrial relations history, with many strikes.
It took forever to walk around its perimeter walls looking for photo opportunities and there seemed no way into the site through the security checkpoints. Then I discovered the Design Centre of the Polytechnic of Turin campus, which has taken over part of the site (the automobile industry crisis through the 1980s-90s has led to diminished production needs). I walked into the campus and found I could enter an adjacent abandoned factory building. Huge in size, with windows smothered outside by the rampant foliage of untamed Trees of Heaven, a melancholy feeling hangs over the place. Stripped of machinery, reminders of the workers remain – an old cat food tin (perhaps there was a factory cat?), a phone extension list to lines that no longer exist and safety signs to remind the long-gone workers to wear goggles.
Chicago is surprisingly green. In fact, its motto is “Urbs in horto” – “City in a garden”. Among its 570 public parks, Humboldt and Garfield are particularly interesting for their prairie style landscapes. These naturalistic areas mimic Midwest prairies. They were designed by innovative landscaper Jens Jensen around 1906. Alfred Caldwell was Jensen’s student and went on to design the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park. This is a masterpiece of modern landscape design.
It includes a circular stone meeting place, a feature used by Jensen, a limestone path around the pool and sumptuous native Illinois planting. The pool’s limestone cascades and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pavilion are all horizontals, appearing to grow organically out of the landscape. Eminent Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe met Caldwell at the pool. Impressed, Mies offered Caldwell a job teaching in his architecture faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Caldwell also designed the landscape at IIT, a campus famous for Mies’s influential Crown Hall.
Entrance gate to the Lily Pool (Author’s photo)
The pool became run down due to lack of maintenance, but was restored in 2000 and is now an National Historic Landmark. Other work by Caldwell in Chicago includes the rooftop park on the podium at Lake Point Tower. In a neat piece of synergy, this glass tower was designed by Schipporeit and Heinrich, two former Mies students, who based it on Mies ‘s designs for an unrealised Berlin tower from 1921.
Although best known for his paintings, the artist John Piper created murals and mosaics too, including one I saw in the foyer of John Madin’s Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60). It’s made from gloss-fired tiles in vivid greens, yellows and oranges on a dark background. Although seemingly an abstract work, the Birmingham Pesvner guide by Andy Foster speculates that it might be an “urban landscape”, perhaps, with tall towers”. Lynn Pearson’s pioneering post-war UK murals database notes that it “may be moved to the Barber Institute”, the art gallery of the University of Birmingham. This surely relates to news that the Chamber of Commerce may be demolished to make way for redevelopment.
If the Chamber of Commerce is demolished, it will follow the sad fate of other Madin works, including the Birmingham Post and Mail building and most probably the former Birmingham Central Library. The latter was supposed to be demolished earlier this year, but at the time of writing (November 2015) there seems to be a hiatus and campaigners are resurrecting a petition to save it (even as the demolition crews destroy yet another Madin building, at 103 Colmore Row).
Many of Madin’s works can no longer be enjoyed in built form, but photographer Stuart Whipps ‘Why contribute to the spread of ugliness’ exhibition at the Ikon Gallery (2012) documented Madin’s buildings and archive. He even retraced Madin’s research visit to America, made when the architect was designing Birmingham Central Library. In a neat piece of visual symmetry, an image by Whipps of Detroits Public Library comes complete with a Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata), a plant also seen in front of Piper’s mosaic. I hope the mosaic survives; it certainly deserves to be better known.
William Morris’s trellis pattern wallpaper inspired the meadow, which opened to coincide with the gallery’s Arts & Crafts House: Then and now exhibition. The straight lines in the trellis pattern influenced the meadow’s mown paths, while the informality of its wild flowers reflects the wallpaper’s rambling roses. The flower mix includes the semi-parasitic yellow rattle, which will help diminish the grass fertility, and create windows of opportunity for other flowers. Other species include wild carrot, ox eye daisy, wild red clover, tufted vetch and cowslips. Circles of annuals within the meadow, including poppies and corn cockles, represent the rose flowers seen on Morris’s pattern.
Dan explained that the meadow will go through several evolutions, before stabilising in around five years. The meadow will be cut at the end of the summer and the clippings removed to reduce fertility. There is even the possibility of sheep grazing it over the winter. Dan aptly described the meadow as the “meeting point of gardening and agriculture”.
Dan is the first garden designer to work at Compton Verney since Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown redesigned the landscape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps unusually for a piece of garden design, the meadow was crowdfunded by the public as an Art Fund Art Happens project. It’s well worth seeing over the summer, as is the related Arts and Crafts House exhibition.
*The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 27 June to 13 Sept 2015