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Guerrilla gardening in the city

Revolutionary purposes of nature are not forgotten at The Garden Museum’s green-fingered exhibition

‘Garden centres are the Jacobin Clubs of the new revolution’ wrote Ian Hamilton Finlay in the 1980s. If this metaphor startles by its sheer improbability, what might be considered the political purpose of a Garden Museum housed in a deconsecrated church next to Lambeth Palace and within sight of the Palace of Westminster, a location that might bring to mind the Dominican convent in the rue Saint-Jacques that housed the sea-green incorruptible? Since the relaunch of the museum three years ago, with its new plywood mezzanine designed by London architects Dow Jones, it has taken a more radically campaigning direction, showing that gardening remains one of the most socially unifying activities available.

The Garden Museum’s exhibition From Garden City to Green City shows that the revolutionary purposes of nature are not forgotten. The cultivation of nature may seem to belong to the Establishment and the upper class, and by implication to the spaces beyond the city, but the idea that city and country can be separated as functioning ecologies, lifestyles or economies is long past. Movements for transforming cities through nature are still fragmentary and a considerable effort of persuasion is needed to get planners, politicians, journalists and even architects to see the actuality and potential of urban nature.

The exhibition is a step in this direction, and part of a campaign of engagement by the Garden Museum on several fronts. The exhibition began with local history, showing maps, drawings and photographs of Lambeth to stimulate awareness of the ‘fields beneath’: the concept that stirs town dwellers from time to time to imagine alternative futures as well as pasts. It got its teeth into the Garden City story, still worth taking back to its radical origins, as a self-help project with anarchist leanings. It was a desperate remedy for London, an admission that the heart of the city was too dark to be cleansed other than by a new beginning. According to some versions, it was a wrong turn − away from European high-density apartment living and towards sprawl and fake rurality − with disastrous consequences. Culturally, we seem still to be pitting its comedy un-coolness against the cappuccino stereotype, but as the exhibition moved rapidly towards the present, different pictures of possible resolution began to emerge.

Either you push the city into the country, or you bring the country into the city. The designer’s skill is to choose a rhetoric that makes the solution meaningful and acceptable, and the exhibition showed a number of models from recent years that, if reasonably well known among architects and cognate professionals, are probably still new for the audience the Garden Museum attracts. One method is to find leftover spaces for greening, as achieved by a combination of money, politics and apt design with the High Line in New York. Guerrilla gardening is a small-scale version of the same thing, now becoming almost normal.

The ambitions of the Transition movement to bring food growing back to London may soon achieve a similar visibility. What may be lost are things of quality that exist unregarded. A film draws attention to the ‘forest’ in the Heygate Estate at Elephant and Castle, London, a varied stand of mature trees in the midst of a derided and shortly-to-be-scrapped housing development, whose future is also in doubt. Fuzzy but passionate argument has raged over the pros and cons of the city’s Robin Hood Gardens, but the beauty of its mounded landscape in relation to the housing seldom gets a mention, and this is due to be flattened as a form of ‘improvement’ when the housing is demolished. The landscape at Alexandra Road, London, designed by Janet Jack, was lucky enough to be listed when the climate was more favourable for such things, and is undergoing a careful ‘conservation’ refurbishment.

In the new versions of green, we get living walls in by Édouard François, one of whose early projects withered when the client turned off the water supply as a cost saving measure. To avoid similar occurrences (reliance on piped water being an uncertain matter), François has changed tactic, and his Eden Bio project in the 20th arrondissement has steep-gabled traditional-looking houses that are seeded for various forms of growth. Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale in Milan shows residential towers with bushy trees (already part of a roof garden tradition in the city). This is a new version of the old cliché of the vertical garden city, which somehow brought the worst of both worlds, but with sufficient management funds to maintain the greenery it may avoid Ballardian decline.

MVRDV’s multi-storey pig farms in Holland are eye-catching when seen for the first time. They set out to solve the problem of having more pigs than people in the country, without suggesting the non-architectural solution of eating less pork. The Torre Huerta apartments in Valencia by the same firm will have balconies big enough for orange trees, and are apparently irony-free. The LTL project for Greenwich South (New York) is a glass box at the end of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel designed to cleanse its pollution while doubling as a park and a centre for cyclists − what a nice neighbour one of these might make for poor old Robin Hood Gardens.

These projects shoot off in different directions − sustainable, political, cool and cute, and miles removed from the type of development we have come to expect in London. Instead of charting a single track, they indicate a sense of fun and urgency. Although compressed in scale beneath the Museum’s mezzanine, the display is ingenious in its presentation and choice of material. The museum director Christopher Woodward is keen that it should be a rallying call for landscape architects in Britain to become more assertive against the pressure of development that still treats landscape as a token infill. Hardly the equivalent of Jacobinism as yet, but this is an organisation to keep an eye on.

From Garden City to Green City

When: Garden Museum, London

When: Until 1 April

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