Christopher Woodward, Garden Museum Director
This week we begin to prepare our case for the Public Inquiry called by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State of Housing, Communities and Local Government, into the proposals to re-develop the London Fire Brigade’s Art Deco HQ into a £500 million development of luxury flats in blocks up to 86 metres high.
The towers would steal winter sun from our gardens, and loom over the new learning spaces of the Sackler Garden, which last year were used by 70 schools and more than 50 community groups. But our objection to the development proposed is not just about the Museum. It is the heritage – and future – of our neighbourhood which is at risk.
And, we believe, we have a better future to offer. Since 2018 we have working on a vision for a new urban landscape for 5.3 acres of public realm adjacent to the Museum to be master-planned by Dan Pearson. Lambeth Green.
But Lambeth Green cannot happen as we imagine it if the towers are built. The public inquiry this November will decide between between two urban futures for Lambeth Village, a community in existence since the 11th-century. Will it be green, alive, prosperous and neighbourly – or yet another shiny and anonymous commercial high-rise, with the only public realm a grey and overcast piazza for Oliver Bonas and Côte Brasserie?
Design work is currently on hold, owing to the pandemic – and the Inquiry. So it seems a good time to share our emerging ideas. We have added to our website (link below) a PDF of images by Dan Pearson Studio working with Publica, an urban design agency, in a master-plan funded by a family Trust who support the Museum. Further design work since then has been made possible by The Garfield Weston Foundation.
Lambeth Green is is a jigsaw of seven pieces of land (none of which we own!) and five partners. Its activities will range from a new riverside garden to London’s first ‘garden junction’ walk, from a flower-cutting garden to well-being walks to be created in partnership with the local GP’s surgery.
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This would be the first major project on public land in central London to be master-planned not by an architect or engineer but by a landscape designer, Dan Pearson: an international design genius who is also a neighbour, returning from Japan or California to come by for coffee on the morning’s dog walk. And imagine the Sackler Garden he has created bursting, like a seed bomb, in to the tarmac and paving of the surrounding streets.
If you want to get a sense of how magic public urban planting can be, see what Dan Pearson Studio has done at Coal Drops Yard, Kling’s Cross, with developer Argent.
But what makes the project so complex, and so interesting, is the interaction between so many professions. It’s a collaboration between traffic engineers and tree experts, urban botanists and health professionals.
Let me begin with ‘where’.
This key below shows the pieces of a blue jigsaw, from A (the Museum) to H (Old Paradise Gardens). The new landscape would begin on the Thames Riverside, continue over Lambeth Palace Road into the small triangle of land called St Mary’s Gardens, and across a second busy road (Lambeth Road) in to the ancient Lambeth High Street.
A second image – and, again, this is early days – imagine this as a continuous flow of green.
One catalyst to step outside our boundary for the project was Transport for London’s decision to remove the roundabout outside the Museum and put in its place a junction with a traffic lights. It’s part of a much wider strategy by Mayor Sadiq to improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
You will recognise the roundabout in the first picture.
The second picture shows the new junction. Look closely, and you’ll see that the pavements have bulged in size: a roundabout takes up a huge amount of space. But imagine if this vast pavement became a garden instead. In subsequent designs we have worked with Transport for London to identify several Sackler Garden-sized blocks of planting. Imagine driving or cycling – or pushing a buggy – through a Dan Pearson garden which is also a new style of traffic intersection. London’s first garden junction.
The challenge is maintenance. Pavements are easy to keep clean and safe, gardens are not. To paraphrase TfL’s team: ‘We like gardens as much as anyone but we’re not gardeners. We’re TfL. Our job is to move people safely. Can you maintain this?’ Fair enough.
What we lack is a horticultural base from which we can garden Lambeth Green. We imagine a new pavilion to be inserted where St Mary’s Gardens (that triangle of land next to the Museum, which we maintain on behalf of its owner, Lambeth Council) meets the junction. This will be a facility for a ‘street gardener’ and a team of horticultural trainees and volunteers. It might also be a new gateway to the Museum: we imagine St Mary’s Gardens being integrated with our church-yard garden, while continue as a public park. And we want to put back a pedestrian route beside the old churchyard wall: for nine hundred years, that was the way to the river.
TfL, like us, are on hold. But we hope to launch an architectural competition for the new pavilion early next year. This aspect of Lambeth Green would not be affected by the leering high-rises. But If that scheme were to win consent, Old Paradise Gardens (a park which was once part of our churchyard, gifted to the parish by Archbishop Tenison in 1703) would be in darkness on a winter’s day and Lambeth High Street – which we imagine as a serene, green route – would growl and splutter with vehicles.
Over the coming months I hope to share this project in greater detail. Private gardens in Britain are better than they have ever been; certainly, in the last two decades more money has been spent on their design by high-profile talents than at any age since the Edwardians. But, by contrast, so much of our public spaces are in decline. We want to show that it can be different.