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Architecture & design

Kim Wilkie and ‘the blood of landscape’

— September 2012

Article read level: Art lover

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The walled vegetable garden of Villa La Pietra, Florence survives from the time of Scipione Capponi and continues to feed the villa. Fiesole can be seen in the distance. © Kim Wilkie

Led by the Land: Landscapes by Kim Wilkie

By Kim Wilkie

To the general public, Kim Wilkie still isn’t exactly a household name despite being one of Britain’s top landscape and urban designers. But his work is better known than his name, for in the last couple of decades he’s undertaken numerous high-profile projects, restoring and redesigning land, landscape and cityscape, with wonderfully original ideas, and designs that look to the long-term future.

Some his work will be very familiar indeed to Londoners, for Wilkie won the international competition to redesign the V&A’s John Madejski Garden in the courtyard of the museum complex. The brief was a difficult one. The space was to be used as an area in which visitors could stroll and relax, but it also had to be available for functions and performances. Using his customary blend of a simple, elegant design, combined with lateral thinking about practicalities, Wilkie’s ingenious solution caters for both. A large, shallow elliptical pool, plus grass and trees in pots, provides a tranquil oasis; the water from the pool can be drained away into a tank in less than an hour, creating a space for a couple of thousand people.  

Some of Wilkie’s design projects are very far-reaching in geography and time, such as the Thames Landscape Strategy. In other projects he must take history and personal emotions into account, as in his re-design of Hyde Park Corner, the re-development of Chelsea Barracks, and a new cemetery for the City of London. 

Regeneration and sustainability are core values to Wilkie, and the regeneration of some sites makes for fascinating reading. The most dramatic is a whole town in the Solovetski Archipelago in Russia, where one of the first Gulags was located. The drab architecture and tragic history associated with this episode has overlaid the earlier architectural heritage, now recovered and rebuilt, and recognized as a World Heritage site. In order to attract visitors in the summer months, the practicalities of transport and hotel accommodation are part of the overall plan for the future. 

To a landscape and garden historian, one of the most interesting projects was undertaken for the owners of Heveningham Hall in Suffolk. The great 18th-century landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, had drawn up very detailed plans which were never executed, so Wilkie had the very unusual commission of implementing the still-practicable elements. Interestingly, this meant destroying some Victorian garden and landscape features, to which English Heritage consented. One wonders if they would permit similar changes elsewhere, and whether – however interesting – this was an entirely good precedent to set!

Perhaps Wilkie’s best-known work for a country house garden is his huge landform entitled Orpheus, created at Boughton House for the Duke of Buccleuch, where he matched an already-existing truncated grass pyramid designed in 1724 with an inverted one.

This is Kim Wilkie's first book as sole author. He writes thoughtfully, thinking aloud with wonderful observations, educating us without our knowing it – a light touch, with intellectual ideas gently transmitted. He writes for a general readership, using individual projects to illustrate his discussions. His tone is almost conversational as he ponders on the history and character of land, how we think about it, use and misuse it. We need to think about land rather more than we do. He also looks at language, avoiding conventional descriptive phrases as far as possible, and saying how, for example, the word ‘picturesque’ usually makes him nervous:

It has a smell of formaldehyde. Life and movement are the blood of landscape and they cannot be reduced to a static picture. The 18th-century concept of the ‘animated prospect’ came much close to an understanding of how we relate to land.

The photographs in the book have been commissioned and selected to illustrate the ideas expressed, and they are excellent in themselves. This is a book that can make you think.

Led by the Land: Landscapes by Kim Wilkie by Kim Wilkie is published by Frances Lincoln, 2012. 176pp. 250 colour illus, £35.00 ISBN:978-0711233256


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: Image from Led by the Land © Kim Wilkie

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