May 31, 2015

The Modern Garden : A basis for dynamic and functional landscape design

This month we were appointed to design the outside space, of a new build modernist eco property in Birmingham.   This is an exciting project for us, as fans of this style, because the property is a clean lined modern property, which warrants a similar powerful modernist narrative for the landscape. In this first of a series of blogs about this exciting commission, I will briefly discuss aspects of Modernism and their application to landscape design as well as sharing some initial ideas and overarching concept for the landscape of this project.

Some Key principles of modernism and landscape design

 The modernist style developed from the Bauhaus school in Germany in the early 20th Century as a response to the new world of manufacturing and mass production and was reflected in the world of architecture by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and LeCorbusier. Several well known Landscape architects including Arne Jacobsen, Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo and Dan Kiley were early Modernists within the context of landscape whose work represented a shift away from the wild/naturalistic garden aesthetic that was influenced by romantic naturalism, to wards a more minimal, functional and rectilinear approach. In the context of landscape, there are a number of principles and characteristics that define modernism. These include:

  • The use of simple geometry and strong lines, including squares and rectangles that form the hard and soft landscape areas. Circular shapes can be used more sparingly, for emphasis.
  • Retention of a feeling of open space in the garden, with hedges and screens used with gaps between or even spaces within to enable glimpses of what is beyond. Enclosure is suggested rather than created in entirety.
  • The overall layout is informal and asymmetric, the organization feels random and any sculpture, planters etc should be positioned asymmetrically to give a dynamic feel.
  • The use of man-made materials such as steel, concrete and glass are typical
  • Plants are chosen for their form and texture and used in expansive blocks or masses of specimen plants for impact.
  • Decorative detail and ornamentation are reduced.
  • Furniture is simple and geometric in design: as with other aspects of Modern design, form follows function.

Chelsea Flower show and the modernist style in 2015

Interestingly, Chelsea Flower show 2015 held this month had several Modernist gardens illustrating some of the key principles of this style as described above. These gardens included:

Darren Hawkes garden with over 40,000 pieces of cut slate that form a surface of suspended platforms, inspired by prehistoric dolmens as well as by modernist architecture and referencing the work of well known artists like Richard Serra and James Turrell.   The drama of the hard landscape structure and its subtle softening with naturalistic textured planting was a particular favourite of mine.


Adam Frost ‘s urban community garden celebrated the design principles of the early 20th century Bauhaus movement by incorporating modernist materials including concrete and corten steel in a simple geometric structure, all softened by planting, attempting to illustrate how nature can exist in the urban environment and green space can be successfully integrated into towns and cities.


Marcus Barnett on the other hand used the art works of Mondrian to inspire his strongly rectilinear garden with planting in strong blocks of colour and texture. Trees and hedges introduced vertical detailing, sculptural form and shade, forming the main structural elements complementing pathways and waterways. Vibrant primary colours were emphasized with balancing restful foils of green and white as in the paintings of this movement.


The concept for our eco property project

Our brief for the Eco property in Birmingham includes the design of much of the outside space including the entranceway and driveway, a long thin garden along the rear of the house and two sunken courtyards. The property is a two story green-roofed eco-build that is sunk into the ground with white rendered walls, ceramic tiled floors, glass and corten as the main materials palette. The clients are keen to explore different types of landscape, from Japan to Morocco and to use the light quality to drive the demarcation; Selective strong colour and contrasting textures are important considerations as well as the connection with the building, its scale and its modern style.

Connecting inside and outside

The building is bold clean (of line and form), simple, uncluttered, asymmetric elegant and unified through detailing and layout. The building can be considered to be ‘of another place’-connected with nature and the environment and its resources yet disconnected from suburbia in a traditional sense. It is clear that it is important to follow this same approach to the landscape: matching in scale, simple, minimalist, edgy, paired down, concentrated, not overly elaborate but with a strong sense of place and strong attention to detail.




A narrative for the landscape

The big idea of the landscape is ‘of a place/another place: a modern interpretation of nature and places, symbolic and simplified, representational. As one landscape designer with a strong focus on modernism has stated:

‘In making gardens, we should look first to the landscape for inspiration’ Christopher Bradley-Hole.

The outside is to be understated, muted, in overall colour hues and rich in texture, with splashes of well placed bright colour and simplified block planting. With a number of separate areas (one reflecting a native woodland, another with a Japanese connection and another with a Moroccan feel) it is critical that a common style through layout and materials exist to form a cohesive story. The principles of modernism will underpin the design.


Using modern art as a start point for design layout and design principles

The modernist movement provides strong inspiration in the creation of modern gardens and paintings by modernist artists including Mondrian, Ben Nicholson and Laszio Moholy-Nagy provide practical clues for composition of the garden as we have seen in the Chelsea garden by Marcus Barnett. In our project here, we have used a painting by Laszio to identify a series of design principles to be used throughout our design. That is not to say that our garden will be academic and lacking in emotion, moreover, the principles will help us to create a dynamic design that has a cohesion across the site rather than a piecemeal approach that could result in disconnected spaces.

Image: www.

Image: www.


In future blogs I will talk about the specific design of the individual areas as well as materials and planting palettes. Please do join me in our journey!

I am a Chartered Landscape architect and garden designer with a keen interest in contemporary spaces, roof terraces, courtyards and kitchen gardens as well as all manner of garden and landscape projects.  I  blog regularly about aspects of garden and landscape design and growing food on our boutique allotment.  You can also follow me, Liz Ackerley on Twitter @poppyheadC,  or like our facebook page  where you will find lots of tips and ideas related to gardens.  Also check out my projects and approaches to design here on my website:







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