Interview - Andrew Grant, director, Grant Associates

The first phase of Singapore's £500m Gardens by the Bay opened last month on 54ha of reclaimed land. It is hailed as one of the world's largest man-made arboretum attractions and features biomes and steel trees up to 50m high, connected by walkways and full of hundreds of plant varieties.

Andrew Grant, director, Grant Associates - image: Grant Associates
Andrew Grant, director, Grant Associates - image: Grant Associates

These solar-powered "supertrees" form part of the design by a British team led by Bath-based landscape architect Grant Associates. Director Andrew Grant explains this eastern extravaganza and what it says about British landscapes.

Q: What was your brief for Gardens by the Bay?

A: To create the most amazing tropical gardens in the world, incorporate cutting-edge environmental design and championing sustainable-development principles. We had to factor in challenges of both the Singaporean climate and working on a reclaimed waterfront to capture our relationship with nature. More than 10,000 people packed into the gardens for the opening concert by singer Jason Mraz.

Q: Could this type or scale of design happen in the UK?

A: I doubt it. What Singapore is doing is quite extraordinary - the leaders see green space, gardens and open spaces as fundamental to a successful city. This thinking is enshrined at the top and trickles down through all the other ministries, public utilities and other agencies such as the national parks board.

Q: What you do think is the UK's biggest stumbling block?

A: The problem is that we just don't have that kind of joined up thinking. We have neither the strategic political or planning framework nor the type of vision that allows that to happen. Compare this attitude with, say, when the Forestry Commission was set up to rebuild and maintain a strategic timber reserve following World War One, with a good deal of freedom to acquire and plant land. We seem to have lost our way significantly. There is inertia and constraint thrown up by planning or whatever, whereas in Asia they are hungry for new ideas and solutions.

Q: This sounds pretty bleak - are you pessimistic?

A: No - I'm optimistic. Projects these days have an upped-ante on having to deliver sustainability and more clever uses and management of landscapes. In recent years we have done housing, headquarters and urban parks all with woodlands, wetlands and pasture. The frustration is this is not yet universal but often one-off schemes. We don't have a proper overarching passion to deliver, but a lot of developers are rethinking how they do things in the future - most of it driven on saving cost, but also on changing climate, lifestyles and technology. There is a huge state of flux in our industry right now.

Q: What aspects would you like to see change?

A: Money, of course, is a big issue in terms of Government expenditure. In Singapore, there are big green incentives funded by the Government - there's no messing around. The leaders committed to ecology a few years ago and said: "Let's do something and do it properly - let's set a timescale and deliver." There's almost nothing like that in the UK, apart from the very occasional showcase project such as the Olympic Park. People do not value open space to the extent that they are prepared to put money into it.

Q: What do you think of the Olympic Park?

A: We were involved with the landscape around the velodrome at the early stages and I haven't had too much contact since then, but the Olympic Park is a fantastic achievement. Hats off to everyone involved. It will be very successful, but it's of its type - it is a one-off.

Q: Do you think that we can learn from the project?

A: It would be good to think that it will give confidence to people in other parts of the country to deliver some significant new landscapes with a bit of passion and vision.

Q: Would a dedicated landscape agency help?

A: We had CABE Space, which did a great job in helping information flows, starting people communicating and getting them to understand the significance of green space. Sadly, the design adviser has gone and that drive has totally dissipated as far as I can see. It is now down to what a few local authorities or developers feel about it - we've lost a national collective focus.

Q: Would a less fragmented landscape industry help?

A: The profession is a very mixed collection of individuals and practices with all sorts of ambitions, skills and expertise. But there are enough very good practices out there to grab the good opportunities and to offer strong vision. We have the contacts and a huge stable of expertise to deliver the best projects, which draw from specialists in plants, ecology, arboriculture and irrigation. The key here is not necessarily to know everything - the big opportunity we have is in being able to coordinate, manage and choreograph the right skills to deliver those complex landscapes.

CV

1977-82: Landscape architecture, Heriot-Watt University/Edinburgh College of Art

1983-84: Landscape assistant, Terra IV

1984-85: Landscape architect, Nicholas Pearson Associates

1985-88: Landscape architect, Ash Gulf (Doha)

1988-95: Associate, Nicholas Pearson Associates

1996-97: Urban designer, Battle McCarthy

1997-2012: Director, Grant Associates

2012: Completes Gardens by the Bay


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