Landscape and garden designer Marcus Barnett is known for a style that combines botanical, technical and aesthetic skills to create a scheme that brings out the best in the neighbouring architecture and landscape. To date he has won three Gold Medals for his gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, including one in 2015 for The Telegraph Garden, inspired by the De Stijl art movement. His work is often described as ‘architectural’ – using both hard landscaping and planting to fuse inside and out, without resorting to overtly mimicking the surrounding built environment. Here he explains his take on what ‘the architectural garden’ is, and how to achieve one.
When is it a good idea to take a more architectural approach in the garden?
We don’t slavishly include architectural emphasis in every design, but I think that in urban environments – townhouses, roof terraces, apartment blocks – it’s much easier to be architectural, because buildings naturally play a much bigger part in the wider environment. In an urban setting you can be much more bold than you can in the country.
Very often now in London townhouses, there will be a main room at the rear that will have one wall that is almost entirely glass, looking out on to the garden, which means that the garden is effectively the wallpaper. So if there are architectural elements in the house, we can draw inspiration from them, and the relationship is very strong as a consequence.
What might some of the ingredients be in an architectural garden?
Literally mirroring the building’s architecture is not an effective way to do it. I think you have to draw on any number of things – it could be proportion, materials, angles, height, colour or texture – so that the reference is subliminal rather than literal.
We worked on a project where the kitchen extension was very contemporary, but once you stepped into the rest of the house, the style was more traditional. So we borrowed from that in the garden, with a lounging zone that was very contemporary, but once you went beyond that it was more of a traditional London garden, with trees, soft frothy planting, and walls from London stock bricks. They all blurred into one another, much as the house did.
What about rural gardens?
When space is at less of a premium you can be much more bold with things like scale, for example using big, sweeping swathes of the same plant, which can be incredibly exciting and dramatic. The ‘architectural’ part of it can come through in the planting – for example, using clean, crisp hedging to define space, whereas in London you’re probably more likely to do that with a feature wall.
Do you collaborate with architects when you’re both working on the same home?
I like our work to be a design collaboration: I have no ego about it, and I don’t want to say ‘This is my responsibility, and that’s yours.’ We’re lucky that most of the architects we work with are extraordinarily talented – it would be foolish to ride roughshod over all that experience.
I’m very keen that an architect is approving of our work, and I’m more than happy for them to comment on how we’ve laid out a possible design, just as I would say something if I thought they’d got a vista wrong, or planned to put the kitchen in the wrong place.
How can the planting itself contribute to an architectural feel?
There are two broad ways to approach the planting. You can completely dial down the architectural elements of a garden with incredibly soft, wind-moving plants. If you planted something like Molinia caerulea Transparent – a tall, thin, wispy grass with a spray of seedheads – in a five-by-five-metre bed, then suddenly there’s an architectural strength that comes from volume and repetition.
The other way to do it is to reinforce the architectural elements with repetition, rigid plants, blocks of colour, and, of course, topiary – which is a cliché, but a classic.
Your work often features water – what role can that play?
I think that water introduces such a wonderful softness and potentially powerful element to a garden, although we don’t force it into every design. In the architectural garden it could be something made from powder-coated steel; in a country garden could be a rill with a York stone trim to it.
You can be incredibly subtle with water – for example, introducing a still, black pool that can reflect the plants by day and an uplit tree by night. And moving water is great in urban settings – what would you rather listen to, a police siren or water?