The Savills Garden by Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon
The Savills Garden by Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon
Modernism the Theme for Savills Gardenat the Chelsea Flower Show 2006

International property services group Savills has returned to the Chelsea Flower Show for the second year with its Modernist inspired garden, designed by Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon.  This year’s show runs from 23-27 May 2006.

Barnett and Nixon made a big impact on RHS judges and visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show in 2005 with their debut ‘Chic Garden’.  Not only did they win a coveted RHS gold medal, and best in category, but were asked to design a full sized show garden by Savills for 2006.

Ian Stewart, Director, Head of Savills London Region, said: “We celebrated our 150th anniversary with our debut garden at the Chelsea Flower Show 2005. It was there that we spotted Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon and they seemed to be the ideal designers to reflect our contemporary and international aspirations as property consultants.

 “While we continue to sell some of the finest historic, residential and agricultural properties in the world, we also market exciting contemporary buildings – both commercial and residential – ranging from vast international partnership schemes to more residential modest developments. Quality is our watchword – and it applies as much to Marcus and Philip’s garden as to our care of all our clients.

“The greening of urban environments in particular has never been more important – and often controversial - for those who live and work within them. We hope that visitors, and especially our clients, will find this design both challenging yet practical, and perhaps an inspiration – whether they are planning a huge public space or a humble back yard.  Well designed gardens add value to property the world over.”
The inspiration for the 2006 garden is taken broadly from the Modernist Architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and in particular the Farnsworth House, which was completed in 1951 in Plano Illinois, USA.  Barnett and Nixon studied the works that had inspired van der Rohe, such as the paintings of Theo van Duesberg, and were impressed by the essence of what van der Rohe was trying to achieve in this seminal and iconic house. 

Barnett and Nixon looked at the integrity, identity and simplicity of the individual horizontal and vertical planes that make up the structure and were inspired by the way the house sits within and relates to its surroundings. The building seems to fit perfectly in its setting specifically because of, and not despite, its stark contrast with the natural 'geometry' of the landscape.   The challenge for the designers is to create a garden that pays homage to the clean lines of Modernism but also will encourage show visitors to stop and view Modernist inspired design through fresh eyes, as well as admire the beautiful planting that complements the modernist loggia.  With the Savills Garden the designers want to explore specifically Modernist themes but also the idea of contrast as something that creates harmony.

The Savills Chelsea Flower Show garden is private and enclosed. The entrance is framed by trees (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) that lead onto a polished concrete pathway. The geometry of the path then meanders through trees and perennial planting, consisting of grasses such as Luzula nivea and Stipa tenuissima and foliage plants such as Rodgersia pinnata.  Vertical accents are provided by Digitalis purpurea.  Drifts of Iris sanguinea ‘Snow Queen’ are another key feature of the planting.  Elements of the planting are more structural, specifically the Buxus sempervirens cubes which run in a line from the loggia out into the garden, echo the horizontals of the loggia and provide a visual and metaphorical link between soft and hard landscaping. Finally the path leads across water creating a sense of journey, arriving at the ‘Modernist’ building at the rear of the garden. The building is designed as a place of refuge or for entertaining.

It’s Not Just About the Plants on the Savills Garden

Lighting, sculpture, fencing and features all come together on the Savills Chelsea Flower Show Garden 2006, designed by Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon.  The garden showcases an array of features that complement the planting scheme and work quietly within the context of this Modernist inspired garden whilst providing contrast and balance and creating harmony.

Sculpture is a key element on this garden, featuring four twentieth century bronzes. The pieces are all by sculptors who are or were working in the abstract modernist tradition of the 20th century and in particular in the tradition of modern masters such as Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink. The sculptors whose work is shown in the garden are Bernard Meadows (1915-2005), Anthony Abrahams (b.1926), and Dimitri Hadzi (b. 1921). 

The pieces are nevertheless and purposely an eclectic mix of styles and ideas as would be found in any private collection. There is the pure abstraction of the work by Meadows who was a key member of the post war British Constructivist school.  Pure abstraction is also represented in the work by Hadzi, an American sculptor and Emeritus professor at Harvard University.  His work is powerfully abstract and Expressionist in character.  The final two works are by Anthony Abrahams whose work is different in character, tending more towards the figurative but retaining that essential, powerful voice of abstraction. These pieces are particularly sensual and tactile.

Lighting on the garden is subtle and understated and designed to heighten and accentuate the clean modernist lines of the design. Lighting experts Louis Poulsen provide the garden illumination which begins with a section of the path at the front and a proportion of the planting.  The sculptures are also lit.  Lighting in the loggia takes the form of the Louis Poulsen ‘Artichoke’ light positioned on the right hand side. This light was designed by the Danish designer Poul Henningsen in the 1950’s. Centre stage goes to a large light feature entitled ‘Moonlight’ which hangs from the large trees at the back of the garden.  True to its name the light casts shadows through the canopy of the trees in the way that the moon does. 

Building upon their success at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show, Marcus and Philip have chosen a form of concrete as the material for the path, the finish of which is trowel textured and waxed rather than polished, thus creating a smooth but slightly imperfect finish that whilst being concrete will feel natural and warm.  The process requires laying the form work, mixing to precise measurements, pouring, smoothing, trimming and finally applying the proprietary wax.  The path has an over-sail to give the effect of floating. 

The Loggia trim around the outside of the main floor footprint is rendered concrete painted white and within the trim will be the same concrete effect as the path.  The building is five meters deep and 22 metres wide (the full width of the garden). The back wall is of rendered white concrete and the two side walls are of hardwood detailing.  The front is open to the elements and divided into two key areas; one with a hole in the roof to delineate the transition from outdoors to indoors, and then an ‘inner’ area for seating with a view back down the garden.   The furniture inside the loggia is in simple minimalist shapes with modular style seating. 

A low waterfall at the entrance to the building emerges from between the separate planes that make up the building and creates a natural connection between the building and the wider landscape.       

The long boundary wall is a more innovative use of walling than is usual at the Chelsea Flower Show.  The grey concrete walls are 23 metres long with hardwood dropped in vertical ranks and placed randomly. Each piece of wood is of exactly the same dimensions and cut into some of these planes of wood are white boxes which are a visual representation of the white Farnsworth building as an intervention in the landscape.  Inside the garden are two one meter high walls which appear to cut into the Buxus hedging; they provide a continuation of the garden’s clean lines and are of white rendered concrete. 

The inspiration for the Savills Garden is taken broadly from the Modernist Architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and in particular the Farnsworth House, which was completed in 1951 in Plano Illinois, USA.  Barnett and Nixon studied the works that had inspired van der Rohe, such as the paintings of Theo van Duesberg, and were impressed by the essence of what van der Rohe was trying to achieve in this seminal and iconic house. 

Plants for Savills Garden at The Chelsea Flower Show 2006

Marcus Barnett and Philip Nixon have risen to the challenge of creating a garden that pays homage to the clean lines of Modernism but will also encourage show visitors to stop and look at garden design through fresh eyes and observe the beautiful planting that complements the modernist loggia.  Their garden for Savills will showcase an array of plants that work quietly within the context of this modernist inspired garden whilst providing contrast and creating harmony.

Determined not to use the ubiquitous silver birch, Marcus and Philip visited many nurseries looking for the perfect trees to complement their Chelsea Flower Show garden.  Time after time they saw examples of Betula utilis var jacquemontii with its tall upright white bark capable of giving a strong vertical accent and finally they gave into it as it is the perfect tree for their Savills garden.  Up to twenty silver birch trees will grace the garden.. 

Key marginal plant is the white flowering Iris Sanguinea ‘Snow Queen’, a very elegant rich plant to be placed by the pond where it links in perfectly with the other colours displayed in the garden. When planted en masse these plants have a strong structural impact.

Star plant on the Savills Garden will be the superbly foliaged Rodgersia pinnata which sports large glossy dark green leaves with sharply serrated edges and measures about 40 cms.  Several hundred will be planted together and although chosen for their foliage, should they flower the impact of hundreds of salmon pink flowers will be impressive. They like a rich moist soil and look superbly architectural near water.

Almost nothing lights up a shady area as well as the verdant leaves of Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass).  This plant grows 1-1 1/2 feet tall and has an arching form. It's hardy and prefers moist, well-drained soils. They produce the greenest foliage in partial or dappled shade, but will also grow in full shade. Marcus and Phillip have chosen to use the species rather than the more commonly seen variegated cultivar ‘Aureola’.   It is a very elegant lush plant and surprisingly underused and not often available in nurseries. 

The much maligned geranium makes it into the Savills relatively short plant list but we are talking hardy Geraniums, not the better-known, anything-but-subtle Pelargoniums. The designers have chosen Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’ – from a variety known as “mourning widow” for their dark colours, but in this case Lily Lovell’s vivacity suggests a widow who has ceased to mourn! She is a definitive early bloomer and is endowed with some of the largest flowers in the species, which appear as early as April and always in abundance. The eggplant-coloured flowers are feathered with purple veins above luxurious light green foliage that everyone likes to touch, making it the perfect plant to mix in with others for spots of colour as it is small and dainty. 

Overall the planting on the Savills Garden will be block rather than individual with a few plants like the Geranium and Tellima grandiflora used to pull them all together.  The latter is a Pacific Northwest native but does well in English gardens in partial sun to light shade.  They produce racemes of green-white flowers turning pink-red as the blossom ages and later in the season foliage turns burgundy with a silver overlay.  Related to heucheras, Tellima grandiflora ‘is a superb addition to the spring garden.