Thursday, June 01, 2017
The Gibberd Garden
We made a trip this week to see Sir Frederick Gibberd's garden, created between 1957 and 1984, and located just outside Harlow, the New Town for which he was chief architect. Gibberd's best known design is probably Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (aka 'Paddy's Wigwam'), a building I've always rather liked although Gibberd himself was sued for £1.3m over leaks and defects in the tiling (which have had to be replaced). He was also involved in some key post-War industrial buildings - the original Heathrow Terminal buildings, the recently-demolished Didcot A Power Station - and a few of his garden's metal and concrete sculptures and salvaged objects have the look of once-futuristic constructions that have seen better days. As a private collector Gibberd wouldn't have had resources to buy sculptures by world-renowned artists, although there is a piece by David Nash (see below). Nor can the artworks compete with those made by practising artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ian Hamilton Finlay for their own gardens. But Gibberd, as a planner and landscape architect, made good use of the site, turning the hillside and stream into a sequence of spaces with some sculptures set to catch the eye and others that you almost stumble upon.
There is an article about Gibberd by his grandson that praises the moated castle he built for his grandchildren in one corner of the site using recycled pieces of wood - my sons certainly enjoyed this too. The garden feature we liked best was also recycled - two mossy Corinthian columns shaded by trees with real acanthus growing at their base to echo the stone foliage above. This 'temple' fragment could almost have come from that erotic Renaissance idyll, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; in fact the pillars were designed in 1831 by John Nash for a commercial building on The Strand in London, and salvaged by Gibberd when his firm redesigned it in the 1970s for Coutts Bank. I am sure they are more appreciated in this garden among the trees than they would be on what is now the eighteenth most polluted street in Britain.
The garden must have been a pleasant place to relax in, but whether it was possible to enjoy it as a classical retreat or hortus conclusus I rather doubt. I tried to record a chaffinch singing over the bright sound of water in the brook but by the time I had my phone out all you could hear was the slow rumble of an aeroplane flying overhead. The embankment at the end of the garden carries a busy train line into Harlow. Sculptures are largely absent from the adjacent arboretum, making all the more noticeable some overhead wires crossing the space above and a line of warning signs (see above) marking the presence of a gas pipeline under the grass. You suspect though that Gibberd would not really have minded all these reminders that the garden is not separated off from the modern world he was so active in designing