John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

House Bishopscourt

After fifteen years of building gardens, in countries as diverse as England, France, Australia and South Africa, in spaces from as tiny as four square meters through to the acres available around some homes, we could be forgiven for thinking that we had seen it all when it comes to gardens, exterior design and the weird and wonderful dreams of our clients. 

Imagine our surprise then, when the owner of this brand-new house, the product of a collaboration between two well-know architects, threw us a challenge unlike any we had encountered before……….a 4 x 4 track…. to be used only twice a year, running through the garden, from the street level above, down through the service area, tightly through the herb garden, past the chill-out day bed, around the back of the big curved lawn, carefully past the big old Yellowwood tree, through the bush camp boma, upwards via the fynbos garden, briefly into the rock garden and finally onto the upper terrace lawn directly in front of the house. Wow. And furthermore, he added, it must not look like a road at all! 

Naturally our first reaction was along the lines of 'Of course we can do it, ……4 x 4 track though the garden……. no problem……a cinch…..tell Sarel (Van der Merwe) to tune his Passat, we are going to do something awesome with this one…..we love a challenge!'

OK, so we got the job.

Great stuff, or at least it seemed so until a short while later, when back in the office mulling over the details of the meeting, the mood changed sharply in the direction of …'how the !@#$ are we going to do this?'  Shamefully our conversation then drifted into the doldrums of 'but you said….I said ', and our initial optimism waned as the details of the mission sank in.  Granted, the space was easily big enough to accommodate vehicular access from the street down to the lawn on the upper terrace. And yes, the site was perfect for the creation of a garden of the quality required around such a highly specified, modern house. The question was only, how to reconcile the two?

The problem was how to integrate the track into the garden so that it did not appear, even to the most astute observer, to be a road of any sort. This would undoubtedly have ruined the visual integration of the garden and house with both the immediate landscape and the stunning mountain views beyond. Although not wanting to labour a point, it is our belief that given that setting, that house and that view, for us to create anything that could not be described as a fully integrated, completely realized, totally up-sized garden would be to fall short of the potential of the space. (i.e. fail) And we did not want to do that. So the 4 x 4 track would be seamlessly and invisibly woven into vast tapestry of the panoramic landscape that we would call House Bishopscourt for the next four months of our lives.

Besides the vehicular access other fundamental requirements were: two lawns, a herb garden, an orchard, a chameleon garden, a braai area and of course lots of indigenous plants.

The process when designing a garden is always the same, regardless of the size of the garden. First we need to get the idea of what the client wants into some tangible form, like a drawing, or a picture, or a reference to some other garden that we can visit. Then, using that reference point, we need to evaluate that idea in terms of the environmental realities of the site. We will then design a garden that will work for both the concept and the site. It must be said that one thing that stood out for us regarding this project was the written brief. It is the first time in many years that we received such a well-considered 'wish list' from a client and although it is not always the right thing to do, it does serve as a useful tool for assessing the success of the garden at the end of the project. By this virtue, it demands special attention and good communication throughout the duration of the project but especially at the planning stages, when misunderstandings are still easily sorted out. A good brief should be very specific with regard to the functionality of the garden and less so with regard to the aesthetics of the space, as this is the core contribution of the designer who needs room for creative thinking.

With the brief read and the garden designed to the client's approval, the bulldozers were brought in along with 30 tons of rock, 450 tons of soil, 20 tons of stone chips, a lumber yard of railway sleepers, we haven’t a clue how many plants and enough pipe to irrigate a rice paddy.

Two level lawns were built very much along the lines of the brief, with the upper terrace lawn squared off in a more formal manner whilst the lower lawn was allowed to mould itself into the more organic form suggested by the contours of the land. The herb garden was created near the kitchen on the east side of the building where it enjoys the full benefit of the morning sun. Interestingly, the herb garden's location required it to be situated on a slope which, albeit of a gentle gradient, is not ideal. We like to design herb and vegetable gardens that have a workman-like practicality and sense of order about them which is not evident in more naturalistic plantings of other areas of the garden. To this end a series of raised timber boxes was built into the slope to provide level terraces on which to grow herbs and vegetables. This helps with the organization factor; it raises the working level slightly and so reduces the chances of back pain, it also prevents soil erosion due to water run-off and lastly it creates little islands of vegetables in seas of stone chip, that are a very big mission for snails to get to!

The herb garden was filled with Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, some other herbs (that have not been immortalized in folk music but are nonetheless very useful for cooking) such as lavender (o.k. lavender is in lots of songs, I know), various mints, Chamomile, Origanum, Coriander, Thai Coriander, Lemon Grass and Basil. (If anybody knows any songs featuring Basil please let us know)

With the herb garden sorted out, the next area to be considered was the braai area. With this much space, this backdrop and this site in the very lap of Table Mountain, what was called for here was not just the ubiquitous braai area, but rather a full-on African Bush Camp Boma fit for a Kruger National Park game lodge. Here, we reckoned, was a chance to conjure up a real African experience right here in the middle of Cape Town. Sure, one does not find houses such as this in Kruger Park and, no, Kruger Park is not a suburb of Cape Town but that aside, late at night, with a few tots of your favorite mampoer, with all the lights of the faraway house extinguished, with the songs of cicadas, the hiss and pop of a crackling camp fire and just a smidgen of imagination (and a bit more mampoer ) even the most hardened city-slicker could succumb to the alchemy of the moment and claim, quite understandably, to have had visions of  ghostly cheetahs, racing through the grasveld, in the dead of the African night.

Whilst this little sojourn into the realms of poetry may arguably be the indulgent mutterings of an over-imaginative garden designer, it does help illustrate two real points.

The first is how wonderful it can be to sit around a fire and stare at the stars, talk rubbish and have thoughts like; I wonder if there is another earth out there? And then for some perhaps … do I get there? Ja…there is something really edifying about sitting in the bush next to a fire, braai ing chops, marshmallows or vegetarian sausages. It is just so much better than adjusting the knob on the gas barbi under the patio light. That's for Australians. We don't know why, it just is that way.

The second point that one could illustrate is that a garden can be a stage or a set that, with the right detail and continuity of elements, can really transport one into a different world altogether. Again it is about design, do you want a braai area or do you want an African Bush Camp Boma fit for a Kruger National Park game lodge, because very often they cost the same.

And it is true, by the way, about the ghosts of cheetahs, but more on that later.

Other areas of the garden include a Fibonacci rock spiral with a huge solid timber daybed as the ultimate destination for the dizzying journey to its location at the center of a sunken palm tree garden. Now, before going any further, you need to know about the palms, as they have particular significance to the sunken garden.

Of the original plant material on site were six large Phoenix canariensis palm trees, two of which were moved to form (along with the others) two large triangles on the east and the west sides of the property. According to our client (who cleverly carried out this work long before we arrived on site) and the Egyptians (who were also very clever) there is something curiously energizing about lying in the center of a triangular form. So the requirement to incorporate a 'chill out' zone beneath the palms was in the brief from the very beginning.

The rock-edged Fibonacci spiral and the sunken garden with the daybed were designed to fit perfectly below the center of the palm tree canopies above, so that when lying on the daybed, one was positioned at the very apex on an inverted theoretical triangle. The resultant experience is of entering an ever tightening path that leads around in a spiral until it arrives at a large timber day-bed offering no alternative but to lie down and look up at the tree canopies above and contemplate what ever needs contemplating and thereby benefiting from the confluence of energies intrinsic to the apex of the inverted theoretical triangular form. Sort of like 'beam me up, Scottie'… without actually going anywhere.

Does it work?

Of course it does, what's more we believe that our model is a significant improvement on that of the Egyptians because, with respect, the Egyptians only placed their clients at the center of the pyramids when they were already dead, whereas ours are thankfully still very much alive. A not un-significant modification to an essentially sound concept, I am sure you will agree. We could also argue that ours is more cost effective than the Egyptian model. (Less rock, slaves, dust, etc)

Why does it work?

We haven't got a clue, but I do think it has something to do with the psychology of the ritualistic journey through an ever-narrowing spiral focusing the mind, then lying on the daybed looking up at the abstract forms of the palm canopies above, which is a perspective that as an adult we rarely see any more. This focus, physical relaxation and the up-side down aspect along with the light refracting and splitting from above may induce a meditative, alpha theta state that facilitates new angles of thinking on issues or problems. With regard to triangulation of energy fields; I do not know, and this is not the place to postulate on such esoteric subjects. Suffice to say that it works because it works and leave it at that. Alternatively you can just grab hold of the electric fence for a few seconds. The net results are the same, just quicker.

(Editors note: Never touch an electric fence.They just shock you)

From the weird and wonderful world of wacky wonders we move on to the  wonderfully named yet comparatively prosaic Chameleon garden, which is located in a small purpose-built courtyard almost, but not quite, inside the house between the entrance lobby and the living areas. It is surrounded by huge double-volume glass doors that slide open to create a space that is neither inside nor outside but feels absolutely like both. Bringing the natural world so intimately into one's living space lends a sense of 'connectedness' to the natural history of a place. And although it is clearly a highly built environment, it is on some level profoundly beneficial to the human psyche. Again there are bona fide theories and research studies that support this idea, the details of which may be reviewed one day in another essay. For now you will just have to take our word for it. It looks great, it feels great, we love it and it's all good.  

The planting for this indoor garden was well considered as the light conditions were challenging and the garden is visible from almost anywhere on the ground floor. It therefore needed to be easy to keep neat as well as be visually neutral so as not to compete with the client's notable art collection and interior decor. The planting consists of a single Celtis sp. tree, three Carissa species shrubs, a mass of Chlorophytum grasses and a few other groundcovers for texture at ground level. It was finished in stone chip and a natural driftwood sculpture was given pride of place in the center of the space. On top of all of this are up-lighters that add dramatic abstract shadows and pools of creamy light everywhere when the sun goes down. Stunning! 

The front garden is situated in a man-made ravine that drops down from street level to the first floor. The space was conceptualized as a block of Skeleton Gorge, recreated in a stylized, urbanized, humanized kind of way. We wanted it to feel as if one was descending into Jurassic Park (without the dinosaurs) and to this end we added lots of architectural big leafed plants to provide an eventual layered effect and give the impression of depth (as the eye rests momentarily on each frond on the way down ) The planting includes big tree ferns, a white stinkwood tree, two cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata), two tree fuchsias ( Halleria lucida) species as well as a variety of low growing mossy type groundcovers tucked underneath and between rocks. To give it that natural, 'self-seeded….. been there for aeons' type feel.

Happily there was an existing large palm tree already in the area and the architects designed a stunning, deep water pond at the entrance, both of which resonate beautifully with the ravine concept for that particular part of the garden.

The rest of the planting in the garden is a variety of indigenous grasses, indigenous bulbs, indigenous trees and indigenous shrubs. Elegia fistolusa, Chondropetalum tectorum (Fishhoek variety), Aristidia junciformis, Eucomis autumnalis, Watsonia species, Bulbinella latifolious, Pelargoniun species, Felicia species, Rhus crenata, Rhus lucida, Tecomaria capensis , Indigofera frutescens, Nuxia floribunda, Halleria lucida, Psychotria capensis and much, much more, all of it indigenous planting. And how could it be otherwise? For a garden right in the mist belt of Table Mountain, just a frog's leap from the world renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a place in Africa where eagles still soar on thermals high above the raw, rugged beauty of it all.

 (Ok, perhaps that is a little too indulgent, but it is true about the eagle because I witnessed it myself, a huge stunning raptor right above the garden. Unfortunately he wasn't soaring majestically on the thermals as described above, he was in fact quite low to the ground, ducking and diving, desperately trying to escape two crazed starlings that appeared to be trying to knock him out of the air mid-flight. I know this sort of ruins the story but it is true. Where are starlings from anyway?

Another reason for the indigenous planting, how would the ghostly Cheetahs of Table Mountain hunt in the dead of the night, whilst pushing through Azaleas, Magnolias, Rhododendrons and Daffodils and all sorts of other exotic planting? Clearly, it doesn’t have the same poetic imagery, but then again, why does it matter; because mampoer dreams and other flights of fancy aside, everybody knows that there are no cheetahs in Bishopscourt.

Or are there?

Well, in this garden there are two absolutely stunning, fabulously, fleet- footed, floating, feline, forms, flying through the savannah to give the garden its piece de resistance, its opus grande, its sheer !@#$% awesomeness!

The Amazing Cheetahs, as we have come to refer to them (I do not know their official title) is a sculpture by well-known artist Dylan Lewis and is really quite incredible. Looking at the bronze cast of these two cats depicted in full flight, one gets an absolute sense of the explosive energy within these animals, despite the obvious fact that they are not real. During discussions with the client there was initially some debate regarding the ultimate position of the sculpture within the property, with the garden being only one of several options considered. And whilst we concur that the piece would have been stunning wherever it was exhibited, it was our strong feeling that, given the incredible depiction of the pair in full flight, it would be an opportunity missed not to place them in a position that supported and confirmed their speed by giving them space in which to run and likewise space from where they had run. Although we do understand that this may seem a trite literal for some, we were thrilled when, after much deliberation, it was announced that they would be exhibited in the garden, between the bush camp boma and the big lawn on the second terrace. From here they can be seen from most positions inside the house as well as from the patio. They also provide a wonderful excuse for a stroll through the gardens, with a friend, on a fine summer's day.

Whilst it could be argued that such a work of art should be displayed in a more central, prominent position than at the bottom of the garden, it must be said that this location places the cheetahs in a setting that is entirely within the spirit of their natural habitat. This, along with the skill of the sculptor, ensures that it is the grace, elegance and dignity of these wild animals that shines through beyond all else. They are running free, just as they should.

And the 4x4 track? Well, it did get built but it is a very, very secret road, well camouflaged and woven into the fabric of the garden. It has yet to be put to the test because we are still looking for Sarel (van der Merwe) and his Passat. When we find him we will take photographs and put them on the internet.

At time of photographing the garden and house are still being worked on but both are practically complete. The irrigation was installed by a specialist irrigation contractor and the maintenance is being carried out by the clients themselves. The garden was photographed at various stages of completion with many of these adjacent photographs taken at handover. We will, as with all our gardens (and our clients consent), like to document the growth and evolution of this garden over a number of years. We will post new photos as we acquire them. A garden is a constantly evolving, developing work of art that unfolds over years and therefore needs to be experienced, photographed and documented over time to be fully understood and appreciated.

OK that’s it. Look at the photographs. Explore. Enjoy yourselves. And please do contact us if you would like us to look at your garden. 

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Posted: 9/25/2011 (6:19:05 AM)

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