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Happy birthday John Brookes, the king of garden design

Anyone interested in design can immediately tell when they walk into a John
Brookes garden that it has been designed. It will have impact. The spaces
will contrast yet work together, it will feel good to be in, it will be
fascinating and it will work.

When John visits a new client and assesses their garden, he invariably takes
on board what the client wants, be it a large eating area, screening from
neighbours, or a children’s play area. Looking at the house inside can be
revealing: “If it is all a bit of a tip, they won’t cope with or want an
immaculate, formal garden,” he says. He will then see what the site needs:
maybe there is a muddle of conifers that are getting a bit above themselves,
views that could be opened up or unsightly views of flats.


The period and layout of the house has a strong influence on the site. Some
garden areas are more important due to their juxtaposition with the house.
Putting a contemporary, asymmetrical design in front of a perfectly
proportioned Queen Anne house would be a difficult mix to harmonise. “A good
design is rather like a well-cut suit – it has to be right,” he says. “No
matter how many decorations you add to it, if the basic cut does not look
good then nothing will rectify it. It also has to be suitable for the
purpose and place, just as you would not turn up to a black-tie affair in
jogging bottoms.”

The whole design process is daunting for those not tuned into designing or
gardens. Now, at 80, John finds the process easier and quicker to get
results that both he and the client find satisfying and exciting. He has
encountered many different sites, clients, climates and budgets and has
developed a repertoire of strategies and techniques that enable him to
create great things from unpromising beginnings.

The process he uses is one he recommends to anyone embarking on a new garden.
The key starting position is to get an accurate survey of the site with the
house included. If you cannot run to a surveyor, your conveyance plan
enlarged to 1:100 or a convenient scale depending on the site, is a great
starting point. With a long tape measure (or two if you can go to
triangulation) you can add on all the elements you wish to keep: trees,
access, doors to the house, and so forth. Levels can be measured with the
help of a mini laser level from Screwfix or similar.

The client needs to compile a list of exactly what they want. For people who
have not had a garden before this is more difficult, but a garden space has
tremendous possibilities and these are expanding all the time.

Talking to a New Zealand architect recently, he said he designed houses with
gardens where anything you could do inside you could do outside too. He has
designed garden bedrooms with beds that could be rolled out so you could
sleep outside, outdoor fireplaces and kitchens.


Their climate is different to ours but we are increasingly pushing the
boundaries of what you can achieve in an outdoor space. Fresh air and more
natural surroundings are a wonderful tonic and in the garden we can exploit
them to contrast with our increasingly technological life.

The next step John advocates is to sketch positions on the plan of what might
go where. Then factors such as the orientation come into play and things are
shuffled round. Sometimes he will use cardboard templates to help this
rationalisation and organisation. The design process then proceeds with
decisions as to whether it will be classic and symmetrical or modern and
asymmetric. Eventually it will evolve into a design that embraces all the
factors. When he presents it to the client he explains the process and why
things are how they are.

John finds working on a new garden is invariably stimulating and exciting.
Much of his time is now spent on large commissions in Russia, Louisiana and
other far flung places which throw up exciting new challenges ensuring that
even someone of his vast experience is not continually within his comfort

Looking back at his designs from 50 years ago he is still proud of them but
they were different then. Today they tend to be larger and more lavish. The
Room Outside has grown — in many ways.

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