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Above its station

By Ruth Slavid
The first benefit of Crossrail that Londoners are enjoying is a magnificent garden high above a station.

For most Londoners Crossrail is synonymous with massive disruption. There are huge holes in the ground, traffic delays, dust and diversions. We may know that the service will provide much needed amelioration of congestion, which otherwise can only get worse, but at the moment it feels like an almighty nuisance.

Now however there is one tangible benefit, in the form of the first station to be completed at Canary Wharf in Docklands. The first train will not run until 2018, but the station is there. The retail elements are starting to fill and open but the real joy comes from the park that sits on the top under a magnificent timber roof.

This long slender park is contained within a building designed by Foster and Partners with engineering by Arup. Gillespies was the landscape architect, and Armel Mourge, associate partner with Gillespies, explained, ‘We were there from the beginning, defining the structure and looking at the amazing plants brought back from the docks.’

The new station sits on what was previously a flood plain and the existing water has been put into a channel with flood commutation around it. This was part of Gillespies’ work, as was the design of a new square. But the main effort, and certainly what is grabbing the most attention, is the garden. ‘We thought of it as a Wardian case (the sealed glass cases that early plantsmen used to transport their finds), the kind that was carried in boats to protect the plants,’ Armel said. The analogy is with the protective structure of the roof to the garden, with the timber frame enclosing ETFE panels. At the same time, the form of the building is itself reminiscent of a ship, presumably the ship that brought back the plants.

For the idea of the garden, Gillespies, which worked closely throughout the project with planting specialist Growth Industries, drew inspiration from the history of the docks. This means showcasing not only the plants that plant collectors brought in over the centuries, but also commodities such as tea, rum and sugar and the plants that they were derived from.

Another influence on the design of the interior reflects the fact that the garden runs roughly north-south. To the south is the intense financial district of Canary Wharf, to the north the residential and less affluent district of Poplar. At lower levels it is possible to pass through the building, but at the top the connection is entirely visual. Tall planting is on the southern edge, so that the northern edge is far more transparent, allowing views both out and in. For users of Canary Wharf this may be a whole new view. For people in Poplar it provides a connection to an area that many of them may previously have seen see as entirely separate from their everyday lives.

But another division is between west and east. Given that the garden represents plants that have come from all over the world and also, a little more fancifully, because of its closeness to the Greenwich meridian, the garden has been divided by hemispheres.

In the western half are plants that come predominantly from the western hemisphere. Most strikingly there is a ‘forest’ of tree ferns, interspersed with liquidambar (sweet gum). The more eastern part of the garden has a large number of temperate bamboos.

There are large, mature trees in the garden. Some of these had to be craned in before the roof was completed. The heaviest of them have been positioned to sit over structural columns. These plants have the greatest depth of soil, at 1m, while the average across the entire garden is just 0.5m. The tree ferns have the opposite problem. Despite their impressive size, their roots are very shallow, typically around 10cm. They at present are supported by temporary structures, which will hold them up for the first few years. In addition, each one has an irrigation pipe running up its length, since they take much of their moisture from above rather than the ground. The irrigation therefore mimics the way that rain comes down to them from the high tree canopy in their natural habitat.

Key plants, east end

Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ – Japanese maple
Albizia julibrissin – Persian silk tree
Amelanchier laevis – smooth serviceberry
Magnolia kobus – northern Japanese magnolia

Phyllostachys aurea – golden bamboo
Phyllostachys nigra – black bamboo
Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. spectabilis – zig-zag bamboo
Sasa tessellata – dwarf bamboo
Sasa tsuboiana – Japanese bamboo
Sasa veitchii – Veitch’s bamboo
Carex pendula – Pendulous sedge
Deschampsia cespitosa – tussock grass
Festuca gautieri – bearskin fescue
Hakonechloa macra – hakonechloa
Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ – Japanese anemone
Astilbe japonica ‘Deutschland’ – astilbe
Rodgersia podophylla – Rodger’s flower

Key plants, west end
Elaeagnus angustifolia – Russian olive
Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ – eucryphia ‘Nymansay’
Liquidambar styraciflua – sweet gum
Arbutus unedo – strawberry tree
Cornus florida – flowering dogwood
Magnolia grandiflora – evergreen magnolia 
Dicksonia antarctica – soft tree fern
Dicksonia fibrosa – golden tree fern
Dicksonia squarrosa – brown tree fern 
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum – Japanese painted fern 
Matteuccia struthiopteris – ostrich fern
Dryopteris filix-mas – male fern
Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower
Fatsia japonica – Japanese aralia 
Kniphofia ‘Alcazar’ – red hot poker
Polygonatum x hybridum – common Solomon’s seal 

There is no heating in the garden but it has, Armel says, its own microclimate and therefore he expects frosts to be infrequent. There are paths winding through the trees, benches (possibly not enough) and lighting bollards (possibly too many). The activities are kept to the ends with amphitheatres that can be used for events and cafés planned although not yet open. This leaves a calmer feeling of repose in the centre, in the garden itself. Gillespies stresses that this is a garden and not a park, and it is true that it has none of the myriad of activities that parks offer – just the plants, the paths, the seating and some rather well-designed information boards.

Like any garden it will evolve. The final planting plan was, said Armel, less experimental than was envisaged originally. There will be plants that prosper and doubtless some that don’t thrive and will need to be replaced. But it is a generous space, exciting in its calm way, and not what one would expect to find on top of a seven-storey shopping centre – or indeed a new piece of transport infrastructure.

Landscape architect lead: Gillespies
Specialist planting advice: Growth Industry
Landscape contractor: Blakedown Landscapes
Specialist tree fern: Kelways

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