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Consult and collaborate

By Ruth Slavid
If a landscape practitioner is involved in a project, is it a landscape project? That is the conundrum posed by the work of The Decorators, but if the work is of value and significance, should we care?
When Kinnear Landscape Architects won the LI’s President’s Award in 2015 for its project ‘Brentford High Street – making the connection’ there was delight that a relatively quiet project, by a quiet practitioner, had taken the top prize. Lynn Kinnear always gave credit to the collaborators with whom she worked, although in the nature of such things they sank somewhat into the background.

One of these collaborators was a young practice called The Decorators that was involved particularly in the vital public consultation side of the project. And when I say ‘practice’ there is a deliberate ambiguity, because it is hard to define what kind of practice it is. One of the four founders is however a landscape architect and she is in no doubt that what she is doing is landscape architecture.

Suzanne O’Connell who, in addition to her work in practice also teaches at Greenwich University, said, ‘Over the years I have become more confident that what this is, is landscape. The thinking can be the same.’ ‘This’ is a body of work that centres on consultation and on changing the ways that people think about and experience a place.

The physical outcomes may be modest but, as one of her colleagues Carolina Calcedo said, ‘the value is not necessarily in what you see but in the building of connections’ Carolina has perhaps the most unusual background of the foursome that make up a practice that operates in the world of the built environment. Her degree is in psychology, although she switched to it from a start in studying engineering. She discovered, she says, that what interested her most about spaces was the way in which people related to them rather than the physical infrastructure. She has, says Suzanne, ‘a really good eye’.

Suzanne and Carolina met each other and the other two collaborators, architect Mariana Pestana and interior designer Xavi Llarch Font on a postgraduate course run at Central St Martin’s in London called ‘creative practice for narrative environments’. It was, said Suzanne, ‘very collaborative’, looking at a range of organisations, at public space, cultural institutions and commercial buildings.

The four started working together in 2010, in a way that was entirely fluid and flexible, says Suzanne. After a while, she says, ‘we realised that we needed to sort ourselves out in terms of getting work’. They now have an office, although only three of them are there. Mariana Pestana is working as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, although the others insist that she is still very much part of the team.

Their first real project was in Ridley Road in Dalston, east London. An architect called Zoe Chan (her practice is Atelier Chan Chan) owned the site in the busy market and asked them to come up with an idea. They carried out a lot of research and in the end settled on a temporary restaurant as a way of engaging with the area and the market. Local chefs cooked meals using local produce only, and lunchers received a discount if they paid in the form of produce from a shopping list, bought in the market.

The project was short-lived (as was always the intention) but it garnered a lot of publicity. The physical input was not enormous, with most of the effort going into research and organisation. And into raising money – the team brought in funding from United House. ‘We just said we would make it happen,’ Suzanne said. ‘We sent out a lot of fliers and sponsorship letters’. This is very much the way that The Decorators works. Another effect of Ridley Road was that they put themselves ‘on the map’, being put on the ‘special assistant team’ at the GLA.

Even on a seemingly more conventional project, the practice was appointed because of its approach to consultation. This was the case in Hayes, Middlesex, where the practice was invited to look at public space and came up with the idea of playing ‘sounds of Hayes’ from a 5m high ‘clock tower’. This references the historic importance of Hayes as the former home of record producer EMI. The idea is that a series of chimes, which will change every six months, will be based on the best-loved of EMI’s tunes.

The Decorators organised a radio programme in which residents were asked to choose their favourite tunes from the EMI archive. These have then been made into the chimes.

On Streatham High Road in south London the team worked with the local Business Improvement District to develop what they describe as ‘civic stops’ – providing seating and plants for three locations. Also plant-based was the work at Alexandra Palace in north London, where the team developed a mobile garden in containers that can be put away each winter and brought out again in the spring. Far more ambitious in scale was a project at Heyford Park near Bicester. There are about 300 homes on the former RAF base, with virtually no infrastructure but a strong community. Now developers are planning another 1200 homes and invited The Decorators to work with developers and local authorities and the local community to see how the best of what exists in terms of atmosphere can be preserved, and integrated with the lives of the new residents.

‘We spent six or seven months doing one to one interviews with about 30 residents, ‘Suzanne said, ‘and set up co-design workshops’. The results included the adoption of a temporary public communal space as a ‘show village hall,’ analogous to the show homes that developers build. Activities included catering and a performance stage, but also more unusual events. The Decorators discovered that there were several keen star-gazers and set up astronomy evenings, and also that there was an interest in archery.

In physical terms, the team produced some chairs and a temporary stage, but the impact was far greater in terms of making the existing community feel that it was not neglected. But there were also some hard lessons for The Decorators. 

‘We had quite a fraught time working with a private developer,’ Suzanne said. ‘It raised a lot of concerns. We have been thinking since then about having a code of conduct – in future we would have a much stronger contract and definition of how we operate.’

It seems that food is important to The Decorators, and why not? It is after all one of the simplest ways of bringing people together. At North Limehouse Basin the quartet were commissioned by the Canal and River Trust to look at the fast-changing area and to address complaints about anti-social behaviour. The result was the Limehouse Social, a series of community events for which the team designed some planters and seating. A market was also set up, which is continuing to do really well, although some of the other activities have, unfortunately, been discontinued. Now the team are looking at ways in which the animation that the market brings on Saturdays can be continued into the week.

All this sounds really simple, but took around six months to get in place. And the team is also working, in a continuing collaboration with Sue Ball of public arts consultancy MAAP, on a spare piece of land to find new community uses for it. It seems that the potential conflict between existing and new communities is a rich seam of work for The Decorators. At Hackney Circle in Dalston Square the team is working with developer Barrett which is building new homes and worried about leaving existing, older residents behind. The Decorators undertook a study, talking to residents of two sheltered housing schemes and finding what they wanted. Ironically or not, they then held a meeting at a ‘hipster’ café, discussing what this older age group wanted or didn’t like.

While the first outcome for The Decorators was to design a set of chair covers to make the seating more comfortable, this then expanded to a membership scheme for the over-60s, funded by a series of local businesses, that gave them access to facilities and also to a range of activities in a summer festival. For a developer facing possible accusations of gentrification, this kind of work is invaluable.

For The Decorators however, there is an obvious problem, in getting clients to acknowledge the value of their work. If the physical outcomes verge on the trivial, the intangibles are much greater – and require a lot of effort. But, says Suzanne, the team members are having to find ways to persuade clients to pay a fair price for these intangibles.

The quartet have been attending a business course for a year and a half and are obviously committed to making their business financially sustainable. But this will be on their own terms. ‘We have been having reflections on our process,’ Suzanne said. ‘We have been asking if some of the work is responsible if it doesn’t go anywhere afterwards – it has to be part of a longer term journey for the place.’

Reflecting is something the team do a lot. ‘We used to spend hours talking and criticising projects,’ Suzanne said. ‘It wasn’t sustainable – we are probably a bit quicker now.’ But, she added, ‘we always slip into each other’s pockets in terms of practice.’

Is this landscape? One could probably argue for days about it. But it most definitely is a way of working that is informed by the sensitivities, knowledge and perspective of a landscape architect as well as by the other disciplines. And, crucially, for those whose lives have become richer.

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