I have had the privilege of working with John Brookes on his memoir for two years and have come to believe that it is essential to have a sense of what the world looked like in 1960, when he started his practice, in order to understand the significance of his legacy.
In the twenty-first century we take for granted that our gardens are extensions of our homes, with grill cleverly linked to kitchen, bins artfully concealed and space for children, dogs, or even putting greens ingeniously integrated. We grow native plants, our grounds are ‘low maintenance’, and we enjoy summer colour and winter interest. Our outdoor seating is trendy, we have outdoor lighting, and it is energy efficient, and the tone and style of our gardens accord with the tone and style of our interiors. There are endless sources of information about design and gardening from books to blogs and YouTube videos. By contrast, in the early 1960s these concepts were embryonic at best.
In his first Chelsea Flower Show exhibition garden in 1962, John upended tradition and the prevailing view that a garden was de fi ned by i t s pl ant s by demonstrating that an outdoor space could be about so much more. The first independent designer to present a Chelsea exhibition garden, John audaciously created a designed exterior space that had seating, sculpture, even a place for an incinerator, and was linked to an imaginary townhouse interior. This approach to garden design was unprecedented and suggested the novel idea that people of all income levels could have designed, fashionable, peaceful gardens tailored to their preferences. Plants were part of the design but subordinate to the garden’s purpose which was to create a ‘Room Outside’.
By 1962 John had absorbed the concepts of modern architecture and modern art, the idea that ‘gardens are for people’, the free-flowing organic patterns of Roberto Burle Marx, and ecological preoccupations and had synthesized them into a new and unique approach to garden design. He presented the notion that the space between buildings could be beautiful and useful, and his development of his idea of the Grid gave designers and homeowners a new tool that enabled them to create a site-specific template to ensure that a garden’s layout is proportionate and connected to the architecture associated with it.
John says his gardens comprise his legacy, but as a colleague and former student, I know John’s philosophy of design is his real legacy – a philosophy that has matured as he’s moved from garden to landscape design. This philosophy is that ‘the modern garden has to take account of our modern lifestyle’ with its many requirements. The homeowner’s needs and style must drive its design; it should be connected to its setting, integrating indigenous materials and plants; it should reflect its culture and history; and it should relate to the exterior architecture and interior design and layout of the home.
John has never taught his students to create a ‘John Brookes garden’. Rather, he has taken his methodology and his design philosophy around the world to regions with a strong extant tradition of garden design, like Japan, and to those where garden design is nascent, like Russia, and in each has encouraged his students to embrace the ‘tradition that reflects the land, culture and vernacular’ in which they work. He has taught students everywhere to ‘look’, and that a successful garden has a strong, bold, clean layout at its core to which plants are subordinate and that acknowledges the needs and preferences of its owners. For these reasons, his garden and landscape designs and those of his students are never dated nor are they stereotypes of themselves.
Above all, he has taught designers and homeowners that the success of any garden will always be the relationship of the garden to those who live in it, whether that garden is public or private, small or large, informal or grand. For John, the garden is always about the joy it brings to those for whom it is created and this is perhaps one of his most important lessons.
John Brookes’ legacy is embodied in the thousands of gardens and garden plans that he has created all over the world since the early 1960s and it is codified in the more than two dozen books he has published, the endless articles he’s written, and in the courses he has taught. Beginning in the 1960s, he has revolutionized the way we think about, design, and use our gardens. For this reason, he is truly the man who made the modern garden.
Gwendolyn van Paasschen Chair of the John Brookes Denmans Foundation
276 A Landscape Legacy