We can all strive to offset the environmental crisis and urban pollution in small ways. Some, however, such as Bath-based landscape architects Grant Associates, have a more measurable impact. The environments that they design and create are defined by sustainability, ecological diversity and a soaring imagination, and they recharge people’s connections with the spaces around them. Emma Clegg talks to founder and director Andrew Grant as the company celebrates 25 years.
Never have our wildernesses been as fragile and as precious as they are today”, said David Attenborough in his introduction to the BBC documentary series Planet Earth II, released in November 2016, and watched by 12-million UK viewers. Each of the six episodes focused on an environmental context, the final one on Cities, and towards the end viewers were shown an exotic, visionary landscape within Gardens by the Bay, the nature park in Singapore. The film pans through a futuristic-looking urban landscape expanse in Bay South Garden, one of three waterfront gardens in the Bay, featuring eighteen 150ft-high Supertrees. These tree-like metal structures are in fact vertical gardens fitted with technologies that mimic the ecological function of trees, and are full of animal, insect and bird life.
What was seen on our screens stood out because it combined majestic theatre with urban environmental possibility, and in the concluding minutes of the series offered a highly ingenious and emotionally uplifting way of helping to turn around the issues humanity was facing. For a world audience troubled by climate change, pollution, environmental degradation and resource depletion, this was rousing and transformative.
The design of Bay South Garden and the Supertrees in Gardens by the Bay was the brainchild of Bath-based landscape architects Grant Associates, who are this year celebrating their 25th anniversary. The work of this pioneering landscape architecture practice is designed to reconnect people with nature in insightful and stimulating ways, at the same time addressing the global challenges of urbanisation, the climate crisis and biodiversity extinction. That’s a big brief.
Founder and director Andrew Grant explains how the Gardens by the Bay project came about. “It is a curious story because at the time (in 2006) we were a tiny little practice in George Street. I got a call from the National Parks Board of Singapore, saying they had got my name, they had a competition coming up and they wanted to meet me. They explained the project and encouraged me to put a team together. We were one of 74 teams who expressed interest and we were then put on shortlist of 10 to submit ideas.
“The creativity came at the competition stage, and for us it was the perfect opportunity to throw out some big ideas about an ecosystem for Gardens by the Bay, which was built on land that had been reclaimed from the ocean – we wanted to create structures that are mind-blowing in scale as well as a zero-carbon cooled glasshouse in the tropics, ideas that would work within the context of a future city. We took all those and put them in the melting pot.”
Andrew explains that Grant Associates like to use an underlying narrative so that they engage with and develop a concept, in the process creating personality and identity. The design of Gardens by the Bay carried the emblem of the orchid at its heart, the national flower of Singapore. The forms of the flower running through the exotic gardens and the physiology of the plant is reflected in the sophisticated infrastructure for managing energy, water and waste.
“The orchid is the most cosmopolitan of plants on the planet, and there are around 28,000 species. It’s beautiful but it survives in most situations and doesn’t always need soil – an epiphytic plant, it can just hang on to branches and has this amazing physiology that allows it to grow and survive in these conditions. That orchid analogy underpinned the idea of creating this beautiful place with this intelligent infrastructure. That was the creative starting point,” explains Andrew.
“When Gardens by the Bay project director Dr Kiat Tan got us around the table in London and said, ‘well you’ve won the competition and we want to build it. Can we start straight away?’, it was a huge transformation for the company, from that moment.”
Andrew’s sustainable approach to Landscape Architecture was rooted in the influence of industry figures such as David Skinner who taught him as a student at Edinburgh College of Art. “David was based in Scotland, supporting the Scottish government in sorting out derelict coal mines, industrial devastation and planning some of the infrastructure. He had trained in America with Ian McHarg who famously published a book called Design with Nature, the first time that a landscape professional had talked about ecological systems and how to think about context and the interactions between different aspects of the world. David passed that on to us on his course – he had a strategic view about what landscape should be offering, and that was fortuitous for me.”
The changing face of the environment was an issue that Andrew had seen growing up on his family’s farm in east Yorkshire. “I remember this little farm as effectively medieval, because nothing had changed over the years – it had ridge and furrowed fields, an 18th-century tower in one of the fields, amazing old barns and it was full of wildlife. But agriculture was going through a massive change in the 1960s and 1970s, with the industrialisation of the landscape, hedgerows being ripped out, and more fertilisers, chemicals and big machines being used – I saw that happen in my own back garden.”
After graduating Andrew spent three years in Qatar working for the technical office of the Emir. “This was when Qatar was going through big changes, moving from a fishing port known for its pearl fishing and trading to becoming the second richest country in the world, building huge projects and new palaces, so it was an extraordinary explosion of those elements alongside new parks, promenades and playgrounds. This was so significant for somebody who had just graduated a year or so before, to be put into a place where I learnt so quickly how to get things built. That was a very interesting time.”
The interesting times continued, with Andrew taking on work for Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios – also based in Bath and known for their environmentally focused architecture – as well as for Richard Rogers Partnership in London, work that involved him in the world of high-end architectural planning and thinking and high-profile projects. “Between the work I did for Peter Clegg and Richard Rogers, I established the beginning of a reputation,” says Andrew.
The big break, says Andrew, came with Grant Associates’ commission for the Earth Centre Project in Doncaster – this was at a time when Andrew was working from an office in his dining room. This landmark millennium project opened in 1999, a visitor attraction and ecological parkland covering a former colliery site in South Yorkshire. It was based around the principles of energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling and the use of non-polluting materials to provide the basis for sustainable development, and included areas of productive woodland, ecological grasslands and wetlands arranged around a central area of innovative gardens. At this point, the company started to expand, and this was when current directors Peter Chmiel and Keith French joined the company.
Other notable projects (among many) are Sentosa, Singapore, a world-class leisure and tourist destination (opened in 2010) making use of the islands’ tropical landscape setting; Jaguar Land Rover’s 2019 Advanced Project Creation Centre in Gaydon, UK; The Tower of London ‘Superbloom’, a floral display and haven for wildlife and biodiversity surrounding the famous fortress, opened in 2022; and Paradise Birmingham (which is opening in phases up to 2025), a regeneration of the city’s streets and spaces (in collaboration with Glenn Howells Architects). Bristol has and is also benefitting from Grant Associates’ sustainable, forward-thinking approach, with the Bristol Harbourside waterfront generation in 2015 one of the company’s early projects, and currently the development of the University of Bristol library and its Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus Meads, in collaboration with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, as well as the design of Bristol’s new Wild Place Zoo.
Ankarafa Field Station in Madagascar is another long-term project, started in 2018, where Grant Associates collaborated with other organisations to help develop the field research centre and eco-tourist camp in the Ankarafa Forest in the Radama National Park, a project to save the country’s critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur and its forest habitat.
In Bath too, Grant Associates make their presence felt – Andrew recently offered his help as a consultant for the Bathscape project, which is working to make the best use of the natural landscape surrounding the city of Bath. And in 2014 they co-conceived and designed the award-winning Forest of Imagination, a pop-up contemporary arts festival offering a place for art and participation (which has continued ever since and in 2023 will take place in and around the Assembly Rooms).
The company has been involved with more than 20 significant projects in Singapore. “What I find fascinating with Singapore,” says Andrew, “is that the identity of the city state has been structured around the landscape and its sense of idyllic tropical environment, as a city in nature. And it underpins so many of their decisions in terms of how they market themselves, how they planned the city, how they organised their funding, and what are its priorities. In fact Singapore has similar problems to Bath – it’s a landlocked state, and the land is either protected forest, or is too steep, too wet or in the sea, meaning they had to reclaim land to create space for Gardens by the Bay.”
Andrew is curiously modest about the impact that he and his company have had on recharging and transforming people’s experience of landscape within their living and working environments – after all, Grant Associates reinvent spaces where nature and wildlife are brought back (as they once were) centre stage, which in turn changes the observer’s mindset from the scarring impact of climate change and pollution towards innovative and welcome solutions to the pressures that the world is operating under.
I see that this modesty comes from pragmatism, years of experience, and the knowledge that any project the company takes on is a small step in a much larger and longer battle. In Andrew’s words, “Our job at the moment is to try and put things right as best we can and to mitigate the worst impacts of what’s been going on in any new projects to make sure they don’t contribute to the climate and biodiversity challenges.”
There has been a constant rethinking of the way the company works in the face of extraordinary and ever-evolving environmental challenges. There’s also craft, intelligence, and, importantly, soul in every decision that is made: “Our work is about how you create places that people feel something for, and ultimately value. What we have learned is, yes, you can tick all the technical elements of a sustainable urban drainage system, a playground of a certain size that meets the regulations, a street that allows you to park your car in a certain way, but these ingredients need to be brought together to have identity, energy and purpose. In a way we are healers and we want to find a much more equitable balance between humans and the natural world.”
In the closing narrative of Planet Earth II, as the Cities episode came to a close, David Attenborough said, “Looking down on this great metropolis [London]… reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”
Nobody argues with Sir David, and especially not Grant Associates. We wish you a happy 25 years – and please continue the healing process for many, many more.