To say that Randle Siddeley is a gentleman gardener is by no means to imply that he won’t get his hands dirty. On the contrary, if the conversation about placement of hedging that precedes my interview with him is anything to go by. Instead the gentleman part comes from his impeccable manners, offset by a very fun loving and engaging personality. In our ‘chewing the cud’ discussions about the issues that arise, it’s refreshing to hear the views of someone with strong [and very quantifiable] opinions. 'Absolute honour' are words that act only as an understatement to describe our meeting with Randle. Forever intrigued by one of landscape design's most prolific names, Domus Nova found out more...
Randle, you have been playing your part in helping to make the world a greener place for almost four decades. Are you winning?
Partly. I would be making false claims if I simply said yes. When I talk about making the world greener in the purest sense of the phrase, it is with a resignation that we could all be doing a much better job. There are wonderful ideas out there such as the new vertical gardens and the proposal for a garden bridge, yet we are still ignoring the possibilities for significant new public spaces in places such as Battersea Power Station and Exhibition Road where new impressionable walkways to two of London’s great parks could be created. It’s a lost opportunity. Our great garden squares which were laid down by the Victorians are amongst our greatest city icons and are a testament to how loved, needed and respected outdoor space is in an urban environment, yet we haven’t created any new ones since. Why? It’s madness.
Can you steer the clients that you work with to be more creative with the introduction of green spaces into their schemes?
Of course. An attractive landscape is a selling tool so there’s little steering needed. What is required is an understanding of how to take care of any green elements in a development. Too often the maintenance is left to the homeowners who are without the know how, the time or the inclination to follow through. This leaves a tawdry green environment, which benefits nobody. On every scheme we do, we advise about maintenance and will source and engage staff on the client’s behalf. That’s the only way to preserve what you have created.
You grew up in London. How have the gardens of the city changed since you were a child?
We’ve lost a lot of trees to development, expansion and more recently basement conversions. It is a particular bugbear of mine as we’ve seen a lot of excavation happen before the planners realised what the bigger picture would be and that replanting trees over a subterranean extension would be virtually impossible. Small ornamental trees yes, but not the incredible trees of my youth, which were huge green lungs. Those trees were never prepared in their lifetime to have to adjust their root growth or direction, or to comply with the stress placed on their structure, when their growth is curtailed to a diameter of one quarter of what it should be. Consequently they have either fallen over or died. It’s enormously important to be planting more trees in every city and I would like to see a mass tree-planting programme that would break up some of the more austere spaces, reintroducing interesting and sheltered spots where people can relax.
Design is in your blood and your father was a famous interior designer. What prompted you to head for the outdoors, rather than joining the family business inside?
My father had very big shoes to fill and I think you should never try to tread the same path. That said, I did work with the family business for a while but very quickly realized my interest lay outdoors. You can change an interior and see the results immediately but in the long term it remains static. A garden comes into focus gently but is constantly evolving, changing and challenging you. A garden is a work in progress and I like the continuity factor that comes with caring for an outside space. My father was a passionate gardener as well as a great designer but rather than focus on the outdoors in a wider context, his real love lay with roses, which he focused his energies into and perfected.
You have worked all over the world and your book, Garden by Randle Siddeley [published 2011] showcases some of your most well-known projects. What has been the most challenging environment to work in?
The UK – the weather can change full circle in the course of a single day! Working overseas is a bit of a re-education. You learn about the land and what it’s capable of and study species that can thrive in that sort of climate. We have worked extensively in Syria over the past thirty years and in an arid environment you realize more acutely how important green spaces are to people. Unfortunately we will now also have to learn how rebuild what has been destroyed, and start again.
You have worked with some of the great names in architecture. Are there any that you particularly admire?
I think Alex Michaelis [of Michaelis Boyd Associates] is a great architect. He’s a clever, likeable man who is breaking all the rules with his buildings and challenging the establishment. He has done some great residential and commercial work and we greatly enjoy working with him. I also think that Thomas Heatherwick is a genius and I’m sure will justify the hype surrounding his new garden bridge.
Over the years, what have been your favourite projects?
My team managed the overhaul of the Roof Gardens in Kensington which was an interesting project, not without its moments of hilarity. It was the first and last time I have been called upon to trim the roots of a tree that is growing through the ceiling of a nightclub! More recently, we created a beautiful garden in the grounds of a listed house in Stanmore, North London. We successfully incorporated a brand-new, pavilion-style house in the grounds by combining classic design with a contemporary twist. However, I should say that my favourite project was the grounds of a wonderful house in Quebec, Canada. The location was complete paradise and so we had the challenge of complementing the magnificent location. This project has a great significance for me as it’s where I met my wife.
What’s the secret of a great garden?
It’s a bit like the human body – if you have good bones you will last longer, and gardens are the same. I always start a scheme imagining what it will and should look like from the window. Once I have this image in my mind, I build a bigger picture to include the framework behind it, the volume, depth and structure and finally, the decoration. This can be perfectly illustrated in the gardens of a Georgian country estate in Gloucestershire. The house has a glorious setting deep in a Cotswold valley but was penned in somewhat by steeply banked slopes, which limited the outlook. We set about moving hundreds of tonnes of earth to open up the surroundings and completely redefine the landscape. The project was a labour of love taking over six years to complete, but now looks as though it has always been like that. Going forward, the gardens will have their great bones that will help to affirm their establishment in a way that the previous landscape wouldn’t have been able to.
You have created some of the most significant new gardens of recent years, working on Wembley Arena, the redevelopment of the King's Road and The Oracle in Reading. Is there a master scheme that we haven’t yet seen, that’s in your mind?
Of course. I have this secret idea – well it won’t be secret anymore - about buying a big piece of land, around 900 acres, and dividing the plot into three. On each piece I’d build a house inspired by a different season, so one for spring/summer, one for autumn and one for the winter months. They would have to be out of view from each other and I would plant the grounds of each house according to the effect it would create at the time of year when it is being used. The ultimate garden fantasy.
Given that you spend your life doing, and I quote you, ‘the best job in the world’, is there ever a need to get away from it all?
No, not really but I do. Many of my projects are overseas, we have three international offices and my wife lives in Canada, so I spend a large amount of time on an airplane, usually watching films, reading books or sleeping. When I’m not in transit though I can’t stay away from the garden. On rare occasions when I find myself with nothing to do, I’ll often don my gardening overalls and go out to see gardens that I’ve already completed to look at how they’re faring and spend some time tinkering around with what’s been planted. It’s the most therapeutic work there is and knowing that the garden is finished is even better.
View Randle Siddeley Associates on the Domus Nova Garden Guide
Randle Siddeley has offices in London, New York, Hong Kong and Quebec and can be contacted via randlesiddeley.com