March 9, 2008

Landscape design isn't just about sticking in plants

A good landscape is one the user enjoys, says award-winning landscape architect Henry Steed

By Fiona Chan, Property Reporter

BRITISH-BORN Henry Steed is one of Singapore's best-known landscape architects.

The multiple-award-winning director of ICN Design International was the brains behind the landscapes at condominiums such as Four Seasons and Ardmore Park in Orchard Road, The Imperial in River Valley and Glentrees in Mount Sinai, which is much celebrated for its verdant grace.

Mr Steed, who first came to Singapore in 1982, also helped design the central park in one-north at Biopolis, the Safti Military Institute and the Southern Island Lazarus Beach Park.

Now 60 years old, he is currently working on his 'biggest and most complicated project ever' - Resorts World at Sentosa.

Q Mention landscape design and most people think it involves putting a few plants around a building. Is that really what it's all about?

A When I first came to Singapore, I remember sitting in on a meeting at which the architect was talking about his work, and I said something - being a foreigner, I didn't know any better - about site planning. I said, couldn't we do it another way?

He turned around and said: 'You're the landscape architect. Why are you asking me this question? You're just here to stick the plants in after we've finished.'

I can't remember if I said anything rude in reply. But it was like that in the early 1980s: Nobody knew what we did. If we came in at all, we tended to decorate.

Back then, people thought of a condo as a building with a bit of landscape around it. Even now, if you look at the older condos, they have a swimming pool stuck in one corner and we used to think that was quite cool.

Now, things have moved on; Singapore as a whole has become more sophisticated. The market value of landscapes in residential projects has shot up since the late 1990s. Now, you can't sell a condo without a good garden.

Q So what exactly do you do?

A There are two parts to landscape design. The first is what we call 'hard landscape', which is paving, walls, steps, water features, lakes - yes, we build lakes - lighting, rocks and so on. Then we have 'soft landscape', which is the planting and soil.

The hard landscape usually comes first. We have to think about a carpark, the drainage, mechanical services, fire engine access...There are a hundred and one things to solve before you even get to the decorative part.

We've done gardens, parks, city landscaping. But the main food of landscape architects in Singapore has long been condos. We used to call it our bread and butter in the old days, when it was just cosmetic treatments.

Now, it's not just bread and butter - it's quite serious. The work we do has grown in scale and proportion. Landscape designs are much more integrated into the buildings and have become more important in actually marketing the properties.

But we don't just design to sell a property; we design for people to live in it. You're expecting people to live a whole chunk of their lives in one property. So in Glentrees, for instance, we wanted people to be able to look out the window every day and say, I really like this place. That's what people will pay money for.

Q And where do the plants come in?

A The planting is the paint that goes on the picture. After we've figured everything else out, we want it to look delicious and green and soft and shady. We use plants to create effects, separate space, create space, add shading and add colour.

Plants are one of the fundamentals of our trade. We make it a point to know soil conditions, insects, fungus, how fast plants grow, how much they spread.

We have a motto in the office: 'planting for success'. If there's any doubt that a plant will be successful, we don't plant it.

Q In your opinion, what makes a good landscape?

A To me, a good landscape is something that your user enjoys. If you design and build a park, do people like it? Are the kids running around, are people sunbathing on the grass, are lovers strolling under the trees?

If you go and ask them if they like the place and they say, yes, it's a great place, then that's a good design.

Q How do you go about creating a landscape design?

A Really the first thing you do is you get out your boots and walk around the site, because you should never design anything unless you understand the site. You need to know the soil conditions, drainage, old waste areas, existing trees around the site.

We actually start two processes simultaneously: conceiving the design and solving technical problems. We don't do things on our own; there's a whole team of professionals in there - architects, engineers, environmental specialists or even marine engineers - depending on the project.

This is what we call site planning. By understanding a site, you can see what the site best offers you. For instance, we worked on a highway in Hong Kong in very steep country, where it was very difficult to put this road through. And the engineers, they put the road right through a valley.

Then we took a look at it and we said, if you take it over to the side to the valley, we can keep the river and the woodlands, and we don't have to do so much cutting. Bit by bit, by massaging it, we ended up with a beautiful road that hardly did any damage to the valley. Yet, the run of the road, for the driver, is very good.

We try to find an optimum solution. The task isn't just taking a road from A to B; it's about making a beautiful road from A to B.

Q Which do you consider your most challenging project to date?

A The most satisfying large project I've ever done is the Safti Military Institute. First of all, it was big: 80ha of land. But also, it was very much starting with the big picture and working through to the details.

We did really comprehensive site planning and we kept so many trees on that site, it's unbelievable. It took about six years altogether. We kept 70 per cent of the original woodland.

Q And which project has been your most enjoyable?

A I think what I've enjoyed most is this series of projects I did on Sentosa. They have now become one single project, called Imbiah Lookout. We're reconstructing the whole nature trail environment.

It's fun because it's a light-hearted sort of subject. We're building landscapes for people: shady walkways, fountains, nice decorations and very juicy planting. I even drew the designs for the sculptures to be used there.

We actually started working there in 1988. We did all the practical things - the geology, the drainage - and built it, and then years later, like 20 years later, it's being used for the flower festival.

And you go down there on Chinese New Year and you see 50,000 people walking around and you think: 'That's it. That's what it's supposed to be used for.'

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