mylandscapes contemporary garden design london

garden design innovation belgravia courtyard

innovative garden design project central london sw1

blog / outdoor trends

design & words Amir Schlezingeramir schlezinger

Innovative Approach

Halfway Chapel Street in Belgravia, our clients' home functions as a European base for regular business travel to Russia and the Far East. Following an extensive renovation of their grade II listed residence, we joined the project's architectural team to design and build a 32-square-metre courtyard garden at the back of the house. The owners, raising three children of varying ages, have developed a unique blend of classical decoration, cutting-edge technology and bespoke detail to fully cater for all family members – a singular setting which required a sensitive design for its small outdoor space in a truly innovative approach. Once the garden had matured, we met up with our clients, joined by eminent photographer Marianne Majerus, to capture some alfresco twilight moments for a book publication and retell the ins and outs of this exceptional home and its original garden design.

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1. beds 2. walls 3. lights 4. water 5. stone 6. detail 7. plants 8. clients 9. flames 10. design

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1 beds

floating plinths

Simple design detail, augmented by resourceful construction, aptly relieves the mere confines of small town courtyard gardens. Here, in Belgravia, the raised beds float above 60mm-high recessed plinths, enabling the paving to flow beneath and generate a greater sense of depth. While sandstone pavers disappear into spacious shadow gaps, the capstones consolidate this refined detail with an 8mm deep-set groove – both techniques requiring ample preparation and precision, delivered with a touch of building prowess. Arranged within a layered design sequence which gradates height towards a soaring back wall, the raised beds facilitate snugly fitted seating; their differing lengths articulate counterbalance asymmetrically to contrast the steadiness of a central water feature, while carving a handy space for a barbecue.

2 walls

refined scale

Enclosed by four walls of varied heights, ranging from two metres on the right to five metres on the left, and culminating in the 12-metre-high elevation of Groom Place at its back, this very small courtyard is truly dwarfed by Belgravia's imposing Georgian architecture, cocooned at lower ground level below a 5-storey house. To imaginatively offset this disproportionate enclosure, we integrated half-dozen foolproof courtyard garden design ideas which moderate an over-high canvas, resolving it with an innovative concept to form a unified backdrop.

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Utilising tower scaffolding, we demarcated the back wall at 6-metre height with a light sandy hue, leaving its brickwork intact, balanced by a large-scale waterfall and tall Narihira bamboo. On the sides, the walls were rendered to present a contrastingly radiant surface which bounces off vital daylight in this deeply shaded garden microclimate; their balanced gradation preserved by medium-sized plants. The leafy woodland flora provides eye-level focus, emanating from raised beds decorated in a deeper tint which recedes towards the background.

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3 lights

radiant platform

The garden's woodland flora, water cascade and high walls all lend themselves to the theatricality of outdoor lighting, where a series of concealed spotlights reinvents this setting enticingly. Rendering the side walls has enabled the embedding of cables to create an integral finish for downlighters, while evergreen Ferns beneath tall Bamboos disguise the light sources which generate dazzling silhouettes onto the back wall. Underwater lighting illuminates the waterfall's details expansively, and as the seasons change and Maple leaves descend to reveal graceful multi-branched outlines, the lighting reaches further into the brick framework to accentuate winter with a greater range.

4 water

mellifluous spout

Centred on both the kitchen doors and back wall, the 2-metre-high water feature contributes a rather prodigious focal point to balance its grand surroundings. The interplay between a voluminous sheet of Welsh slate, tapering concrete columns and a petite, tubular stainless steel spout produces unique focality with a subtle trickle collected in a reflecting pool. For our classicist clients, this space-saving vertical fountain protrudes alluringly as an archetypal sculpted relief, albeit in a contemporary rendition, where its association with Asian foliage, fire and metal elements evinces progressive Taijitu undertones.

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5 stone

surface continuum

We reciprocated with the kitchen floor's Travertine limestone via corresponding Yorkstone pavers, arranged in a similar random grid longitudinally, while maintaining regular lines crossways. The new sawn paving is entirely frost-resistant, unlike its calcareous Italian counterpart, and with a gamut of blue, grey, buff, beige and cream, the sandstone's colour spectrum introduces subtle variations which mitigate the garden's expanse of perimeter walls. Detailed further in raised bed coping, and echoed by the tones of the furniture set and wall hues, the paving forms a unifying continuum together with the interior's floor in a highly sympathetic hard landscaping scheme.

6 detail

ingenious parity

Detail constitutes an all-important element in every architectural project, upholding its inner workings unobtrusively, while sustaining visual seamlessness above surface, and nowhere else does such an outlook manifest itself more than in the unbounded uniqueness of a private courtyard garden, however limitedly small-sized. Indoors, our clients' polished matrix of opulent detail weaves its hybrid narrative invitingly, honed by a trailblazing architect and his worldly patrons. Outside, the distinctiveness of supersized structures and greeneries unfolds effective, magnifying attributes, underpinned by detail design originality, where the minutiae of shadow gaps, surface intersections, grout line subtleties, material juxtapositions and incremental height variants coalesce to form one cohesive and notably creative vision.

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7 plants

japanese flora

Planting rationale is universally impelled by both cognitive and impetuous factors as the firm aggregation of studied imprints in a garden designer's lifelong journey to hone an unmistakable personal style. In the intimacy and smallness of private city courtyard gardens, we seek an effortlessly cultivable environment, where the hallmarks of definitive soft landscaping impassion and heighten outdoor living either side of the garden doors. Horticultural trendiness, particularly at the higher end of the London property market, habitually enlists oversimplification in its modern-day gardening provincialism, where progressiveness is cynically by and large an insular by-product of creative complacency and unmitigated environmental ignorance.

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Intentional, compositional and daintily ethereal, the pared-down palette of three Japanese maple cultivars, majestic Temple bamboo, two ground-cover Ferns and Lilyturf replaces our clients' cutting-edge home technologies with a more natural, softer and ably multi-sensory ambience. In this densely shaded courtyard, these Japanese woodland floras assuage the sternness of their SW1 locality to instil a sense of seasonal cyclicality with spurts of foliar colourfulness in both spring and autumn. Gracefulness and minimalism in planting design should synchronise in the reinvention of contemporary gardens amid classic urban surroundings without design professionals resorting to blatant predictability, or unnecessarily promoting spiritual apathy.

8 clients

forward-looking mindset

What makes a design style or discipline an innovative one? At times, it's the rational adjustment of deep-rooted principles to correspond with site-specific conditions which achieves this rather elusive remit. Occasionally, the foresight to overlay and elevate authenticity with a groundbreaking adaptation drives the impetus, and once in a while, the espousal of like-minded ideas by a close-knit team of designers and clients enables a one-off reinterpretation which propels novelty into the mainstream. Here, amid Belgravia's grand Regency terraces and City of Westminster's strict building criteria, the owners' sheer perseverance, intuition and all-out ability to readapt have steered a laudable design process; their forward-looking mindset sweepingly inspiring an all-encompassing creative spirit.

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9 flames

playful fire

Much like the classical fountains in the Gardens of Versailles, embodying the taming of nature, ensued by a universally affordable pervasion of suburbia with miniaturised squirty versions, blazing fire features have become must-have outdoor gizmos de nos jours. The ubiquity of these fiery gadgets has spread throughout all corners of the world, where even the most impassioned garden purists succumb to the hypnotic qualities of seemingly essential alfresco appliances; their scenic flames and showy architectural displays conquered with prompt, controlled energy – whatever the regional weather may be!

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While ethanol fuel somewhat relieves the lamentable state of our global biomass energy predicament, sustaining many a late-night get-together by the latest outdoor fire table, the environmental impact of wood-burning fireside activities remains largely debated. Our clients' understated yet imaginative utilisation of fire as a playful, warming component finds its cosy niche aligned peacefully with the waterfall spout in an endearing Taoistic duality of polar, classical elements.

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10 design

integrative focality

Garden innovations do not solely materialise in the vacuum of an air-conditioned design studio; their continuing success dependent on inspiring locations, understanding clients, befitting budgets and quite often these days, the ingenious syndication of Internet blogging for some handy online virality. Private residential projects are decisively instrumental in the ongoing development of innovative garden design ideas, yet contrastingly, if not unsurprisingly, a discernible proportion of their pioneering creations and game-changing concepts originate by the inspirational hands of mavericks from the art, product design, architecture, scientific and academic worlds, while bona fide garden design professionals remain preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of daily repetitiveness in suburban anonymity.

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While some design concepts brew steadily backstage, the bulk of our portfolio visions transpires on site. We strongly believe in spending as much time as possible in situ, to assess capacities and drawbacks, and develop a site's potential reciprocally with our clients; a simple yet effective process which seems to considerably shorten the great distance a design solution has to travel from anima to persona... In this pocket-sized Belgravia courtyard garden, a minimalist framework and bold, eye-catching features, contrasted by dainty foliage, mitigate smallness, shade and strictness of setting by sculpting natural light to enhance liveability, while resolving flawed scale and meaningfully raising the personality factor. Our custom-built waterfall, the garden's piece de resistance, functions not only as a soothing and balancing feature, but also as a consolidating element of the street's history in a latter-day equestrian trough – matching origin with originality.

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– coda –

Small Garden Ingenuity

The success of the project led to an overhaul of the home's frontage later on, albeit in a more traditional approach, where every window sill, landing and balcony features classic topiary to accommodate the SW1 environ – 4 doors down from where 5 decades earlier neighbour Brian Epstein celebrated the release of Sgt. Pepper with the Beatles. Belgravia's thoroughly conserved 19th-century Georgianism imparts Londonesque authenticity with architectural veracity, a format which proves financially detrimental to home owners since many of City of Westminster's landholders originate offshore, enabling neighbouring Mayfair and Knightsbridge to outdistance their subdued bystander voguishly by forging desirability for less conservative incomers.

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Disenfranchised, downtrodden and deprived of light, this pint-sized back garden near the Horse & Groom pub resonated with outstanding potential when we first visited the site as countless other inner-city courtyards often do within residual pockets of urban land in London. This minified exterior skeleton, however bantam is size, isn't by any means lightweight in concepts; its fresh essence and broader scope conduced by a thoughtful and long-overdue home refurbishment. The courtyard's unutilised, towering cuboid shell of an outdoor space was resourcefully annexed to abate a boxy perimeter, where a magnificent aerial view from the upper floors of this Belgravian residence unveils the garden design's spatial integrality immersively. Conceived with the simplest of modern design principles, enveloped by luxuriant foliage and accented by opulent detail in supersize centrepieces, this garden imbues small space distinctiveness in the ingenuity of its resolve.