The long view: Dan Pearson

Words:
Eleanor Young

Creating the landscape that belongs requires a sense of a continuing evolution that has no conclusion. But for Dan Pearson, that is what’s so satisfying

Dan Pearson in the courtyard of his London studio.
Dan Pearson in the courtyard of his London studio. Credit: Ivan Jones

What would architects be like if they first studied what they designed with, the taxonomy, make up and exigencies of their materials? Then spent years placing them in the ground with their own hands and nurturing them into life as Dan Pearson did. As Pearson frees a tender new leaf of a sacred bamboo, in the courtyard garden he designed at the Garden Museum, the possibilities of following this path look tantalising; a way to truly master a craft. 

You may have watched Pearson on TV, his voice warmly resonant on gardens and landscape, or read his writings over the years on the intimacies of gardens in the Observer and other broadsheets. Or have seen how his planting layers the concrete of the old structure and new volumes that became the Stirling-shortlisted Juergen Teller Studio (‘We often do work on ugly buildings.’ ‘Do you do tough?’ ‘I do soft.’). At the achingly wonderful Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital, his design transports you from the harsh tarmac of a car park into lush understorey and weaves plant world, light and wall together. At King’s Cross his strategy for Argent encourages people to feel the landscape, not just the streetscape. He has a rare gift, that few enough architects have, of making buildings belong.

‘Do you do tough?’ ‘I do soft’

Belonging accounts for much in the way Pearson designs. The position, ground conditions, soil, dry and damp, light and shade, define the planting. His writing hints at where plants belong, his designs demonstrate it. He has always looked to plantswoman and garden designer Beth Chatto as leading on this naturalistic planting, although he finds many more landscape designers share this approach, and spirit, in mainland Europe. At that fixture of the garden design calendar, the Chelsea Flower Show, naturalistic is now the norm. Does it matter that it has become a fashion? Pearson thinks not, though it might not extend to his own convictions about the wider importance of ecology – ponds to breed, meadows to feed. ‘It doesn’t need to be deep to be useful,’ he says. I sense less a concern about the nebulous good of the planet, but rather a more grounded belief about the resonance and balance of place at all levels. 

Dry stone walls, hedgerows and meadows were part of a wider plan at the Coastal House in Devon. This wide-ranging approach was also taken at the Lutyens’ house of Folly Farm where Pearson’s landscaping improved the 4.5ha of habitat as well as taking on the garden in the spirit of its designer, Gertrude Jekyll.
Dry stone walls, hedgerows and meadows were part of a wider plan at the Coastal House in Devon. This wide-ranging approach was also taken at the Lutyens’ house of Folly Farm where Pearson’s landscaping improved the 4.5ha of habitat as well as taking on the garden in the spirit of its designer, Gertrude Jekyll. Credit: Huw Morgan

Naturalistic doesn’t mean returning to nature. The balance is delicate. At Juergen Teller’s Studio there is a sense of wildness colonising the concrete walls. Pearson counselled Teller that the plants could indeed overwhelm to the point where light and even doors would be blocked. This is part of his gardener designer’s skill, working with time and growth and decay too. With relief Pearson reports that Teller took on someone to corral his plants. This is, in fact, the very ordinary but fundamental starting point for Pearson’s designs: How will they be looked after?

Pearson volunteers that his first question is about maintenance; it defines what he can do with the planting and design. Will the public landowner switch maintenance contractors to ones who will come in and prune all the shrubs into cubes? Will the keen and consultative project manager be replaced by labourers who have little experience beyond the family farm? These questions may be uppermost in his mind at the moment due to the 18ha Amanyangyun Resort in Shanghai China which opened at the start of the year. Here he surrounded historic villas with over 1,000 ancient camphor trees, all rescued from a reservoir site, to create an immediate sense of rootedness. But can a guiding hand for the continued evolution of the resort be sustained?

Pearson has sited the Coastal House more comfortably and elegantly in its landscape near Dartmouth, and drawn out the best of the landscape, just as 6a has now done on the house.
Pearson has sited the Coastal House more comfortably and elegantly in its landscape near Dartmouth, and drawn out the best of the landscape, just as 6a has now done on the house.

There is no sense of completion for Pearson. Plants demand continuity. He likes to go back a few times a year to gardens he has worked on, or to have Rose, the gardener from Maggie’s Charing Cross, pick up the phone and try out ideas for replacement plants. Designing in three dimensions is hard enough but how do you design with time as well? It is less of a plan and more of a feel for the speed of growth and the comings and goings of the seasons. Pearson thinks of weeks, then seasons, then after 18 months of plants establishing themselves so people get the benefit, the three year mark when the bare ground is hidden by perennials meshing together, and trees and shrubs start to assert themselves, then five years as they mature. At 10 years it is time to start making changes again. In the grand landscapes of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, where he has taken on Capability Brown’s legacy, he was thinking in 15-30 year intervals. ‘They are used to that at Chatsworth.’

But what time does to a growing place is hard to communicate. ’It is a spatial thing in your head,’ he says. ‘It’s very difficult to convey to clients.’ One client asked the studio to draw out the design for each season for the next five years but this would have been months of work. Instead Pearson sketches it with words. ‘You need a conversation, where you can describe the important things and give the mood of a place in each season.’ As he takes you through the year in an orchard you want to go and sit in the dappled shade, you’re drawn to the springtime trees in blossom over a carpet of white narcissi, the long summer grass mown into paths pulls you with its sense of direction, and you can smell apples edging to ripeness, ready to fall to the clear ground plane of grass before the clean sculptural lines of the trees re-emerge in the winter. How long until you can walk through and lie in the shade? ‘About 10 years.’

‘There is a pleasure to waiting,’ Pearson says. It is 10 years since he started work on the Coastal House, near Dartmouth in Devon. With these patient clients he has drawn a series of landscapes around the house extending out with meadows, hedgerow and woodland planting, eventually suggesting that architect 6a took on the house – which this year won an RIBA Award. He has collaborated with many architects but 6a and Pearson’s studio seems to be a particularly happy pairing of sensibilities; they are also working together on what will become a sunken jungle of a home on a deep, narrow plot in Hackney using a basement inherited with the site. In Melbourne, for the same client Nectar Efkarpidis and his Molonglo Group, they are designing a tower together.

  • At King’s Cross the studio worked on strategy with Townshend Landscape. It also did some public realm design, as here alongside Waitrose.
    At King’s Cross the studio worked on strategy with Townshend Landscape. It also did some public realm design, as here alongside Waitrose. Credit: Argent
  • The concrete walls of the Juergen Teller Studio with their nascent planting, before it had time to colonise the studio.
    The concrete walls of the Juergen Teller Studio with their nascent planting, before it had time to colonise the studio. Credit: Johan Dehlin
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Does Dan Pearson still do his own weeding? ‘I need that to feel normal,’ he says

Like 6a, Pearson draws out the best of a place and tunes it, understanding the importance of compression and release, adding in concerns for growth, productivity and habitat. At the modernist experiment of Dartington Hall, he has taken on the masterplan starting with the worst stumbling block to appreciating the estate – arrival – before getting deeper into the gardens. At the huge Lowther Castle in the Lake District he is swirling the rose garden into new forms. At Lambeth Palace he is creating a sanctuary around Wright and Wright’s sealed collection building, a ‘body of water’ that will give insects and amphibians a stopping off place in the city. While he loves helping people realise their dreams in private gardens, of course he wants to design more public spaces. ‘We can make places better,’ he says. I muse that perhaps the infrastructure is not something he is interested in but he can talk as intensely on drainage as on trees and ha-has – if less beautifully. Thus he talks of his hours spent on the contested and unrealised Garden Bridge not with regret but with acceptance: ‘You could see there were holes in it.’ 

From the few short hours I spend with him it seems that Pearson needs little extra but is happy in himself: self sufficient, content, if only he can do the things he loves. In the little brick courtyard of his studio of nine people in Lambeth, the light cooled to green through the fresh new leaves of a katsura tree, I ask how his own gardens are looked after, this and the Somerset farm that he took on eight years ago. Does Dan Pearson still do his own weeding? 

‘I need that to feel normal,’ he says. How does he find enough time as he travels the world on projects, still living much of the time in London? ‘That is the most important question you have asked,’ he says (as our meeting draws to a close ).  A protected day a week in Somerset, working alongside two helpers, is how it works now – just. He doesn’t have an answer to finding more time – perhaps fewer projects abroad, but still in Europe. And in the US, Malibu is fascinating. It is not really a complete answer but, like so much else, it is all a question of balance.