May 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
I am sitting outside a busy seafront cafe in Dun Laoghaire. Seagulls are performing aerobatics overhead while a glossy starling keeps up a spirited commentary on the ground nearby. It’s a perfect day: not only is the sun shining, but Ireland’s most famous garden designer — who is famously difficult to pin down — has kept his appointment with me.
Diarmuid Gavin gets straight to the point: he waves at the lofty Italianate clock tower on the County Hall: “It’s about the height of that.” I gasp. He’s pleased, but forces himself to be more exact: “Well, maybe it’s just short of that.” Still, at 24 metres tall, his Westland Magical Tower is his highest Chelsea Flower Show garden yet. “The height is really a by-product of the design,” he says, with just a hint of self justification. “It’s not me trying to say” — and then he laughs in between every word — “I’ve… a… bigger… thing… than you!”
Whatever Gavin’s creation is trying (or not trying) to say, it is a rather wonderful item, and his most impressive Chelsea offering so far. The skeletal, pyramidal tower rises from a 16-by-16-metre footprint and tapers to an elegant point somewhere up in the heavens. The structure is unabashedly temporary, being built completely of scaffolding materials. The poles have all been painted ebony black, and the new couplers and clamps are burnished and golden. The colours are sumptuous and classy, like those of Chinese lacquer furniture.
On the way to the top — which can be reached by an internal lift, or by metal staircases — there are seven different levels, partially decked over with scaffolding planks, giving the tower a floor area of 600 square metres.
The elevated terraces will accommodate self-contained gardens, each with a different flavour and mood, as if they are tended by different personalities. So there might be a vegetable plot (complete with compost bin and shed), a patch of jolly annuals and hanging baskets, a cool sophisticated balcony for ladies who lunch, and any number of other high-level plots.
As with all of Gavin’s ouevres, a jumble of disparate ideas has inspired this design. Most have to do with the notion of city living and the need for increasing green space in unconventional places. Gavin is excited by the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) development in Milan, a pair of residential towers planted with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs. And he’s energised by the High Line, the linear park recently created on an abandoned railway track in Manhattan. But he is equally influenced by Rear Window, Hitchcock’s masterpiece of voyeuristic tension where protagonist James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, becomes obsessed with the goings-on in the apartment block opposite. Gavin loves the obvious artificiality of the film, and wants to replicate the feeling of a “series of lives being lived in a succession of boxes, one on top of the other.” And he adds, displaying his talent for a good quote: “if there is a murder, even better!”
The idea of making a garden out of scaffolding came last spring when he saw London’s Albert Bridge, then undergoing restoration, trussed in a densely packed and infinitely interesting web of poles and platforms.
Gavin’s magical tower, which is sponsored by Westland Horticulture, is being built near Stansted Airport by a crack team of British scaffolders. As soon as it is completed, it will be carefully disassembled, with all the parts marked and numbered before being packed into trucks and delivered to the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea — where the world’s most prestigious garden event takes place this month.
At the beginning of the nineteen-day build period before the show opens, the scaffolders will have five days to erect the tower. “I’m a bit apprehensive about the first few days,” admits Gavin. “We’ll have this amazing structure that everyone will be looking at and going ‘Oooohhh God, there goes Diarmuid again’, and ‘Who does he think he is?’ — and all that sort of thing.”
The Irish designer always attracts scrutiny, and not just because of his brash and flamboyant designs. Over the years he has been embroiled in public disputes with other participants, and — last year — with his sponsors. Accordingly, his Chelsea Flower Show appearances have always garnered more publicity than those of any other designer. But his gardens also warrant the attention for themselves: “We’re trying to be adventurous, and trying to have some fun, and trying to push it. We should, as designers, be offering something new. It’s an exhibition. It’s show business!”
Gavin admits that some of his gardens have been more successful than others — mainly because he becomes consumed with near-irrational enthusiasm during each project. He mentions one in particular: “at the time I thought it was the most magical thing in the world. And then to realise that it wasn’t — that was like a flat bottle of lemonade.”
His ideas often come to him almost fully formed, “and that is what causes me problems,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll refine it and you go and talk to everybody about it, and then a few weeks later, you will realise ‘That was the worst idea I ever had, and I’m so embarrassed!’”
When we meet, Gavin is at the not-sleeping stage of obsession with his current Chelsea offering. His iPad is crammed with images: besides the countless concept drawings and plant specimen photos, there are shots of scaffold fixings, wooden potato crates, rows of oil drums, and piles of rusted containers he found in the scaffolder’s yard — “Can you imagine ivy trailing over them? Or box planted in them? Or lavender in the sky?”
And there are dozens of pictures of the structure gradually ascending near Stansted. He’s thrilled by the way that the vertical scaffolding bars arrange themselves in regular ranks of columns — especially on the lowest level. “It’s absolutely classical!”
He’s crazily, madly in love with his scaffolding and all the beauteous shapes and dreams it conjures up all by itself. Yet he knows that he must put this infatuation to one side. “I can’t get carried away with the structure, I have to realise I am making a garden.”
“The planting stage is where you get it right or you get it wrong. The planting is whether this — like the Irish Sky Garden — becomes a garden that endears itself to people or not. You are a big show-off if you come along and make a scaffolding structure that size. But unless I can get the little old ladies standing there smiling at it, I haven’t done a good job.”
So, in order to make sure that the old ladies — and everyone else, including the judges — smile on him, Gavin is concentrating hard on the planting, along with Clontarf-based landscaping contractor Gerry Conneely, one of his team of sixteen workers. The hunt for perfect specimens has led them to nurseries in Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.
The lowest level of the garden will be full of shade lovers such as tree ferns, hostas and ivies. And rising into the next level will be a grove of chalky-stemmed birches. “I like really simple planting. I’ll always have box. And look at this!” — and he scrolls to a bold-leaved loquat. “I love it! It’s so Oscar Wilde. And what about this?” — a huge flat-domed Portugal laurel. “That costs a couple of grand. But it would be great for a very formal garden, like the Ladies Who Lunch garden.” And on and on he goes, as plants fly by on the iPad screen.
Gavin has mixed feelings about Chelsea: “Last year I felt it more strongly than ever. I am both massively excited and repulsed. And when I say repulsed, I really mean it.” And his voice thickens with horror. “Because it’s flower arranging. I absolutely love it, but I think ‘you’re just placing the plants.’ But then you walk away from it, and you realise that there is a bit of an art form in this.”
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Diarmuid Gavin’s Chelsea Gardens
1995: “To the Waters and The Wild”: the enchanting slice of Irish countryside and its romantic stone ruin was made on a shoestring, winning Gavin and collaborator, Vincent Barnes, a bronze medal.
1996: The modern city garden had glass slabs that lit up when stepped on, and although it won no medals, its designer’s ready charm and cheeky good looks landed him a presenter’s spot on television and launched a busy media career.
2004: “A Colourful Suburban Eden” was a jaunty creation, with a sea of giant lollipops and a Fabergé-egg-type pavilion. Probably Gavin’s most expensive garden: “I sort of lost the run of myself because it was so busy, and I left everything until late, and you pay top dollar then.” The judges gave it a silver-gilt medal.
2005: The pretty “Hanover Quay Garden” with swathes of lavender and box balls was awarded a silver gilt.
2007: “The Westland Garden”, which won a silver-gilt medal, had beauteous planting by Stephen Reilly and a softly-curving garden studio by Irish company, Shomera.
2008: The Oceânico Garden, with Sir Terence Conran was a city courtyard populated by a flotilla of airy, metal mesh daisies. The designers’ blurb enthused “It’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets Roald Dahl!” The judges awarded a bronze medal.
2011: “The Irish Sky Garden”, sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council, featured a giant pink metalwork pod suspended from a crane. It earned Gavin his first Chelsea gold, but the project was not a happy one. Destined to be rebuilt in Cork’s Fitzgerald Park, the Avatar-inspired creation has been the subject of acrimony between Cork County Council, Fáilte Ireland and the designer’s office — which is no longer involved in the venture. “It is a great embarrassment,” says Gavin. “But it is not my embarrassment. I don’t believe we did anything wrong.” The Fitzgerald Park project has been put out to tender. “It’s difficult for anyone who wins the tender, because they have to redo our garden with us not being too happy about it, but it’s work, and everybody needs work in this country in this day and age.”
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– The best thing about Chelsea: “Working with the lads, and seeing it coming together. And getting to work with plants that you will never get to work with on a commercial job”
– The worst thing about Chelsea: “The grasping for gold: nothing else matters, just gold.”
– The next big thing in gardening: “the environment, growing your own, cocooning, colour, herbaceous, conservation of water, composting, sustainability: all those things that I might have thought were boring 10 years ago.”
– Greatest inspiration? “I love what Philip Treacy [the Irish milliner] does: I absolutely love that genius because it’s fun and elegant and quirky in terms of design. It’s just… astonishing.”
– On being controversial: “I think our stuff is relatively tame. It’s quirky. If I wanted to be controversial at Chelsea, I would be projecting images of the queen, or of nude queens.”
– On past gardens made for television shows: “I was like a child in the sweetshop. We made the good, the bad and the ugly, and we threw everything but the kitchen sink in… But what with one thing and the other, I learnt a bit, and I calmed down.”
– On being middle-aged: “I love middle age for enjoying the simpler things, and not having frustrations any more. You are more confident in yourself, you’re not as shy. You just say ‘this is me’. A friend pointed out to me that my hair was receding, So I showed it to my wife, and she said, “Yes, it is. That’s what happens.”
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A series of short videos on Diarmuid Gavin’s Youtube channel comments on the making of this year’s Chelsea garden.
© Jane Powers A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times.