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THE REAL DIRT ON: Dame Sylvia Crowe

By Carol Buckley.

In these times of growing concern about land use and the need for development, the British landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901–1997) is interesting to read about. Crowe came to prominence after World War II. She survived tuberculosis as a child, staying home from school and enjoying walks in nature. She obtained a degree in horticulture in 1922 with the aim of managing her parents’ fruit farm in Sussex. After sketching expansive landscapes while wintering in Italy with her parents, she decided to study garden design. She began her career working for a landscaping business where she learned surveying and was employed at the nursery, William Cutbush & Son in North London for thirteen years. One of her most praised gardens is at Whalebones, a private residence in Barnes, so named for the 24-foot-high arched entrance made from a blue whale’s jawbone. Crowe’s play with placement and use of trees to create privacy and intimacy is evident here. At first, Crowe was controversial. In 1937, Crowe won a Gold Medal at the Chelsea flower show, using concrete to create a pond that seemed to have imperceptible edges. However, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) criticized her for a later entry that included a concrete summerhouse. By 1990, RHS was sufficiently pleased with her work to award her the Victoria Medal of Honor. Crowe became a proponent of the minimalist view in architecture and landscaping that came to the fore in the late 1940s. Her portfolio of work includes a remarkable range in landscape sizes. On the one hand, she gave her attention to the small garden details of Whalebones and the like, while she also had the responsibility for the design of hundreds of acres as part of the development of new towns that grew up in the countryside after the war. Even though she was working with a minimalist concept, she believed in the importance of staying true to the setting and context of her projects. For example, she sometimes used the excess soil dug up during the building of the towns to create flowing hills on which she planted native trees. One of Crowe’s biggest projects was the Scottish Widows headquarters on a six-acre site in Edinburgh in the late 1970s. For this, she grew a roof garden on top of a parking structure designed to accommodate 300 cars that reminds one of the grassy garden atop the California Academy of Science building in Golden Gate Park. The garden flows flawlessly into plantings of native trees, creating the aesthetic unity Crowe sought between nature and function. Well-known for her ability to achieve such unity, the Forestry Commission hired Crowe in 1964 to come up with a design that included recreational facilities and aesthetic considerations that did not include (according to Londoner and planning lawyer Desmond Heap) “the setting up of row upon row of coniferous trees.” Of her approach to designing functional spaces that also “look right in any given landscape,” she said: “Landscaping is often what you leave out, not what you put in. You need absolute simplicity to knit the landscape back again.”

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