Who are the Capability Browns of today?
Meet the new generation of innovators who, like the famed 18th-century designer Lancelot Brown, are changing the shape of the landscape. By Tim Richardson
The noise around this year’s celebration of the tercentenary of “Capability” Brown’s birth begs the question: who are the “Capabilities” of today? Brown has a status in landscape design similar to that of Shakespeare in literature, and one might wonder what he would be doing if he were alive in 2016. In Shakespeare’s case, the cliché would be that he would now be designing apps or video games – but what about Brown?
Well, just as I think Shakespeare would probably still be writing plays, so a new Brown would still be engaged in landscape architecture. There is simply no modern substitute for working on a landscape scale. The crucial difference, for a designer with such a big vision physically and conceptually, is that he or she would probably be working in the urban realm, for civic clients, rather than in the countryside for the aristocracy. In Britain today, few great landowners consider their wider estate (as opposed to the garden) as an opportunity for creative work – though there are some notable exceptions, such as the Duke of Buccleuch at his seats at Boughton in Northamptonshire and in Scotland (see box, page 3).
Those of Brownian mindset, who seek to enhance or alter the identity of large tracts of land, as opposed to decorating what is already there, are most likely to find satisfaction working in cities in a “postindustrial” environment – typically renovating and making “fit-for-purpose” urban zones such as ex-docklands, derelict mines and factories, underused riverfronts and decayed city centres. These are the areas where ambitious landscape architects tend to get big commissions nowadays. There are opportunities, too, for work on what is effectively virgin land – mainly in China and Dubai, where new towns and cities are being established, and in special cases such as the creation of large botanic gardens and Olympic parks. Some things never change, however. As in Brown’s day, the single most challenging aspect of landscape design remains working with water. Brown’s mastery of water was one of his strongest suits, and it remains a distinct specialism today. It’s not just the
New horizons: Red Ribbon Tanghe River Park, China, designed by Kongjian Yu. Below: Kongjian Yu, Kate Cullity and James Corner