From Garden City to Green City

This review was written for the Londonist 

Packed into the Garden Museum’s tiny gallery space, From Garden City to Green City will be loved by London geeks, especially ones with a penchant for architecture, town planning and urban greening.  It explores the visions, designs and projects that have inspired the green city movement over the last 150 years.  Not purely historical, a substantial part of the exhibition focuses on current projects, works in progress and dreams for the future.  It has a distinctly London lilt but other cities feature too.

Blasts from the capital’s more rural past include pictures of a grassy toll gate in Lambeth and a bucolic farmhouse in Brixton.  But the words of William Morris and Richard Jefferies highlight the increasing horrors of packed urban living.  Morris’s description of an underground rail carriage as “a vapour bath of hurried and discontented humanity” is particularly brilliant.  With these horrors comes a desire to improve living conditions by designing nature into cities, and providing easy escape routes out.

The creation of the Garden City was one reaction and Letchworth was the first in the 1910s.  “The smallholdings with their water butts and grassy verges attracted radicals such as vegetarians and suffragettes” apparently.  The creation of the Greenbelt in 1947 was another reaction.  And Janet Jack’s Alexandra Road Estate in 1970s Camden was another.  Every home there was designed to have a private roof garden or terrace.

We most enjoyed the present day projects and ideas for how cities might look in the future.  We could have spent hours gazing at Mikey Tomkins’ detailed Edible Map: Hackney 2011, which revealed that garages on Benjamin Close have been converted into mushroom farms and there’s a large apiary on the roof.  We also loved Tom Wolsey’s photographs of hay scything in modern day Elephant and Castle.  We’ll certainly be heading down to Nursery Row Park on 22nd October to witness this year’s cut.

The trend for ‘living architecture’ today is about breaking barriers between architecture and nature, and it’s about designing upwards.  Stefan Boeri’s incredible Bosco Verticale is currently being built in Milan – it’s a 27 storey high vertical forest of flats, with huge trees growing on every balcony.  The contemporary response to urban living is also about imaginative use of empty spaces. The Plant in Chicago has seen an old meat processing factory turned into an indoor vegetable farm – a bit like the FARMshop in Dalston, but on a grand scale.

We are London geeks, and urban nature freaks, so we found this small exhibition fascinating.  If you need more to draw you to Lambeth’s Garden Museum, and to make the £7 ticket price worth your while, the café and shop are a delight, and the vaulted space is a very peaceful one in which to spend an hour or two.

From Garden City to Green City runs until 1st April 2012.  A series of linked lectures runs from October to December 2011.  www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

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