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The Independent Culture
Steel looms large in a defiantly modern suburban plot. Beginning a series on gardens

of the future, Helen Chappell meets its designer, the scourge of the traditionalists

WALKING into Paul Cooper's just-completed garden is a disorienting experience. Is it a ship? Is it a gymnasium? Is it a set for a pop video or a disused factory invaded by some adventurous plants? Set in a modest backyard attached to a family home in suburban Golders Green, north London, the cutting edge of modernist garden design comes as a bit of a shock. Steel ladders and elevated walkways, exposed copper piping and plant cubes faced with white Foamex insulation jostle for the attention of the bemused onlooker. Underfoot, there is coloured rubber flooring from a sports complex instead of the usual rectangle of grass. Where you'd expect to see a herbaceous border, there is a geometric steel fountain shaped like a giant cheese grater.

"Over here is the viewing screen where the family can project slides or videos," explains the garden designer, Paul Cooper, in his mild-mannered way, all gangling innocence and spiky haircut. "We've had some fun projecting images on to the white box-units from inside the family's conservatory. And that is the dining area with retractable roof. The lime green handrails were the client's idea. Alastair here built it all and made all the metalwork. There can't be many gardens which need a welder to work on them, can there?"

Alastair Burgess, a chirpy young art-school graduate clad in student black, beams proudly. "I built it all in my front room," he says. "Then I drove it here in pieces in my Transit van."

Cooper, enfant terrible of the garden design world and scourge of the horticultural establishment, has struck again. Last May he outraged Chelsea Flower Show worthies with his sexy "Constructivist Garden" which contained a projection of a kissing couple, bushes hung with teabags and a ground- level grate blowing jets of air up ladies' skirts. In this defiantly artificial and futuristic garden in Golders Green, he has demonstrated that he is prepared to go further than creating sensational show gardens to annoy the RHS judges. He has found a client adventurous enough to commission this garden of the future today - for real. "This is the first domestic garden we've made this way," he says, "and it's very much an experiment."

So what is the big idea behind this extraordinary modernist installation? "Like any other design, it was a solution to the problems of the site," insists Paul Cooper. "What we had here was a north-facing small garden surrounded by 30ft conifers - very dark, damp and gloomy and overlooked by all the neighbours. The idea was to introduce height and light by creating hard white surfaces and multi-level plantings and recreation areas. Now my clients can climb high enough to sit in the sun and see their plants from many different angles.

"The kids have lots of different places to explore and to play in safely.The effect is almost like a tree house or a roof garden."

His client - a dynamic property developer working with converted factories and warehouses in the London Docklands - is delighted with the drama of the finished result. He and his wife first spotted the work of Paul Cooper at the 1991 Chelsea Flower Show: his show garden entitled "The Hanging Gardens of Chelsea". This consisted of a complex of hardwood containers and fountains, sprouting ferns, trees and foliage plants. It was the first in a series of provocative exhibits for major flower shows, followed up at Hampton Court in the same year by a steel-framed, portable, belt-on garden including palm trees made from wire mesh and a cut-out image of a naked man taking a (real) shower. In 1993 his "Kinetic Garden" presented visitors with a Heath Robinson-style machine, surrounded by ventilation ducts, a chugging conveyer belt and pollution-hardy plants. But it was a Sunday newspaper feature on the cool and minimalist garden he designed for clients in Weybridge in Surrey which convinced the head of this Golders Green family to pick up the phone. Recently arrived in England from design- conscious Belgium, he had found the man to create his dream garden. But while his family may have been delighted, some of his neighbours were less than thrilled by the bizarre erections rising above the Leyland cypress. Not to mention the whine of the welding and sawing equipment used on site during a year of construction. "There was uproar from time to time and some suspicion about what we were doing and why we were trying to be so different," recalls Cooper. "But once the plants went in everyone calmed down."

The reassuring effect of plants in a garden is puzzling to a designer who is striving to deconstruct the flowery-bowery, Gertrude Jekyll-inspired, pastel-bloomed English plot. In his view, plants should be only one of a list of ingredients for the successful modern backyard. He prides himself on questioning the value of anything and everything which has a place in our traditional garden. Why flowers? Why plants at all? What's the point of a lawn? What is a garden anyway? Why not make a garden which reflects today's transient lifestyle, one you can dismantle and throw away or fold up and take with you when you move house? In the past, he points out, gardens reflected the needs and desires of the people who created them. Gardens today have lost all this meaning under the dead weight of misguided nostalgia.

Cooper's critics tend to fall into two camps. Traditionalists dismiss his style as cluttered and gimmicky and point at his open ignorance of plants. Admirers such as the landscape designer David Stevens, however, regard him as a trail blazer, "He's fairly off the wall," says Stevens, "and he's interesting because he's a cross-over from art school and has brought a lot of those ideas with him. I don't agree that a garden can ever be a throw-away thing but I applaud his use of new materials and hard landscaping. Whether he's good or bad doesn't matter. He makes people think." According to Andrew Wilson, chairman of the Society of Garden Designers, Cooper is "creating exciting new garden spaces" and has a wicked sense of humour which reflects the spirit of the age. The garden designer Jill Billington thinks Cooper is "bright and brave and leading the way". In her view he is the only designer in Britain doing really bold and original work.

Innovation in gardens was not so scarce in the past, Paul Cooper believes. "In the 18th century garden style was a living art form," he says. "It was also political - the Whigs expressing their admiration for classical democracy via the landscape garden. But all that has gone now, swept away by the Victorian passion for gardens as plant collections. Garden-making has lost its high status. And many gardeners are workaholics - still digging for victory like we did during the war."

The antidote to all this, he feels, is to restore the domestic garden to its rightful role of reflecting the here and now, not retreating to an idealised vision of our horticultural past. Out with the ersatz "cottage garden", then, and in with the multi-purpose, wipe-clean, ready-assembled garden complex: an environment where the family of the 21st century can work, rest and play. Forget mowing the lawn - a once-over with the hose is easier and more hygenic.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Cooper, who trained as a sculptor at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early Seventies, should take this conceptual approach. He exhibited sculptures at more than 20 shows and lectured in fine art for over a decade before turning to garden design in 1986. He freely admits to doing so for "mercenary reasons", finding people more willing to commission gardens than a work of sculpture.

Although at first he "hated bloody gardening", he soon found himself drawn into it, annoyed by the lack of new thought in what he saw as one of the applied arts, and intrigued by the possibility of changing things. "There's a vacuum in design," he says, "that new ideas can rush in to fill. I'm not really against any traditional form of garden or plants. I like the tension between the natural and the man-made. All I ask is that people think about it and ask themselves what their garden is going to mean."

His partner, the horticulturalist Jo Matthews, shares his radical approach. She is used to the challenge of finding plants that not only match his clean geometric lines but that also refrain from growing rampantly all over them and ruining the effect. For this garden in Golders Green, Jo's challenge was to provide a range of plants happy to grow in containers, at a variety of heights, and to provide all-year interest. They also had to be low maintenance for this busy family with limited horticultural enthusiasm.

"Because this garden is an experiment," she says, "there are many alien associations of colour, materials and texture. I've used orange rock roses at the highest level, bronze conifers, epimediums, dark purple irises and black and blue grasses. With the French lavender and Eleagnus ebbingeii, it's also intensely fragrant, even in the winter." To avoid upstaging the overall design, she used a lot of white flowering plants to echo the Foamex surfaces and mounds of evergreen hebes, "just to bubble over the edges but not go trailing over everything".

Having spent the last year perfecting this special garden, she admits that it will be hard to let it go. She can't really feel happy at the prospect of it being changed, dismantled or moved elsewhere. "It's so rare to get a commission like this but we know we can't be too possessive. At the end of the day it's not our garden." The irony of the situation is not lost on her. So rare (if not unique) is it for a garden like this to be built in Britain that the philosophy behind it - the disposable garden - becomes painful for its creators. "Perhaps it will end up being listed," jokes Jo Matthews. "If we have pioneered the throw-away garden, someone will have to preserve one to show it really happened."

Is this small corner of Golders Green really so outrageous? "You would have thought so if you had seen some of the neighbours' faces," Jo says. Is it a blueprint for the future? "It ought to be. The garden of the future will be closely tailored to the people who use it and this one certainly is." Paul Cooper and Alastair Burgess agree with her. After all, they point out, by using new and surprising materials and working on a multi- level plan, they are at least raising questions about the function of gardens to come. (Readers who would like to know more can contact Paul Cooper and Jo Matthews at Ty Bryn, Old Radnor, Presteigne.)

Paul Cooper tries to provoke, not to destroy traditions or dictate new ones but to create a flood of alternatives. Some may look like this; many will not. "The only rule," says Alastair with a wicked grin, "is that there are no rules." !

NEXT WEEK: A postmodern pastiche garden