The writing's on the wall for traditional gardens

Anna Pavord admires a radical take on classic designs
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At the time when the great architect-gardener, Sir Edwin Lutyens, was laying out his Edwardian gardens, they were new, radical and modern. We see them through a haze of nostalgia - golden afternoons on the far side of war - and in terms of garden design we've been stuck in that 100- year time warp ever since. The Arts and Crafts side of Lutyens has been endlessly re-created in fuzzy cottage borders. His posh repertoire - yew hedges, box borders, monoculture lawns, the odd cherub - has remained the acme of status gardening.

So when I saw Christopher Bradley-Hole's stunning garden at Chelsea, my mind did a somersault. Here was a garden playing with the old ideals of vistas and garden rooms, and with the classical components of water, evergreen and stone. But it was startlingly, uncompromisingly new. It pushed the whole question of what can be done with a garden on to a new plane. It reinvented the rules of the game.

The garden was made on a thin site, about three times as long as it was wide. This is the kind of space that town gardeners most often have to contend with, and it's usually thought of as "difficult". The design, though entirely modern in concept and use of materials, divided the stretch up into three areas of classical proportions. Its brilliance lay in making you think about these spaces, rather than about what was filling them.

Is it a coincidence that Mr Bradley-Hole is also an architect? I don't think it is. Manipulating space is his stock-in-trade. He understands better than most of us where to draw the lines. Generally, gardeners in this country understand plants far better than they do design. Mr Bradley- Hole's architectural approach reminds us that peace of mind, tranquillity, all those things we want from our gardens, are enhanced, almost subliminally, by the harmony of the spaces around us.

Show gardens have to have themes. This one traced the three stages of the Roman poet Virgil's life: his country upbringing, his glittering city life as court poet to Maecenas, Roman minister of the arts, and his return in old age to gentle, countryside delights. The three areas were linked by a long path, a straight Roman road, running up the left-hand side of the garden. Big, bold, right-angled overthrows marked the divisions between one stage and the next.

The cross vista was water, cascading down from a a series of steps built into the boundary wall on the left. The water flowed under a footbridge made of a single sheet of green-tinted glass. From here it ran into a rectangular pool, which stretched the whole of the rest of the width of the garden.

Tall rows of bay and hornbeam, with clipped heads on top of straight, bare stems, suggested classical colonnades; but the point of this garden was not to create a pastiche of the Roman garden, but a reinterpretation of it. Christopher Bradley-Hole spent a year working on the design, trying to integrate the best ideals of his architectural training with his new- found passion for gardens.

His mentor, in architectural terms, has been the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. His ideas on planting have been deeply influenced by the work of German and Dutch garden designers, such as Piet Oudolf, who have released perennial plants from the corset of the herbaceous border and allowed them to swirl in natural drifts, each type of plant carefully chosen to make the best of a particular habitat.

English garden designers can do herbaceous borders in their sleep. But it has been much more difficult to find anybody - apart from John Brookes - who understands how to make a modern garden give out the ancient messages of renewal, consonance and serenity.

The danger is that, with his clever manipulation of interlocking cubes, Mr Bradley-Hole will have made the whole thing seem too easy. The wit and style of this garden came from the care that had been taken with the detail. Elegant stainless steel bolts fastened the glass panels of the central pavilion, representing Virgil's city home. The cascading staircase of water falling into the long, rectangular pool was made from blue Horton stone. Latin inscriptions were cut by Belinda Eade on tight-grained Portland Whitbed slabs.

At first glance you supposed that the walls and big square over-arches had been rendered in concrete. But in fact they were finished with Marmorina fresco plaster, which is made from marble grit mixed with lime and natural pigments, then built up in fine layers with a steel trowel. The majority of the surfaces were finished in a pale natural stone colour, but at the end of the long, straight path was a panel of rich, deep Knossos red. Seats cut into the right-hand boundary were finished in shades of sienna and ochre.

The long path stretching the length of the garden was bordered on the left by a raised bed built against the boundary wall, the rhythm of the planting, bronze fennel, purple sage, rosemary, iris, Rosa rubrifolia, accentuated by carefully pruned old vines. The path itself seemed wider than it was because the timber decking from which it was made was laid across the width, rather than along the length of the path. The sparsely planted gravel area in the foreground of the garden was carefully broken up by thin slabs of cut Portland stone.

The far end of the garden, representing Virgil's retirement to the country, was planted in trendy, meadow fashion with wine-dark astrantias, white foxgloves, tall thalictrums and Jacob's ladders set in long grass. A `Sanders White Rambler' rose was twined around one of the four sentinel cypresses marking the back boundary. All the columnar trees were planted in groups of four.

The design takes in many of the precepts that we are always being told are the hallmarks of a well-conceived garden: the importance of vistas, the value of separate spaces in an integrated whole. In essence, Christopher Bradley-Hole is doing what Lutyens did and what another great Edwardian gardener, Lawrence Johnston, did at Hidcote, his garden in Gloucestershire. He has created a series of garden rooms opening off a corridor. He has manipulated an uncompromising site to give a sequence of enclosing universes. But he has done it in a modern way: not with yew; not with box; not with borrowed bits of old statues - but with glass, steel and marine ply, all used with dazzling virtuosity. Against stiff competition, the garden won the coveted award of best in show.

The garden was sponsored by `The Daily Telegraph' and American Express, and designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole, Studio 10B, Sutton Lane North, Chiswick, London W4 4LD (0181-742 1867). The fresco plaster finishes were carried out by Perruchetti Associates, RMC House, 15 Townmead Road, London SW6 2QL (0171-371 5497). Stone carving by Belinda Eade, Studio 70, Great Western Studios, The Lost Goods Building, Great Western Road, London W9 3NY (0171-266 0328). Aluminium garden furniture designed by Jorge Pensi is available from Coexistence, 288 Upper Street, London N1 2TZ (0171-354 8817). Timber decking and other specialist garden joinery by Lloyd Christie, 1 New King's Road, London SW6 4SB (0171-731 3484).