Urban gardener, Cleve West: What's the big idea?

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A Dutch gardener wrote to me several years ago to tell me that someone had used one of my designs in a magazine or book (I forget which) as an example of how to design a small town garden. The lack of credit suggested that the design was that of the author's. So incensed was my correspondent that she sent me the piece and there, sure enough, was a plan of my own back garden that I had designed, built and publicised some five years earlier. At first I was shocked and annoyed at both the blatant plagiarism and the lack of imagination by yet another author using examples of others to get themselves published. When I contacted the publishers (the correspondent insisted I take legal action) they were suitably embarrassed but advised me to confront the author directly.

It took me less than a day to decide to let the matter rest. I didn't have the time, energy or money for a court battle, and besides the garden itself was a culmination of ideas I had seen and nudged along a bit. A copper monolith was influenced by the mystical black slab in the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey while the use of granite setts was inspired by the Mexican architect, Luis Barragan (specifically a stone courtyard disappearing slowly into water), except ours were reinvented by leaving joints between the setts free of mortar for water to run through. This simple progression created an illusion that the granite was floating.

Nothing in the world of design is completely original. Ever since the first cave painting we've been cribbing from each other to a greater or lesser degree. But there's a difference between re-creation and replication. Re-creation allows latitude to push an idea further or take an essence of an idea to reinterpret in your own way. Replication of an idea to the last detail, however, is quite different. As an exercise to pay homage to a style or well-known designer it is acceptable, if a little boring, but to try and pass it off as something unique is plainly wrong.

The ongoing dispute between Diarmuid Gavin and Andy Sturgeon raises some serious issues for designers. Gavin claims that the capsule-shaped garden pavilion that featured in Sturgeon's award-winning Cancer Research Garden at last year's Chelsea Flower Show was derived from a similar structure created by the Irish designer four years ago. It seems a little odd that a designer might lay any claim to a shape. Capsules, circles, pyramids, triangles have been with us since time immemorial so the crux of the argument has to lie in whether shape and function is enough to constitute plagiarism or whether this can only be the case if the detail of the structure has been replicated exactly.

Are we, when designing a shed for instance, to have second thoughts about using a cube for inspiration? Is Buckminster Fuller turning in his grave because of the Eden Project that uses his geodesic dome to house its collection of exotica? Am I about to be cursed by the spirit of some ancient Pharaoh for using three-sided pyramids for a project in Normandy? Lawyers in Ireland, where the case is being heard, are no doubt salivating over the prospect of getting involved in something where ambiguities and grey areas can be examined and tickled regardless of how clear-cut the case might seem to the layman.

Plagiarism may well be the highest form of compliment but it takes a lot of gall to consciously plagiarise in exacting detail. Most of the time it is our sub-conscious that does the ground work for new ideas. I often wonder how I arrived at a solution only to see something either in a magazine or one of my sketchbooks where doodles abstracted from gardens, art galleries and even a gynaecological teaching visual in one instance, happily serve more purpose than passing the time on the Tube. Such a record of all sorts of stimuli are tucked away in memory vaults and leaked out during the course of the design process where visual references from a house or landscape can trigger chains of seemingly unrelated thoughts that may or may not be used to resolve a specific design problem. Sure, it would be great to design something unique, but I for one gave up on that delusion long ago.