x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Inspiring landscapes

These favourite landscapes will inspire gardeners throughout the new year.

The landscaping at Manarat Al Saadiyat is austere and chic.
The landscaping at Manarat Al Saadiyat is austere and chic.

This is the final Nick's Garden of 2010 and as the year's end approaches I can't help but take stock of the past 12 months, a period that has been full of change for both my home and garden.

When I started writing this column last February I was working full time as a designer of major landscapes throughout the UAE and my interest in plants and gardening was as much professional as personal. I'm now ending the year as a first-time parent and stay-at-home dad and, for the first time in a decade, gardens and plants are no longer the tools of my trade but have reassumed their primary role as places of beauty and sources of pure delight. It's with this pleasure principle in mind that two landscapes immediately stand out as particularly happy memories and important sources of inspiration for the coming year.

Every now and again my wife and I will visit a garden or landscape whose qualities are so self-evident that it strikes us like a form of déjà vu. Normally my wife will comment on it before I do and when we leave we do so eager to return. The last time this happened was at Robert Irwin's subtly restrained and elegant landscape surrounding the Dia:Beacon art gallery in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York, not an easy place to revisit from the UAE.

Luckily a similarly refined experience awaits visitors to Manarat Al Saadiyat, the recently opened visitor centre on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. When I first arrived at the visitor centre, I thought that it might be the contrast with the phalanx of large red, white and blue billboards lining the entrance that made the arrivals landscape seem so serene, but repeated visits have confirmed otherwise. Although it still needs time to become established, the real pleasure in this garden comes from the ways in which in its designers, the Dubai-based landscape designers Alshamsi Terra Firma, have managed to create a richly detailed and contemporary landscape from a humble palette of concrete blocks, cobbles and kerbs and readily available, low water-demand plants. What's most satisfying is the way that it encourages the visitor to reconsider the quiet stuff that surrounds them and to see the potential in materials that would otherwise be considered ubiquitous and mundane.

Gardeners can learn a lesson here in simplicity as well as the benefits of using a carefully selected, restricted palette in all things. The effect of seemingly ordinary plants is also maximised by their use in generous, single-species blocks which emphasises their textural and structural characteristics.

If the landscape at Manarat Al Saadiyat represents a form of austere, low-cost chic then the landscape that greets visitors to the Armani Hotel Dubai at the Burj Khalifa is horticultural haute couture and a very guilty pleasure indeed. When viewed from inside Mr Armani's Dubai bolt-hole, the expensive stone paving, established trees and muted planting scheme co-ordinate perfectly with the opulent silks, velvets and hi-tech fabrics that are used so skilfully inside. As with the buildings and garden at Manarat, this is an object lesson in the effect that can be achieved when a building's interior and exterior are closely co-ordinated.

At Manarat Al Saadiyat this effect is achieved through the use of floor-to-ceiling glazing and an outdoor paving finish that flows inside the building to break down the distinction between interior and exterior. The links at the Armani Hotel are less obvious, relying instead on similarities in colour, texture and a richness of detail and quality of finish. Paving takes on the quality of woven fabric while interior floor coverings perform with architectural simplicity.

While the planting at Manarat Al Saadiyat makes a virtue of the chosen species' ubiquity, the use of a restricted colour palette in the planting at the foot of the Armani Hotel is even more muted as the silver leaves of mature olive trees blend seamlessly with the glaucous foliage of different varieties of Agave. If anything, the effect is a little too subdued because the quality of the planting is lost unless it's repaid with anything less than a detailed inspection from above. However, given that this garden stands at the foot of the world's tallest building there's surely more chance of this happening here than elsewhere.

If anything, the lesson to be learnt from the Burj Khalifa is the risk that even the world's best take when they try to be too tasteful. The design, by the renowned US landscape designers SWA Group, is clearly a bravura performance but for me it almost doesn't come off as the overall impression is of a landscape that is a little too well-mannered. Still, having two local landscapes to teach us such beautiful and useful lessons so eloquently is something that we should be grateful for. Happy new year.