March 8, 2021

The sands have shifted

duncan denley

Last month Duncan Denley, managing director of desert INK landscape architects, highlighted the case for designing local. In this issue, he says local consultants can replace the ‘starchitects’ and o­ffer clients a truly international-standard product.

There was, of course, a time when clients were forced to look overseas when seeking landscape designs of a truly international standard. Landscape was largely limited to extensive lawns, punctuated by date palms and a scattering of brightly coloured bedding plants to add a touch of colour.

Landscape design was essentially a horticultural exercise, with work carried out by agricultural engineers and vast teams of gardeners. It was a process of laying out patterns over the landscape, expressed by a handful of hardy species. In the 1980s and 1990s, welltravelled clients started to realise there were companies that could deliver something more. Clients were delighted by carefully composed streetscapes enlivened by landscape design, parks delivering enriching experiences and, ultimately, the process of adding value through landscape architecture. These consultancies were invited to the Middle East and the profession of landscape architecture started to enjoy recognition in the region. A similar process played out in architecture and engineering, with American and European companies in particular being invited to make their mark in the rapidly developing region.

With the smell of opportunity in the air, some of these consultants settled in the region, opening small practices with big ideas – desert INK’s own umbrella group was one such case, setting up business in 1988. In the past 30 years, companies such as Desert Group have been combining truly international-standard design with local knowledge. They understand local materials, plants, government processes and culture, while having their finger on the pulse of international design.

We are seeing these practices come of age, creating many of the landmark projects for which the region is famous. Travel, as the adage goes, broadens the mind and there are few regions in the world whose inhabitants enjoy such an exposure to international travel. Gulf-based architects are very aware of what is going on in the rest of the world, from new technologies and materials to design philosophies and directions.

Our plea to Gulf clients is this: before flying in the ‘big guns’ from overseas at great expense, check the credentials of local consultants. You’ll find you can make huge financial savings while receiving a design in context to its physical and cultural surroundings. Whether a contractor or designer, we’ve all seen it – an overseas consultant arrives to impose ideas and materials which are familiar to them on their home turf.

Our clients then find themselves importing vast quantities of exotic stone at great cost or lumbered with wildly expensive maintenance regimes caused by unsuitable material choices. Most landscape contractors here can recount stories of how they were expected to create lavender hedges, cherry tree walks or rose gardens which the international consultant sold to the client. My own experience involves ‘starchitects’ insisting on black granite benches in an urban streetscape. Now installed, it is possible to fry an egg on these benches while sitting is out of the question. Unfortunately, it is hard to interpret such foreign landscape expressions in the region.

As professionals, it is part of our duty to clients to stay abreast of new technologies, materials, processes and trends, and we must travel, read and see how we can take these ideas further in our own local context. Our clients are starting to recognise that good ideas don’t need to be outsourced. Now is the time for the local consultant to be entrusted with the signature projects and, before long, we will have the rest of the world looking to us for inspiration.

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