Landscape Journal - Summer 2020: Bringing nature into the city

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Phin Harper

Not all key workers wear scrubs It’s the simple things that matter most, we say. A stroll in the woods. The satisfaction of hanging a perfectly horizontal shelf. Nailing the proportion of milk to tea in a morning brew. Rustling up an especially good curry. We have often declared that the trappings of technology, consumerism and high carbon society are frivolous noise — that true contentment can be found simply in the pages of a good book read in the shade of a leafy tree. For a nourishing life, we insisted, simplicity was the best option. But suddenly simplicity has become the only option. COVID-19 has put an end to almost all complex cultural life. Multi-screen megaplex cinemas, grand theatres, humble lidos, gyms, spas, malls, clubs and pubs stand empty as our many pious remarks about the virtues of simplicity are put to the ultimate test. Is the wholesome romance of an amble in the park somewhat subdued when it is part of a government-mandated exercise regime? Is growing your own tomatoes less satisfying when it is done to stave off the boredom of being furloughed throughout a national lockdown? There is nothing romantic about COVID-19. When the hour came, many of our leaders were criminally slow to react and must, in time, be held to account, but amid the turmoil, there are moments and social changes to note and celebrate. People are reacting to the pandemic in different ways, but a recurring theme I’ve observed is the simple pleasure of stumbling upon unexplored landscapes close to home. For a nation whose slow and overpriced rail network can make it feel easier to visit another country than another county, the lockdown has helped many to discover lush green spaces, weird public art, remarkable views and dynamic architecture they never knew were on their doorstep. When lockdown is lifted and we bust back into public life, once again packing football stands 14

1. The community garden at Ernö Goldfinger’s Glenkerry House, a brutalist housing co-operative in Poplar where the writer is currently locked down. © Phin Harper


and mosh pits, I suspect we will do so with a heightened appreciation of the precious parks and pocket public spaces which have been a lifeline, especially to those without the luxury of gardens or balconies. For three decades, the charity I work for, Open House, has thrown wide the doors of thousands of spaces, giving free access to London’s best architecture and landscapes to 2.8 million people since it was founded. We have done so because we believe that cities only truly flourish when they are open, not to a privileged few, but to all. Now, at a time of lockdowns and closures, there has never been a greater need for that mission. Throughout this pandemic, finding ways for meaningful openness to continue to thrive and grow in a city that is physically closed is a critical part of our agenda. I believe that all landscapes from the simplest flower bed to the grandest civic park, and the people who make and maintain them, are crucial allies in that fight and will be a huge part of what we

will celebrate in the next Open House festival. Not all key workers wear scrubs — some push wheelbarrows! Open House has been hit hard by COVID-19 which has stopped almost all our income. In the past we’ve rarely asked directly for support and have worked hard to keep the Open House festival free for all, but in this challenging time we need your help. We’re asking everyone who loves Open House and can afford it to make a small monthly donation, to support us through the pandemic by becoming an Open House Friend. We’re making some great rewards to say thank you to everyone who signs up too! Thank you. Phineas Harper is an architecture critic and curator. He is director of Open City, the charity behind the Open House festival, and was chief curator of the 2019 Oslo Architecture Biennale.