In an unpredictable world, where even five year plans come off as wildly arrogant or absurdly presumptuous, Kim Wilkie is a long-term thinker. “One hundred years, minimum,” he says of how far ahead he thinks.
Probably Britain’s best known landscape architect, Wilkie has devised a 100-year plan for the landscape along London’s Thames River from Kew to Hampton Garden, the river’s most treasured stretch. He’s also added abstract sculptural steps—contemporary takes on the country’s many burial mounds and other ancient earthworks—to the estates of grand country houses; re-invented the courtyard garden at the Victoria and Albert Museum; and has set about re-imagining the garden square at the controversial Chelsea Barracks development, a scheme expected to be worth around three billion pounds on 13 acres of super-prime London real estate. An original plan for the site by architect Richard Rodgers was effectively torpedoed by Prince Charles. The Prince, an architectural nostalgist, objected to what he saw as the over-strident Modernism of Rodgers’ designs. And he made those feelings clear in a letter to the Qatari funders who were developing the site. Rodgers was quickly dropped.
Wilkie, now 60, keeps a smart pied-à-terre on Jermyn Street in St. James and runs a large farm in Hampshire, championing sustainable agriculture. He was turned on to the landscaping arts after studying history at Oxford and headed to Berkeley to study at the College of Environmental Design. Wilkie, Prince Charles-approved or not, is no traditionalist. His designs are defiantly contemporary. But he is charming, erudite and a bit of a classicist, peppering his conversation with mentions of Virgil, Voltaire and Rousseau, as well dropping the occasional F-bomb. Soft-spoken and coming off more gentleman farmer than in-demand designer, he seems to have developed the required skills to assuage and connect with the various stakeholders involved in grand public projects. If he is an ardent environmentalist, he also understands that a successful outside space can become a huge draw for a public museum or gallery, pulling in visitors who might otherwise steer clear. He also knows that he has to think beyond electoral cycles and current fashions and demands. “No public space is without future obligation,” he says. Wilkie has to think long-term—“geologically”—not just about growth and regrowth but erosions and shifting strata. In fact, his latest and most high-profile project specifically asks him to landscape about geological time.
The Natural History Museum is the most-beloved of South Kensington’s enlightening attractions, a terra-cotta confection dotted with relief sculptures of animal and plant life. Designed to accommodate the British Museum’s natural history haul—a growing collection highlighting Britain’s imperial ambitions and the Victorian gentleman’s taste for exploration, adventure and outright plunder—it was opened in 1881 and set on 15 acres of grounds. “I love it as a building,” Wilkie says. “It is so specific and beautifully carved, inside and out. And the philosophic and scientific subjects it deals with are still so powerful and evolving so fast.” The landscaping though—“plus ça change” as Wilkie calls it—was a budgetary afterthought and since opening, the museum’s grounds have (barely) functioned as unloved and oddly sunken, patches of grass hosting the occasional Fashion Week extravaganza.
Working with architect Níall McLaughlin, Wilkie won a competition to redesign the grounds, promising to create both pleasant public space and take the museum’s educational mission outside. The new plan adds a retaining wall on the west side of the building that “tells the geological story of the site, with all the strata represented in the wall.”
Landscaping around the wall will use vegetation from each distinct geological era, from the pre-Cambrian to the present, which may be trickier than it sounds given that London once enjoyed a far more temperate climate. “During the Jurassic period it was really warm here and there were hippopotami in the Thames,” laughs Wilkie. A replica of the museum’s most famous exhibit, Dippy the Diplodocus, will take his place in the grounds munching on Jurassic fern. (The original Dippy, a 70-foot plaster cast of an American Diplodocus, was first unveiled in the museum in 1905 and long welcomed visitors in the main hall. It was sent out on a two-year tour earlier this year and its prize spot taken by an actual blue whale skeleton). “The brief was incredibly specific,” says Wilkie. “They are getting six million visitors a year so the idea was to absorb people into the grounds and for it to be an outside gallery for visitors from the moment they enter. So even if you have to queue for 15 minutes, it will be exciting and educational.”
Alfred Waterhouse’s original design for the building keeps carvings of extinct species on the west side and extant species on the east side, a deliberate epistemological split. “It was built just as Darwin’s ideas were beginning to be accepted,” Wilkie explains. “Charles Owen, the director of the museum at the time, accepted extinction but he didn’t go along with Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Wilkie is dividing the landscape along similar grounds.
“Waterhouse’s principles of the building like extinction, geology, deep time, all of those things, are being reflected in the landscape,” explains Wilkie. “It was wonderful trying to get all of those elements together in a coherent process that would not be so esoteric that it lost people, and that it would also be sufficiently sculptural that it would appeal beyond children.”
So while the west side of the grounds look at what has been, the east side turns to the present and future. “There will be three terraces that look at things like air and soil and water and what that means in the biggest city in Europe,” Wilkie says, insisting that as the museum contributes to the very extant debate about evolution and extinction and human intervention—it employs 300 scientists and holds 80 million specimens—so the grounds must tackle current concerns and enshrine contemporary thinking.
“There has been a temptation to make natural history feel like it should be a rural nature walk and the trouble with that is it divorces us from the issues that really affect cities,” says Wilkie, explaining that the sculptural terraces will explore future survival in cities. “Parks are seen as beautiful places but they also have to work hard at cleaning air, filtering water and providing enough good soil and habitat to keep an active wildlife going—all of those things are really urgent urban problems. The air in London is really bad but it’s trying to make all those things explicit without it being preachy or so dry that you give up.”
He hopes to take this mantra to Oman where he’s designing an entire city “on a patch of desert near the airport” outside Muscat. Wilkie spent part of his childhood in Iraq and he has a love and fascination for desert landscapes. There, a deep ravine snakes all the way through the site, where he’ll employ 200 kilometers of terraced agriculture through the entire city—feeding it and cleaning its water simultaneously. “There is a thing that kicks in that’s just about human beings on a beleaguered planet,” he says. “And the delights that people take in water and soil.”