THE IRISH TIMES
The following article appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday January 17, 1998
Design with a Diplomatic Core
To be honest, some kinds of garden design leave me cold, but I have to admit to being impressed by Peter Stam’s elegant work at the Dutch Embassy on Dublin’s Merrion Road. Somehow, while having to be mindful of factors such as security, car-parking, vast over-hanging conifers and indelible pre-existing features – including an enormous cruciform pergola – he has managed to produce a garden that has the right ambassadorial flavour. And in a true spirit of diplomacy, there is something to please everyone.
There are froths of flowers for the sentimentalists, stern lines for the masterful types, neat logical associations for the bureaucrats, sitting areas for the socialites and enough rare and interesting plants to keep the most discerning plantsperson busy.
But please, don’t go causing a traffic jam outside the embassy trying to get a look. Winter still has the brand-new garden in its grip, and anyway, all that is visible from the road is a cool formal space which musters as much dignity as is possible while having to provide launch pads for several diplomatic cars.
The real interest is around the back, where the sizable garden is hemmed in by immense trees: with tall poplars and griselinia on one side, and Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) – a sort of big-house equivalent of the Leyland’s cypress that surrounds properties all over Ireland – towering over the back wall.
Recent refurbishments at the embassy added an airy atrium at the rear of the 1920s building. The new open-plan extension can be pressed into service as an entertainment space, and it opens out into a large patio straddled by a leviathan concrete-and-timber pergola.
Every design project has its challenges, and Peter Stam gets full marks for the way in which he graciously embraced this grey-pillared mammoth – he had no part in its conception or form – and made his landscape flow around it. Instead of trying to distract attention from the obstinate structure (about which he is far too polite to say a negative word) he has obligingly based the design of the garden on it, echoing its lines and the curve of the underlying patio again and again in his plan.
(Which prompts me to offer a little timely advice to those thinking about major house-and-garden reconstructions: why not appoint a garden designer at the same time as the architect so that the two can work hand-in-hand, rather than one having to adopt and adapt to the other’s ideas.)
Peter’s design continues the bold thrust of the pergola in the form of a straight gravel path which shoots to the end of the garden. There a curved hornbeam hedge and an arc of Kilkenny marble seating repeat the contours of the patio. The path is lined with slim, upright yews (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata Robusta’) which carry on the parade of the pergola’s concrete pillars – their cold grey nudity soon to be decently and greenly clad in a covering of small-leaved ivy (Hedera helix ‘Baltica’).
Concentric near-circles of soil beds and grass flow out from the patio like ripples from a pebble thrown into the water. And around the perimeter walls, Peter has created a kind of miniature woodland which makes a nicely proportioned under-storey beneath the mature poplars and cypresses that look down from the neighbouring property. Semi-mature trees, up to 6 metres in height – including maple, southern beech and the golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) – were imported to give instant presence. And along the north-facing wall, under the poplars, there is a mini-jungle of tree ferns and bamboos.
These were supplied by Peter from his own nursery in Waterford, where he specialises in exotics, including about 80 different varieties of bamboo. Peter, who is originally from Rotterdam and who worked there as a garden designer (after forsaking a “promising career” in the bank), moved to Ireland about ten years ago. While building up his design business here, he started the nursery, rescuing bamboos from old gardens around the country.
There are more bamboos and ornamental grasses in the beds near the house, including the yellow-and-green striped Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillonis’, one the first bamboos to be introduced into Europe from China. The grasses, bamboos and taller perennials, like the lovely Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’), rise above swathes of shorter herbaceous perennials and lead your eye into the outlying “woodland”.
Or so I’ve been convinced by the persuasive Peter Stam and his sets of blue-prints, for although the new garden has been planted for a month or two, it is still wearing its stripped-down winter livery. Which makes me appreciate that the job of the garden designer or landscape architect is not an easy one: what you see on paper is merely one man’s or woman’s vision of what the garden will look like when it reaches maturity, usually in about three years. As Peter says, “You are really selling the customer an illusion.”
And in this case, I think it is a very fine one.