Interview: Joh Bates on Hospital Rooms

published on 11 October 2016

Lou Stoppard interviews landscape architect Joh Bates about the garden she created at The Phoenix Unit as part of the Hospital Rooms project.

Lou Stoppard interviews landscape architect Joh Bates about the garden she created at The Phoenix Unit as part of the Hospital Rooms project.

Garden in the Phoenix Unit courtyard by Joh Bates

Lou Stoppard: Tell me about your background and how the project came about.

Joh Bates: I was brought up in Dorset and was very lucky to have access to nature and a beautiful landscape. Quite early on I remember coming to London and thinking, 'God, not everyone has this!' I loved the energy and grittiness of London, but there are areas that lack greenery and access to nature. At this point, I felt determined that everyone should be entitled to beautiful green spaces, but I didn't know that landscape architecture even existed. I wanted to learn about plants, so I went off and did an apprenticeship. I loved it, it was so hands on and I’m grateful to have had that year. When I came back to London, I started a landscape architecture course and worked on a new Tudor garden at Hampton Court for the landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan. I've been working as a landscape architect since and the jobs vary, for example, designing the landscape around a dementia/3rd age home at the same time as doing installations to accompany music and art exhibitions.

LS: It's interesting you're doing the dementia home as a lot of the people involved with the Hospital Rooms project have never done anything like this - where they are making work that is going to be put in a hospital type environment. Do you find that you engage more with these types of audiences?

JB: I think the biggest difference is that this was more face-to-face. With the dementia homes I've done, you don't really get to spend time with the patients, it's much more about the client, whereas this was the first time that I'd actually walked into the hospital and had a conversation with the patients. So that very much informed the design of the garden, it was very much for them. I got the chance to listen to them, not just to ask, 'What do you want in the garden?', but rather see the way they interact and move. I noticed that they didn’t go outside at all -  I don’t think there was very much inspiration to, so I thought we should think about how we get them back out there. They are apparently using it now, and that is what it's about. The biggest difference with this project - something that I really want to keep - is that hands on approach with the plants and the people because usually with landscape architecture, on the large projects, you're not the one digging the holes.

I've been very careful to say that it's not a therapeutic garden because I fundamentally think that all gardens are therapeutic. Nature is therapeutic.

LS: You mentioned earlier the idea that everyone should be entitled to beauty. Is that one of the things that drew you to working on this project, with the space being so sparse before?

JB: When I saw the space beforehand I thought it was pretty dreary. The walls were dominant, the planting had died, everything looked grey and there was only a tiny umbrella which the service users stood under for their cigarette breaks. There was no colour, no change in season. A garden is a bit like a room, you make it your own. That informed the plan – the garden is an explosion of colour and quite fluid, there's lots of self-seeding plants that will move with the people and respond to them.

LS: From the way you speak about it, it sounds like you definitely think there is a therapeutic value to beauty.

JB: I think there is, but I've been very careful to say that it's not a therapeutic garden because I fundamentally think that all gardens are therapeutic. Nature is therapeutic and I think there is a joy in seeing beauty, especially if you're constantly surrounded by austere, quite dark and dreary settings - that's going to affect your mood. Because the space has these very heavy brick walls, it needs something to lighten it up. It needs seasons and change. Before there was a lot of really heavy, dead shrubs and I thought we needed to get something moving and colour. Now there is airiness by planting grasses, climbers on the wall and bright flowerheads that change with the months.

LS: Tell me more about the installation, it's fascinating to hear about the choices.

JB: A lot of the plants used may be considered weeds, but I think they are fitting for what was needed. I said to the hospital from day one that it's not going to be a Chelsea Show garden, it's not going to be perfect on the first day. The thing about most pieces of art is that you can put them up when their finished and they remain finished, whereas once I plant the garden, that’s just the starting point. It takes time to develop and it never finishes, so I've personally chosen many self-seeding plants because I knew that we didn't necessarily have the money to make an instant 'wow' impact, as the idea is that they would naturally spread themselves. Another really important thing was climbers on the wall, so we chose self-clinging climbers to avoid having to put trellis wires up, like climbing hydrangeas. I'm a bit careful about calling plants 'sensory', but I purposefully thought to include scent. I've also included a wispy grass that trembles and waves. It all has different textures, but they weren't picked because they are 'sensory' plants. There's rosemary, but not a lot of edible plants because I don't think they’ll get eaten. I don't know how I ended up looking at Van Gogh, but some of his best work was from the garden when he was at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. I just thought, there are some incredibly talented and intelligent people at this hospital - what is going to inspire them? I love the idea that the garden might provide inspiration to draw, to paint or that perhaps when they're in a workshop they can take an object they have created and put it into the garden. Again, that's why I wanted it to be theirs rather than me going, 'This is what is has to be like, now use it.' So that was my starting block, that image of Van Gogh, how nature was an inspiration and a form of escapism for him.

LS: That's really interesting, especially in the context of the project as a whole because it does mean that the space is going to be filled further with beautiful artworks that will motivate and inspire. What you've provided is a space in which the residents can draw direct inspiration, so say they look at an amazing Nick Knight photograph, it motivates them to want to create and gives them somewhere to draw inspiration from. It's almost like a full circle to the project.

JB: I know it sounds daft but it's quite stuffy in the hospital environment, it's important to have the freedom to take a step outside, whether that is to have a smoke or just to sit. Sometimes that in itself can be quite therapeutic, to step outside and take air, but you've got to give people a reason to do it. If it's really dark and dingy, no one really wants to take a step outside. The pergola I think is very important for that, it's not the most attractive structure but there's a real level of functionality, robustness and security. It's big enough that you can sit there even if it's pouring down with rain and that's important. These patients are in there for quite a significant portion of their time, so in a way it's an escape from the building and the indoors.

LS: It is touching to hear you talk about how you want it to grow and develop over time and how it's their space. You must be intrigued to see both how it develops but also how their role in it changes. Would you be keen for the patients to get involved and tend to the garden?

JB: Very much so. I'm going back to do workshops and that again is something very important. For me, coming along and doing this garden means one thing but they have to make it their own. I really hope I can try and translate what people want through knowledge of plants but then you have to see what happens. I don't know how many of the people have experience of using a garden or have visited landscapes like a bluebell wood, or a coastline so the workshop will start with just going through images of landscapes from riverside to mountain, to a back garden or windowbox. It's just running them through lots of images and exercises to ask, 'What’s your dream garden?', which sounds really basic but I think it encourages a bit of dreaming. Then after that, the idea is to talk about the garden, about watering and weeding and I just want to engage them so that they see that there is a level of care. I think that's important because sometimes it is quite healthy to take responsibility for something and the rewards are fantastic when you see stuff grow. What's interesting is that there were a few people who have worked as gardeners and the response after the project, right at the end of the day was a big thumbs up which was really fantastic. Apparently they have been out in the garden a lot, so I’m hoping the momentum remains.

LS: It is a political project in some way, it makes you think about the order of things, the way that society treats people who have mental health difficulties but also the kind of opportunities available to them. Has that been something you've been interested in engaging with?

JB: I want to see that they have access to green space. There is a bit of land just to the side of The Phoenix Unit that has been sold off, so the views to the wider landscape are eventually going to be a brick wall. Ultimately, it would be fantastic to say that from now on these spaces are going to be designed with a certain aesthetic and designed with gardening workshops or art workshops. I don’t know much about schizophrenia, but I think a big issue that I saw was apathy. I'm not saying you can cure people by getting them outside, but I think that stimulating them can do no harm. Distracting whatever is going on mentally with an activity, with a view, with imagination, I don’t think that can be a bad thing. Everyone has the right to beauty, even if you're 90 years old and you can't leave your bed. The view as you're sitting in your bed should be so that you can look out and still see seasons, even if there is a tree right outside your room and that’s the only thing you can see.  It can be the smallest gesture, it could just be daffodils, but ultimately, I think we can sometimes forget that it's the simpler things that are the better things.

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