Connecting back to Nature

Later this month, environmentalists, property developers and planners will turn their minds, however fleetingly, to the concept of greening the city.  The focus will be the first London National Park City Week, which kicks off on 21 July to encourage communities and businesses to enjoy the outdoors pursuits London has to offer. Led by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the initiative resonates with an international drive to connect more with nature and introduce more green space into urban areas.

This is a welcome bid to re-engage Londoners and beyond with what sustainability expert Dan Epstein of Useful Projects describes as ‘a world we are slowly destroying’.  But outdoor pursuits aren’t the only way of fuelling public engagement with nature. Design can play a subtle, yet important role in bringing nature to people.

Our work at Thomas.Matthews is invariably inspired by nature. One of the most celebrated examples is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, a waterside nature reserve and garden destination spanning over 100 hectares of reclaimed land. Masterminded by landscape architect Grant Associates, the project was realised through collaboration with TM, architects, exhibition designers and engineers.

Grant Associates’s masterplan was based on Singapore’s national flower, the orchid. For the visual identity, our design team took their cue from nature, drawing patterns from local flora and fauna – ‘the stars of the garden’. The dragonfly was a particular hero, exquisitely crafted as a filigree reminder of Chinese paper-cutting. The deep purple of the indigenous mangosteen fruit was chosen as the base colour for the identity, with bright colours inspired by the garden’s tropical flowers used in flashy discretion on iconic park wayfinding.

That was some ten years ago. In 2012, we looked again to nature to create the identity and wayfinding for The Forum, the University of Exeter’s stunning centerpiece building.  Designed by architect Wilkinson Eyre, previous collaborators on Gardens by the Bay, the £48m university building is surrounded by gardens and an arboretum. Our designs for the brand of the building grew from its natural setting and architecture.

Working with Gennaro Senatore, a research engineer at University College London and Expedition Engineering, we created an intricate brand expression pattern. This pattern was the output of an algorithm programmed to mimic the natural forms found in the arboretum, and it influenced the bespoke typeface and icon set for the project. Our chosen colour palette of vivid green, blue and purple grounded in deep copper echoes the building’s context and architectural materials. These branding elements enabled us to set the building within its landscape and re-iterate the link with nature which is inherent to the experience of The Forum space.

More recently, the National Trust asked us to review and re-design signage across The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland.  At the heart of the project was a visitor’s centre designed by Henegen Peng Architects. The architecture of the visitors’ centre is inspired by the local landscape – a coastline featuring ancient hexagonal basalt stones, agricultural vistas and cliff-side walks. We reflected this, and based our designs on the rugged rock forms, choosing green and grey colourways to link back to the landscape.

Andrew Grant of Grant Associates, a firm believer in EO Wilson’s ‘Half Earth Theory’ advocates that we need to ‘rethink the Earth as a garden’.  Grant encourages us to overlay that thinking on to a city like London, and it doing so it will make us think very differently.

London National Park City Week will hopefully seed that thinking among more architects, planners and property developers. We hope they also acknowledge how design can meld the built environment with nature within placemaking and engage people in a delightful and memorable way.

London National Park City Week runs across the capital from 21-29 July.

Collaborative by Nature, an exhibition highlighting 20 years’ collaboration between Thomas.Matthews, Grant Associates and FCBSStudios, runs on weekdays between 9am and 5.30pm until 27 July at FCBStudios, 20 Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RG.

Post written by Lynda Relph-Knight
Photo by Yuiizaa September


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