Hubert Burda Media

Very Contrary

Gardening wizards Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam are planting the seeds ahead of their Singapore debut.

If the coming Singapore Garden Festival in August is any indication, the horticultural arts is experiencing its renaissance. For the first time in five editions, the biennial festival will stage an outdoor component — on the coastal banks of Gardens by the Bay — featuring the works of top landscape designers, who between them have swept all the major awards at expositions, such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the Philadelphia International Flower Show.
On the roll call are Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, first time invitees of the festival and founders of Wilson McWilliam Studio, the design practice behind the perfumed rose garden at The Savill Garden, the ornamental park approximately 6.4km from Britain’s Windsor Castle. So engrossed by their swirls of rose beds was Her Majesty the Queen, that the usually by-the-schedule monarch stayed twice as long than she had intended to when she opened the garden in 2010 — a compliment to the designers, for sure.
Now fresh off the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May, where they have for the second year presented a Cloudy Bay Garden (named for the New Zealand winery), the duo will present in Singapore a take on the Sacred Grove. An apt concept for the dense yet green city, one layer of the double-layer installation will be lifted off the ground by a forest of copper poles. A contrast between the manmade and the natural, fine aerial roots will also cascade down from the top, as will rainwater into a decorative pool surrounded by a “grassy and flowery” meadow, revealed the pair during a study trip.
“Across many different religions is a sense of place that can be incredibly important, spiritual or even sacred; a place that might not be incredibly complex or decorative, but which beauty may come from a combination of trees or a certain quality of light,” said Wilson, the former chairman of the UK’s Society of Garden Designers.
The pair’s use of copper poles to buttress the “floating” canopy is similar in concept to their 2013 Cloudy Bay Garden — which was awarded an RHS Silver Gilt — except their Singapore grove is to be realised on a far larger scale. “We’ve got an ongoing language that we have been exploring creatively and [the Sacred Grove] lends itself to that. We’re pushing the language further,” explained studio co-founder McWilliam.
Like Wilson McWilliam, 28 of the 33 designers participating at the Singapore Garden Festival this year are doing so for the first time. The festival’s relocation from the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre to Gardens by the Bay also means that height limits for structures have been raised threefold to a maximum of 9m, allowing for more impressive displays.
Both trained landscape architects, the two men have together won 15 national and international design awards since their 2008 partnership. Wilson, a well-known author and garden writer for The Daily Telegraph, is founding director of The London College of Garden Design on the grounds of Kew Gardens. The younger McWilliam was a former graphic designer and art director-turned-garden conjurer, who made a detour to the profession as he wanted to get into something “more grounded and holistic; something I felt was of social worth or interest”.
“We don’t perceive what we do as just garden design. It’s very hard to separate what we do from art, design, architecture [and] sculpture,” McWillliam said. Their installation for Cityscapes London, for example, distilled the constituent parts embodied within their original Cloudy Bay Garden, suspending elements from the ceiling, such as stones and flower planters, under which bowls were placed to represent the future. Many of their other works are gardens for high-end private residences — a segment of the market the pair hopes to corner in Asia as well.
Already, their Singapore study trip has seen them wandering around the island, from marvelling at Princess vines at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, to touring district 10, discovering black-and-white estates and soaking in the atmosphere of Little India (and tucking into fish head curry).
“Although we prioritise looking at gardens and landscapes [when we travel], we also look at everything [else]. We want to walk across a city and get a feel of how people move about in their spaces, what the interesting details are and what the entire experience is like,” McWillliam shared. “I sometimes say to my students that once you are a designer, you always are a designer; you never stop looking around at everything,” Wilson added.