Words Centre Director
Photography Erin Barry
“Putting the garden together was both exhilarating and joyful. At the same time it was one of the most challenging things we have ever taken on as a Centre.”
The whole experience was powered by sheer hard work fuelled by the one-minded belief that the Centre could take a dark, unwelcoming and neglected space and transform it into something remarkable for all to enjoy. The project, which also included the Warren and Whitfield Street site, was a much needed respite from the more mundane day-to-day operational demands of running the Fitzrovia Community Centre (FCC). Towards the end of the project we were up against the clock, working seven day weeks in order to complete all work on time.
From the beginning, we knew that it was important to create something that matched the high standards of the building. And in the end what we achieved is a village fête-come-English country garden with just a smidge of Alice in Wonderland’s ‘Mad Hatters Tea Party’. What set the project apart was the need to give recognition and visibility to something that deserved to be cared for whilst having a clear vision of what the space could be.
The important starting point was to harness the potential of local talent and resources in the area, capturing the spirit of Fitzrovia. As a result, over 100 people were involved in putting together the garden; this of course required a high degree of interpersonal competence. As a Centre, we wanted to help people to reconnect with what was around them and discover what inspired them about the neighbourhood. “Engaging a community is a challenge. Good communities are created, they don’t happen by chance. People come into a community often and need to realise they’re not checking into an area, they’re checking into a family. I am always curious to understand who and what creates a good community – is it the people from the safe environment, the perfect environment or the imperfect environment? It’s a diverse mixture of backgrounds that create it. Everybody ultimately transcends into the creator category of a good community; that’s the challenge for us as a Centre.” Edward Turner, Fitzrovia Community Centre Chair, explains.
While our objective was to create a peaceful haven in the heart of the West End it was anything but a peaceful process. Fraught with setbacks and let downs and disappointments, each day presented a new challenge, but this only served to bolster our enthusiasm, unleash our creativity and embrace the extraordinary that is Fitzrovia.
The ability to participate and make it a shared challenge is the essence of collaboration which is what community is all about. The choices we make to get involved, to be engaged and contribute in some way encourages the heart, you get drawn in and the experience makes you want to do more. Here at the Centre we like to think that we pay attention to what we believe is important. What the garden project provided us with was an opportunity to build something in the community with the community and for the community. It is something we can say we achieved together.
The Middlesex Hospital closed almost a decade ago, and with it the former nurses’ quarters, John Astor House (JAH). The eastern corner of the building was refurbished and reopened as the Fitzrovia Community Centre around 2 years ago on the back of section 106 funding. JAH was sold last year to leading housing association, Genesis.
We also wanted to set an example of cooperation and reciprocity not simply amongst those that use the facilities at the Centre but with people who work in the area, with local tradespeople, housing associations, community organisations, residents, developers, businesses and creative industries. Pivotal to our success was the on-going support from Derwent London and Soundings, the donation of planters and support with the irrigation system. Input from Sir Robert McAlpine, Kier and Knight Harwood, who undertook the masonry and construction work, Metro Bank were responsible for the bulk of planting. The children from All Souls Primary School had a hand with the design and parents from the school produced the bunting. Additional funds were also provided by Circle 33, horticultural hours from Westminster Adult Education (WAES) in the form of Clive McEwan, and historian Mike Pentelow assisted with the local history element.
Creating the garden itself was the easy task. Measuring in at just 12.5m x 6.9m, the Centre knew that in order to make the most out of the small space it would be essential to make sure every millimetre counts. Sitting in the shadow of the BT tower, we were also guided by the nuances of the existing buildings; the outside wall of the disused swimming pool, the flat roof of the electrical sub-station, the grand Georgian windows and the huge party wall with its strong vertical dimensions. These marked out the boundaries of the courtyard. From within the Centre itself, we wanted to make most of the bridge at the top of the stairs which now allows for a perfect vantage point from which to capture a sweeping view of the entire courtyard. We wanted to achieve intimacy, calm and a sense of seclusion.
To the side of the electrical sub-station, hidden from view, stands a small sentry shed imported from Germany, which is perfect for the gardening equipment. At the base of the steps that lead up to the disused swimming pool sits the decommissioned Smeg fridge which will house a small outdoor library. An uncomplicated and low maintenance design, the copper topped gazebo with its easy elegance dominates the centre of the space giving form and resonance to the structure of the garden, offering both shelter in the rain and use as a buggy park, which is very practical. In 1877 one in every three children in the area died before the age of five. Disease spread quickly as a result of overcrowding. While those threats no longer remain, the development of children and family services is important for both the Centre and the future of Fitzrovia as a residential area.
Here and there are classical touches: the mural adds a focus of interest, the impact of the Moroccan water feature visually extended by under-planting with Cordyline. The mosaic table gives a nod to the Romans who invaded in 43 AD, nearly 2,000 years ago, and built the road where Oxford Street is now. On the roof of the sub-station stands a sheep. A donation from the British Library, it is a reminder that the area of Fitzrovia was once pasture land. There is a surprise element that works well, a 21st century urban fox. With an eclectic mix of furniture, the garden is enveloped in swathes of bunting.
Much of the garden is frost free in the winter, and cool in the summer. Its size and scale made it easier to invest in good quality plants. Suppliers including Homebase provided much of the larger evergreens and specimen plants. A simple mixed planting of small trees, magnolia and acer, and shrubs like the large leaved false castor oil plant (Fastia Japonica), red robin and bay, mingled with thoughtfully combined herbaceous perennials, the general tone is restful and subdued. Small beds were constructed to provide balance to the oversized planters which are assembled to create different levels and frame the enclosed space. The whole area is now carpeted with an immaculate lawn.
“It was a case of people giving up some of their time or lending their own particular skill/product to the project that wouldn’t take up much of their time or cost them much at all. Had we gone out into the market and looked for this, from a financial point of view the project never would’ve got off the ground. The businesses involved have gotten as much out of the project as we have – those involved wanted to be more active in their local community,” explains Edward.
To the back of the garden, along the wall of the disused swimming pool is a topiary garden of bay and yew under-planted by blue lobelia and to the left, behind the up-cycled sofa, the 6m high bamboo provides a partial screen. Large structural tropical plants, such as the Mediterranean fan palm and Chinese windmill palm sit comfortably with silver variegated holly and other evergreens. Elsewhere there are hostas, ferns, euphorbia, hardy and ornamental sage. Cascades of colour are provided by annuals which will die back to allow for seasonal planting.
It is hoped that the garden will evolve in time, a goal that will require the continued support of volunteers to maintain it. It is also available for hire. Towards the end of the summer when the nights grow shorter, the bunting will be replaced by 1000 Led lights in the autumn. The Centre also hopes to develop a pop-up café. The first Indoor/Outdoor exhibition is due to take place in the spring of next year when we will be introducing ArtFitzrovia. At present, on display is a photographic exhibition by Julian Foy featuring local tailor Paul Kitsaros of Cleveland Street.
Over 250 people came out to support the opening, bringing new people to the Centre. Having been awarded the initial community grant of £30,000 from Derwent London we never imagined how successful the project would be.