Planning a Downtown plaza in the British countryside


By Melissa Robbins

LONDON— There are few places in Lower Manhattan where a person can sit on a park bench and imagine himself elsewhere. The sights and sounds and smells of the city are too prominent and familiar to ignore.

But down at Hanover Square, on a quarter-acre of land designated for the British Memorial Garden, Julian and Isabel Bannerman are planning to cultivate a bit of the English countryside amid the skyscrapers and concrete.

The husband-and-wife team, who are based in Bristol, England, were selected from among six prestigious British landscape architects to design the memorial in honor of the 67 Britons who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Known for creating classical gardens with a contemporary twist, the Bannermans approached this project by thinking about things that would evoke a memory of home for U.K. citizens living abroad.

Embracing elements of both noble and common gardens, the Bannermans hope to create a space that feels intimate and comforting to visitors.

“I hope they will find it familiar,” said Isabel Bannerman, who views the installation as more than a collection of plants and flowers. “I hope that it will get used and loved, and therefore looked after.”

The garden, which will be situated on the triangular plot between Old Slip and Pearl St., will incorporate stone and greenery that are native to the British landscape. Box and yew figure heavily in the design, as well as fragrant, blossoming philadelphus. The space will feature a tall topiary, surrounded by winding paths of Scottish Caithness paving and curvy handmade benches of English limestone.

“The thing about topiary is that you see it in ancient castles as well as in suburban gardens,” Isabel said in a telephone interview.

“There are all sorts of things that you could see in a very humble garden in England or the very highest garden,” adds Julian, who has worked in partnership with his wife for over twenty years. “You see these elements in sort of the good and the great.”

And the Bannermans, who were selected for the project by a committee of representatives from the British consulate, the New York City Parks Department, Community Board 1 and the Downtown Alliance, have had a hand in creating many of the great modern garden installations in Britain. They have designed grounds for such noted locations as Leeds Castle in Kent, Knepp Castle in West Sussex and Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. They have undertaken multiple commissions from the British Royal Family, and earlier this year the Bannermans added to their litany of awards a Royal Warrant by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for their ongoing work at his Highgrove Estate in Gloucestershire. The American-born philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty, who passed away in April, chose to be buried in the garden the Bannermans designed for his Buckinghamshire Estate.

Lower Manhattan’s memorial garden will likely exhibit many stylistic similarities to the architects’ former works. However, the husband is careful to point out, “It’s really it’s own thing.”

“I think what we’re quite good at is creating spaces with a very strong mood to them,” said Isabel. But because this garden addresses a tragedy as immense and horrific as the Sept. 11 attacks, she says, “It meant that this had to be a very strong statement. It couldn’t be wimpy.”

Yet while their approach to the project may be firm-handed, the memorial’s most powerful effect may ultimately lie in its fragility. A monument, says Isabel, may be sturdy and lasting, “But a garden is changing and living and growing and hopeful. You can actually be a part of it.”

And among victims’ families and local residents, the desire to be able to access and enjoy the garden was foremost among their priorities. The plan calls for 150-feet of seating on the square, which the Bannermans have accommodated with 25 curved benches set among the greenery.

Construction is scheduled to begin on the site next spring, and the project is targeted for completion in October 2004. In all, the memorial is expected to cost between $2.5 and $3 million to build. Funds are being raised to meet this budget by the British Memorial Garden Trust, which is overseen by the British Consulate-General and the St. George’s Society, a 243-year-old organization for British citizens in New York.

The Trust is sponsoring a choral performance at the square this Sept. 11 from 5 p.m. – 6 p.m.

A new location is being sought for the statue of former New York Mayor Abraham de Peyster, which presently sits at Hanover Square. And a competition is underway to select an artist to create a new sculpture for the memorial that will celebrate connections between Britain and America. It is an appropriate theme for Hanover Square — which has a namesake, Hanover Square, London — and is one of the few public spaces in Manhattan to retain its English name after the Revolutionary War.

“It’s a nice way of trying to sort of represent all the things in common between Britain and America,” says Julian of the memorial. “It represents all of the connections and all that’s good in the marriage between us.”