Urban Florals by Swallows & Damsons

by Anna Potter

“To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.” -Helen Keller

Bringing nature inside has always fascinated me. Floral arrangements that blend with wallpaper, enormous branches in unexpected corners of rooms, or humble single stems mixed amongst collected objects on a shelf. I’m continuously obsessed with how flowers interact with their environment. I was recently asked to create a floral installation along these lines for an event held in Sheffield’s urban and iconic Park Hill flats.

Planning the Flowers: The event was held in support of a continuing renovation of the flats, which in 2013 had already been shortlisted on the RIBA Stirling prize list. The room chosen for the flower installation was the Old Scottish Queen Pub, now little more than a large concrete box, with floor-to-ceiling windows on either side — a completely blank canvas. The surrounding areas are exposed; backing onto a train station, a busy ring road and bank of wildflowers and overgrown wilderness. My gut instinct was, “let’s get some of this wilderness inside.”

Read on after the jump…

Photographs by India Hobson

A Bit About Park Hill: In the early 1960s, Park Hill was seen as a significant and ambitious inner-city development, ahead of its time. Designed by two young architects, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, it was radical and one of the first examples of Brutalist architecture in Britain, inspired by Modernist architect Le Corbusier. The flats were known as “streets in the sky,” with open broad decks rather than narrow corridors where milk floats (trucks) could drive by, stopping at front doors as if they were on a normal street. There was a strong sense of community and neighbors would gather on the balconies while children could play in the gardens below.

However, by the 1980s unemployment was rife as the local steel industry was collapsing. Park Hill had begun to deteriorate and was no longer a place people wanted to live. Shops were left empty, houses abandoned and crime was on the increase.

The Installation: I was completely smitten with the texture of concrete; its smooth chalky surface, cool grey tones and subtle waves of pattern in the harsh, cold surface. The aged, weathered cracks and indentations were crying out for wild foliages and rambling flowers to creep their way into them. I decided that no urn or hanging arrangement would do here. The ideas behind the event centered on growth, regeneration, moving forwards and reaching for something new. I wanted to echo this with the flowers.

First I built a layer of foliage using muted, end-of-summer, urban hedgerow leaves and vines. I chose raspberry leaves and turned them around so the pale silver underside of the leaf was facing out — this subtlety complemented the cool grey of the concrete. I then paired this with dark and golden beech leaves for a contrasting, almost autumnal feel. Blackberries were used to add texture and depth in tone. There was a point where the foliage, berries and seed pods so beautifully complemented the natural habitat of the flats and the wild overgrown nature of the banks outside, I was unsure whether to continue adding in any flowers!

That said, I was so glad I did. The roses, aclepsia, dille, astilbe and scented tuberose in shades of gold, apricot and blush, lifted the foliage, bringing life to the hard concrete walls.

My intention for this piece was that it should represent the hope of new beginnings and the regeneration of something iconic and beautiful. The flowers were blooming, bright, and fitted these intentions perfectly. The cracks were filled and the wallflowers looked as though they’d been growing for years in this perfectly imperfect space. —Anna Potter of Swallows and Damsons

A huge thanks to S1 Artspace and Urban Splash!

Black & White image courtesy of Bill Toomey, RIBA Library Photographs Collection


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