Karen Fitzsimon: The Misunderstood Landscape Architect Goes in Search of Preben Jakobsen

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

Le Nôtre, Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton, Gertrude Jekyll, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Preben Jacobsen... Preben who?!, you might well ask, and how could he be mentioned in the same breath as these illustrious makers of landscapes and gardens. Simply because he is the forgotten master of 20th century “English modern” landscape architecture.

In the text that follows, Karen Fitzsimon*, a landscape architect and historian, explains why he is so important, and how her research and the publication of a monograph will elevate his work to its rightful position.


The Misunderstood Landscape Architect Goes in Search of Preben Jakobsen

It has happened to us all. You are at a party or family gathering and mention that you are a studying landscape architecture. Immediately you get inundated with the well meaning but frustrating: ‘’Oh you must come look at my garden’’ or “I have always loved gardening too”. Students, be aware that this will happen to you for the REST of your professional life! Even if you do enjoy gardening and recognise that it can inform your work, you want to scream… “Landscape Architecture is NOT gardening!” – but you don’t, because we are trained to be more diplomatic than that. If the wind is good, we might enlighten them as to what LA is really all about and if we are lucky the listener will take note.

As a Landscape Architect AND a Landscape Historian I experience similar frustration when I encounter a lack of understanding within LA as to the relevance of landscape history to the profession; so let me try to be diplomatic and enlighten you on my take on the historic landscape! It is so much more than something that we simply learn to pass modules and build credits, or something that we allow to subliminally inform our work. It is a very real and relevant study to our on-going understanding of place and our proposals for that place.

I am especially interested in the history of recently designed landscapes – principally the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Exploring the era in which I grew up appeals to me - though I feel compelled to declare that I am more a child of the 70s and 80s than the swinging 60s. When I am researching a site, the music, fashion of the day or politics for example resonate with me and I seem to make a more passionate, though hopefully no less objective, connection to the place or the project. I can see myself in it, walking and talking that landscape, can giggle at the brightly coloured and boxy cars and the flared trousers. I can get into the soul of the place and develop a deeper understanding as to its design and construction.

 Pipers Green Lane/ The Stanmore Garden, North London. Copyright LI/MERL. Image taken by Preben Jakobsen circa 1980 upon project completion.

Historic landscapes of this mid to late twentieth century period are disappearing at an alarming rate. For example, in the past few years we have witnessed the controversial destruction of the listed work of Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997) at the Commonwealth Institute and also the unlisted Preben Jakobsen (1934-2012) landscape at Hounslow Civic Centre. Both of these London works displayed an exemplary unity of architecture and designed landscape. I am aware that designs from this period, when pitched against those from earlier eras, can be perceived by some, especially the public, as deeply unfashionable. Many seem to consider them too young to love or more often ‘just too ugly’. These landscapes have in my view become the underdog within the long thread of landscape history - and I always like to give the underdog a chance! At best, my ambition is to get the most significant works of the period listed and actively used and at worst, to get the most threatened recorded and documented prior to demolition.

Landscape history has a real and present contribution to our contemporary work. This can be seen in a recently completed and well-publicised project: the restoration and adaptation of the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996) designed modernist Water Gardens at Hemel Hempstead. The work, brilliantly executed by HTA Design LLP, secured the 2017 Landscape Institute Heritage and Conservation Award. The judges commented: “We were excited to see post-1945 landscape design in this category. The project is exemplar and ground breaking.” This was achieved with an underpinning of detailed historical research, conducted by landscape architect and historian Marylla Hunt, which enabled not only the significance of the site to be appreciated but also the construction and planting techniques employed. Additionally the historical research was ESSENTIAL to secure the funding that enabled the restoration (from Heritage Lottery, Big Lottery and Dacorum Borough Council), and also to secure the planning permission. The Jellicoe project drawings and papers held within the Landscape Institute’s Archive and Library, now looked after by the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading, were an essential source of information for Marylla’s analysis.

My own current research is into the practice of the aforementioned Jakobsen. He was an award winning and influential Danish landscape architect and horticulturist who spent his professional working life in the UK. I originally became interested in his work when I was a student and later when I had the opportunity to work in an office where he had designed the landscape. His sculptural approach to planting design in particular influenced my own practice. Through his design work, writing and teaching Jakobsen was, by the 1980s, a bit of a star ‘landarchitect’ and was influential in the development of the profession. His critically acclaimed chapter on ‘Shrubs and Groundcovers’ in Landscape Design with Plants (1977), in which he developed an intelligent language for the use of plants in spatial design, was particularly noted and referenced by students and practitioners alike.

Sun Life of Canada, Basingstoke. Site photographed in 2017. Copyright Karen Fitzsimon

In recent years I became conscious that Jakobsen was no longer in the public sphere and I wondered what had happened to him and indeed his built works. And so started an enquiry. I would like to share with you a little of what I have discovered:

Jakobsen trained in landscape architecture at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he benefited from the tuition of design giants such as Prof. C.T Sørensen (1899-1979), Steen Eiler Rasmussen (1898-1990) and Sven Ingvar Andersson (1927-2007). He moved to the UK in 1961 to work for Eric Lyons (1912-1980) at the innovative Span Developments and where he started to make his mark as an excellent designer and plantsman, bringing a rare and welcome Danish design approach to 1960s Britain. In 1969 he set up in practice with his architect wife Maggi as Jakobsen Landscape Architects and Photographers, evolving later to Jakobsen Landscape Architects.

The practice, although never large, was a significant name in the world of landscape throughout the 1970s and into the 90s, working with some of the best architects of the day. Jakobsen’s broad portfolio of over 170 projects included historic gardens, housing, schools, universities, hospitals, parks and some of the best and earliest corporate headquarters and business parks. His work received many design awards, and in 1993 Jakobsen was presented with the coveted and rarely issued Landscape Institute’s Medal – one of only six recipients, joining Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996), Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997), Peter Youngman (1911-2005), John Hopkins (1953-2013) and Robert Carson (1928-).

Jakobsen lectured widely at universities, including at Manchester, and other design organisations in the UK and abroad. He also wrote many articles for the architectural and landscape architectural press of the day. His expressive and creative use of plants was highly regarded, as was his attention to impeccable construction details. Although a self-declared modernist, he placed great value on garden history and recognised its influence in contemporary design. He considered landscape design a true art form but one that should be practised with rigour and technical ability. Order and structure in the landscape were prime concerns and he was inspired by geometric and cellular forms found in nature and also elements of contemporary art.

​ Hounslow Civic Centre, West London. Copyright LI/MERL. Image taken by Preben Jakobsen circa 1980 three years post completion

His built projects and writings inspired a generation of landscape architects, designers and students but in 1998 the profession was deprived of his talent and skill when, due to ill health, he withdrew from public life and retired prematurely, passing away in 2012.

There is no doubt that Jakobsen was perceived as an accomplished and talented designer. Jellicoe considered him ‘a designer of outstanding ability.’ But it is also true that his nature and uncompromising design approach could polarise opinion in what was then a more conservative and pre social-media Britain. Ultimately, I believe that he remained an outsider to the British establishment and this may have led to his recent neglect. Additionally, he ceased practice at the dawn of the Internet and his work, and indeed name, developed little digital presence. ​

Jakobsen was an accomplished photographer and over the past few years I have had the opportunity to explore and analyse his photographs as well as project drawings and his publications. Field studies has taken me to many of his built works throughout the UK where I have discovered that some have totally disappeared or are under threat, others suffer from a lack of appreciation and often neglect. But all is not lost - I have found some gems including a beautiful brick amphitheatre in Basingstoke, a water garden in Glasgow and modernist private garden in Stanmore.

I am now preparing the Jakobsen monograph and in doing so I seek to revive an interest in his work and recognition of his important contribution to British landscape architectural practice and education. In addition I aim to get the most significant of his surviving works listed and where appropriate encourage their restoration. And this is where I would like to draw your attention back to archives. My research would not have been possible had Jakobsen’s family not had the foresight to gather up his papers and donate them to an appropriate body, in this case the LI at MERL. The Friends of the Landscape Institute and Library at Reading (FOLAR) support MERL in their care of the archive and offer a resource that may be of interest to your own work. Details below. As your career develops and matures I urge you to consider the legacy of your own work. Document and catalogue it. Some of it may warrant the attention of the landscape historians of the future!

*Karen Fitzsimon is a chartered landscape architect-historian and horticulturist based in London. In 2017 she curated the Gardens Trust conference Mid to Late C20 designed landscapes: Overlooked, Undervalued and At Risk, and ran the Gardens Trust/Historic England campaign: Compiling the Record.

She would welcome comments from readers especially any of Jakobsen’s former colleagues, clients or students:

Email: kfla@blueyonder.co.uk

Twitter: @KarenFitzsimon

Useful links:

1. http://www.hta.co.uk/news/posts/the-water-gardens-wins-landscape-institute-award-2 @HTADesignLLP

2. https://merl.reading.ac.uk/ @TheMERL

3. http://www.folar.uk/ @FOLARUK

4. http://thegardenstrust.org/events-archive/page/2/?past=show@thegardenstrust

5. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/apply-for-listing/listing-priorities/modern-gardens-landscapes/ @HistoricEngland


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