Stories > Interview > Peter’s Story

Peter Hutchinson is a multi-award winning Chartered Landscape Architect, Chartered Designer, product designer, illustrator and artist based in Belfast. From 1972-1974, Peter worked as Landscape Architectural Assistant at Craigavon Development Commission. Following a post graduate education at Edinburgh University  he worked as a Landscape Architect in Vancouver BC later returning to DOE Planning Service Landscape Section before moving into private practice. He is currently co-chair of the Landscape Institute Northern Ireland. Rebekah McCabe interviewed Peter Hutchinson in Belfast on Friday 6 March 2015.

RMcC Okay, so Peter you said you went to work for the Craigavon Development Commission round ’72, ’73?
PH Yes, it was a period around ’71, ’72, I am just trying to remember, I think it was in and around ’73.
RMcC And you were fresh out of college.
PH I did an Under Graduate course in Queen’s in geography and American and Irish Economic History and then I worked with the Planning Office for a year in Belfast. That was a very interesting period because it was pre-Troubles and it was due to all the redevelopment in Belfast, the BDP plan and the Travers Morgan Road Scheme plan. Then I went to Queens and did Town Planning. I only managed the first year, but I learnt a lot about planning. And then I went back to Craigavon.
RMcC I’m not sure if I picked it up right,  but you said that it was mind-blowing at the time to see …
PH Yes, it was. It was just a green-field site of, I mean I don’t know how many hundred acres, and just to superimpose this big idea. I have to say now on reflection, I think it was a bad big idea but it was a great big toy to play with.
PH I have got other reservations about it now. But then it was the whole team under one umbrella, architectural planners, engineers, financiers, administrators, we even had our own model makers, and then there was the workforce outside. The landscape had their own 20 or 30 acre nursery. So it was a one-stop shop. And I suppose from through doing planning and geography, human geography and physical geography, landscape architecture is a very good extension of geography but there is another aspect to it, that it’s the fourth dimension of time. That bit probably got to me as well about landscape architecture. Most other professions deal in, design professions, deal in three dimensions, length, breadth, height, volumes, but landscape architecture is one of the professions where you create a landscape that changes over time, it changes over seasons, it changes diurnally, it changes seasonally, so you …


RMcC So landscape architecture was a little bit on the edge of the disciplines?
PH Yes. It always was a bit of a romantic sort of profession. It’s one of the professions that’s an umbrella, an all-embracing profession. It deals with planning, it deals with engineering, it’s very much an engineering profession. It deals with structures and product design. It deals with illustration, it deals with concept. It deals with social and community, issues with transport. So it has very many sort of strands to it. And Craigavon, because of the way it was set up, landscape was a major element. And if you go down to Craigavon today one of the major things left of the original is the road infrastructure, and the pedestrian and bicycle system is still there, but all of the embankments, all of the lakes, all of the areas that were planted, the majority of them are all still there. Some of them are now the trees that I would have put in, and that’s quite fascinating after 50 years, going down and seeing a tree that I put in, or I didn’t actually physically put in, said put it there when it was only at knee-high, is now maybe 50/60 metres high. There is a certain amount of pride in that. One of the things that, we use fancy names now, we talk about sustainable urban drainage systems, SUDS, Craigavon was based on that. Actually the Balancing Lakes, these two massive lakes which are obviously recreation, but they were to balance each other and the water. There are two or three sort of water systems, river systems throughout Craigavon. I did a lot of the design work in the Legahory one.
RMcC We mapped them.
PH Did you map them?
RMcC Yes.
PH I didn’t realise it then because I was new and naive to the whole thing, but that what we now think are brand new shiny ideas in fact were just taken as read then, and the sustainable urban drainage, the use of having, using landscape and planting as a structure throughout the place, so all the big banks, all of the space that was created had landscape as an integral part of how it was designed and managed. I think that was the other thing that was good about Craigavon, we had the money up to ‘75, not only to design it and implement it, but to maintain it and that’s the bit that was lost for about 30 or 40 years was the actual putting in quality work and actually looking after it. Because if you are going to spend money and then you are not going to look after it then you might as well not have spent the money at all to start with.
RMcC I read the transcript of the interview that you did with Flo and Brian [Woods] and they spoke about, I suppose some unintended consequences with the planting. Were some things that were intended as temporary, after Craigavon Council took over from the Commission, ended up staying, and some things that were meant to be permanent were removed. Can you talk about that?
PH Yes. A classic was that when you were putting in these big areas of planting you would put in what was called ‘nurse plants’, so plants that will grow quickly, Alders, Poplars, Willows, and you would put those in in a plant bed of maybe half an acre, quarter of a hectare, you would put them in in rows, and they would grow quickly and protect the dominant plants which were slower to grow, the Oak, the Ash, the Beech, so they were initially the understorey, but they would then become the canopy at the end. What you would do over a period of time, you had a plan of 3/5 years, you would take out every other one of the nurse plants, because they were shooting up like rods, they would have given protection for the long-standing plants, the ones that were going to stay there. And I will give you a good example, when, subsequently the people who came into Craigavon had maybe less understanding or responsibility for the landscape, so the human detritus was thrown into the plant beds. Next thing of course there was this cry about rats.
RMcC Household litter?
PH Yes. There could be nappies and what else, but food, bread. Well food that obviously attracts rodents so they were having a field day, they were just getting fed and they would go where the food is. So then there was this cry about taking out the understorey. And the understorey was the shrubbery, because what you were trying to do was a managed landscape that would in many cases recreate natural landscape. You get the pioneers coming in the Birch, the Mountain Ash, and then the Willow if it’s wet and the Poplars, and eventually then they would be superseded by the dominants, the Oaks, the Ash and all the rest of it. But what actually happened was the Council in their wisdom said was, what we will do is we will take away the understorey where the rodents are hiding. But it wasn’t because the rodents were hiding in the undergrowth it was because the food was there for them to eat. So you ended up then they took out the Oak, the Ash and the Beech.   Some of them that had maybe survived, you will get the odd one, and now you have just the dominance, the dominant ones now are the Willows, the Poplars, the short-lived trees. They have only got a life-cycle of 60-100 years and then they start to crack and break. It’s a bit of a pity from that point of view, but visually you still get quite a strong.
Bill Didn’t the nurseries have examples of people’s front gardens, back gardens, they would lay it all out for them and they would …
PH Tannaghamore Gardens. There was a dovecote, a wonderful dovecote and they said that was designed by Lord Snowdon, who married Princess Margaret, a very famous photographer. I don’t know why but he did a dovecote and I think it’s still there, it’s got a big cage round it now. I think one of the reasons for Tannaghmore was, a lot of the people who came to Craigavon, myself included, would have come from an urban situation and then people were decanted from Belfast, they were given incentives to move and this whole sort of post-war way, you got a new place. Goodyear was the factory that they had enticed to come there, with the tyres, so there was a job, you had a home, you had space. But people didn’t have, I mean I was fortunate I was from a family who did have a garden, but, so what they did was they had demonstration gardens and it was quite a fascinating concept. They were rectangles, about the size of a normal terraced back-garden, 5 metres by about 10 or 15 metres long. And they built a timber back wall of your kitchen with an opening, horizontal and vertical timbers, as if you were looking out from your kitchen window out onto your garden. So people could actually look out and say that’s the space I have, because most of the spaces were relatively the same, long rectangles. The fronts were managed by the Public Sector, but the backs were private.
PH They did half a dozen different types of demonstration garden. So they did the English country garden, the rose garden, the one with vegetables and a greenhouse and what have you, to show people how you could actually design your garden. I can’t remember whether, as part of the package when you moved down there, you were given a demonstration garden. And obviously we had the people there who could assist you in that with having the labour-force and stuff.
RMcC Am I right in thinking that initially there was no front boundary between the sort of patch of green directly in front of someone’s front door and the common area? I’m I right in thinking that that was added later because people sort of demanded it?
PH Well that very much came from America and the Radburn, that as far as I remember there was only a low kerb and there was the public footpath system. And many of them were back to front in that you had this Radburn and you parted out your pedestrian and your vehicular so that you could always walk, cycle to the shops, to the schools, to the open spaces without having any contact, or being in a collision course with vehicles.   And cars then were the reverse of that. So you had a hierarchy of the major road and then you had the minor roads, and then you had the neighbourhood road, and then you had roads in housing estates, and individual cul-de-sacs, and then from there you would filter out to your house.
Bill But it was indeed very experimenting with something that had never been tried before. This was the way to do it based on the American success of Radburns in places in America like the east coast. And that was the idea that you had this little pedestrian path.   Do you remember all the front doors facing onto it and the people leaning out of doors and saying, how are you doing, as you were walking across, and if they had a car, if they were lucky enough, they want round the back and parked in the yard.
PH That’s right, and your garages would have been round the back in a shared courtyard.
Bill And then when more and more people had cars, more people were arriving as visitors to park their car, get out of the car and walk in through the kitchen. It was just one of those ideas that wasn’t really very good for Northern Ireland.
PH It suited the American way of life.   They were richer after the War, they had big cars, the space, just the amount of space that was taken up by open-space. But that’s probably, when you actually look at Craigavon, the amount of buildings and the amount of open-space, what would it be Bill, I don’t know, 70% of the open space.
Bill Yes.
PH The other bit was the size of the roads. I think it was when the Council took over that we had to, a roundabout came up for approval and the roundabout, it’s the big one at the shopping centre, I think it’s about 5 acres or just over 2 hectares.
RMcC It’s a sort of a concave.
PH That’s right, it’s got a big humpty dumpty, because it is a roundabout city. I would have done anything just to go down that road and just keep going round it in circles. It came up for approval, the roundabout, and it went through straightway, £1million.   Then they were asked about providing 20 additional spades for the workforce and they were asked, why do they need 20 spades? They were about £2 each or £1 each. What happened to the last 20 spades? Well some had broken and some had got lost. Did somebody steal them? And they spent about 2 hours discussing the merits, so it was this sort of ridiculous imbalance where £1million was just way above anybody’s understanding so you said, oh yes that roundabout, £1million, yes of course, but they can understand the price of a shovel or spade, and they fought the bit out about how many spades they should actually order, when all they were talking about was £20 or £30. It was a strange time for everybody.
RMcC Right. And your role there, you said you were quite young, quite early in your career but you were given quite a lot of power? You were able to actually design some of the landscape.
PH Yes. I didn’t design Craigavon, I’m not trying to say that, and the main framework had already been set by, who was the one, Matthew in Glasgow?   He actually set the pattern for many of the new towns.
RMcC So this was sort of the grid sector.
PH The major sort of way it was laid-out, roads, housing, separation, schools, what have you, shopping centres.   So I think there was 18 Landscape Architects, and Bill will tell you about that, for about 2 or 3 years, and they came from all over the world. And they produced many a plan. So sometimes there was parts of the plans that they had created, they created thousands of plans, information, so on one hand we were implementing some of those, or trying to translate an idea for a space into a reality, and only part of it. So they had got so far but they never maybe got right down to the nitty-gritty and then things changed because of circumstances and what have you.
RMcC Right.
PH But then sometimes you got a brand new spanking thing to do.
RMcC Can you think of anything you were in on the ground floor with?
PH Because there is going to be an overlap here between the first time I worked in Craigavon when it was up until, was it ’75, when it was still the Development Commission?
PH At that stage I then went to Edinburgh from ’73 to ’75 to do my Post Grad Landscape Architecture course, which I managed to succeed in and then I went to Canada for a year and worked [inaudible]. Then I got the call that there was this job advertised and I came back and that’s when Peter Deal, the German Landscape Architecture, Ken the owner had left at that stage to go back to Leeds/Yorkshire somewhere, I don’t know where he was from, the Black Country, Peter Deal took over so it was a much smaller team, mostly local people, bar Peter. He wasn’t there before so he must have come between ’73 and ‘75.
RMcC So when you went back then the second time that would have been more of a maintenance, were you still designing?
PH No, no, we were actually, while Craigavon had stopped per se, we were still in Bachelors Walk for a period, but part and parcel of building the new town they had built some speculative offices and there was this big 6 storey building, it was a sort of white thing with squares on the other side.
RMcC Marlborough House?
PH Marlborough House, that’s right, I had forgotten the name. 6 or 8 storeys something like that. So it was lying empty. I think at that stage maybe Good Year had gone as well, so all the sort of, maybe there was a slightly different sort of situation and there was obviously Craigavon Development Commission, gone, so you had then the Councils of Portadown, Lurgan, Armagh and [inaudible], so we in fact then were part of the DOE Landscape Section responsible for Craigavon and Armagh areas, so it was most of County Down, right down to Newry but including Craigavon. So we were still implementing stuff because Craigavon hadn’t gone, the number of people who were there maybe the dream had sort of blurred a wee bit, but there was still things to do and things to finish. Some of the initial housing for example, the architecture was maybe not as long lasting or as popular with the people who came in, so some of it was actually knocked down. But it was wonderful architecture. Probably now it might be better appreciated but it maybe could have, maybe some of it was a wee bit too avant-garde, but it was really good housing.
RMcC Did you live in Brownlow?
PH No I was never tempted, I nearly did. I think possibly because, it’s all very well when you are that age to get a house and all this in the middle of nowhere, as far as I was concerned. My social life was in Belfast, so I used to travel up and down, which wasn’t, the motorway, there wasn’t the same amount of traffic then as there is now.
PH There was never actually a train stop at Craigavon at the centre, which was probably a mistake. And also the thing that changed was the cost of fuel, I think at that stage there was real hike of petrol prices, they went through the roof.   So the whole dream of motor city, and in the ‘60s there was the Plan that closed a lot of the railways and sidings, so we lost a lot of our railway infrastructure as well, because the car was going to be king, or queen, whatever way you want to put it.   One of things I suppose, I was still part of Craigavon, I did the designs for Legahory the third of the three neighbourhoods.   They really only did the first one, second one, the third one, they did the bit of a fourth one I think but after that it was like Backnall. So there’s a stream down the centre of it and at one stage it was just banks so I did this whole series of streams and bridges and pools. I don’t think you would be allowed them now because of health and safety laws and all the rest of it, and they were all done, as far as I can remember, in granite sets, probably because they were digging up a lot of granite roads. I know we got a lot of granite sets. I am not sure if now they would be leak proof, I am not sure if we put liners in and did all the things, but there were still engineers and stuff there. And the other one I was asked to do, this was a lovely one, in Oxford Island there is a waterside house which is an old house just as you go into …
RMcC Oh, I know it. It’s where they keep the archive of all the …
PH Do they? Well there’s waterside house and they had decided they were going to make a little coffee-shop and an outdoor space and they asked me to design a 50 metre or 100 metre long boating pool and pond, or lake, and I had a think about this and where they wanted to put it, I designed a 10 metre diameter paddling pool. So I never heard anything about this for a few years, next thing I got this call from the Council saying, we are trying to build that bit of the pool, we don’t understand your drawings. And I had no idea that they were even going to build it. So it was actually built, it was very successful for years, but for some reason, health and safety or otherwise, the pool is now full of gravel.

Recording ends