A SERIES OF 13 GATES AND SCREENS COMMISSIONED BY WILLMOTT DIXON FOR LONDON AND
QUADRANT HOUSING TRUST FOLLOWING A COMPETITION TENDERED BY SOUTHWARK COUNCIL
MILTON'S 'COMUS' AND THE GHOSTS OF TREES
Townsend Street Project/Comus Place, SE17
'Comus' is the title of a masque by John Milton where the action takes place in a wood. My inspiration was to design gates and fences using trees as a motif to reflect this and to create an urban wood in conjunction with any trees already on the site. I wanted to commemorate Milton who was born and spent most of his life in London.
When I visited Comus Place one thing I noticed was the lack of trees. The site contained the few mature trees to be seen and I wondered what would happen to them - would they be preserved or uprooted? Ironically, the trees are going to be uprooted to enable building to take place. However, the good news is that replacement trees will be planted.
ARCHITECTURENext I looked at the plans, specifically the architectural designs. It was immediately obvious that something abstract was required to fit with the sleekness and clean lines of the architecture.
DESIGNS FOR THE GATES AND FENCES
I used photographs of the trees on site as a starting point. I thought of the images as ghosts of the uprooted trees and to intensify this decided to use only the reflections cast by the trees as a basis for my drawings. In addition to marking their loss it would result in abstract images which would serve as metaphors linking the past to the present and the place-name to the design.
Milton himself was a proponent of monism or animist materialism, the notion that a single material substance which is "animate, self-active, and free" composes everything in the universe: from stones and trees and bodies to minds, souls, angels, and God.
Taking into account the requirements of practicality, security and safety I opted for 6 mm mild sheet steel. This can be laser cut and either galvanised or powder-coated for a long-lasting, economical finish.
The dark areas on the drawings are the areas to be laser-cut, creating a free-form lattice. This allows light through and there are also flat uncut areas, for reasons of privacy and security, and which give a background for the play of reflections from the new trees.
As the walls surrounding the site are to be grey I felt that galvanised steel would be a good cost-effective option and based the colour-scheme around this. It will give the required shadowy tone and will be visually pleasing when, in conjunction with the lattice of the cut-out reflections, the actual shadows of the replacement trees are cast.
ASYMMETRY AND MIRROR IMAGES
Gates are often designed to be both symmetrical and geometric and, having recently returned from China, I wanted my design to be asymmetric and organic along the lines of a Chinese screen.
The drawings are based on one image of the reflections cast by a tree on site. As there are 13 gates and fences in total I felt a design based on one image would give both greater cohesion and a feeling of rhythm and flow. Type B appears only once, as a set of gates on the Beckway Street elevation. They are the main gates for the development and are the one unique image. Taking this as my cue I used Type B as a matrix for the remaining types, i.e. Types A, C and D are derived from Type B.
Type A appears only twice, as gates, quite close together on the Townsend Street elevation. As the gates will be cut from sheet steel it will be simple to flip them to create mirror images. Mirror images will work especially well on the Comus Place elevation as there is a long run of Types C and D, both as gates and fences.
COMUS PLACE SHARED SURFACES
The gates and fences need to fit in with the idea of the shared space as well as forming a threshold between the public and private lives of Comus Place. The play of light through the lattice organically links outside and inside as well as the trees on either side of the fences.
I feel that Milton himself, republican, rebel and passionate advocate of free speech would be happy to think that he was being remembered in a democratic shared space and that 'Comus' is playing a part in the theatre of the street of modern day London.
Rather than praising an aristocrat, the famous concluding lines of the masque, recited by the Attendant Spirit, urge:
Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav'n itself would stoop to her.