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functionality and humanity

December 12th, 2022

This could be the start of a blog about gender bias in design but it isn’t. Last week I had a routine mammogram for the first time. The mammogram machine used was taller than most women and was a chunky construction of clean lined cream and black metal. To x-ray a breast, it has a device called a “bucky” which is two large moveable plates that clamp the breast and flatten it – it rotates so it can clamp both vertically and horizontally. It also moves up and down to address people of different heights. It is an entirely functional machine. It squishes the breast into a pancake for a few seconds and then releases after the x-ray is complete.

Breasts are all shapes and sizes, but one thing they are not is flat like pancakes, unless you are very unlucky. My mammogram was routine and voluntary and the lovely nurse who did it was at pains to tell me that I did not have to do it, because it clearly hurts.

It is really tempting to explore gender issues here – would men tolerate testicle screening that involves flattening their balls into pancakes? – but the less obvious discussion is about functionality versus humanity in healthcare design.

Functionality in design is essential but should never be the only consideration. In 2017 the mammogram machine was redesigned with smooth edges, a “spa-like” exterior, a plastic “ shawl” and a much smaller softer bucky. The new design is much smaller, less intimidating and more comfortable – it performs its medical function whilst offering reassurance, comfort and privacy.

At erz we design outdoor spaces for healthcare – although often what we are actually doing is redesigning single function outdoor spaces that have been built to house cars, get folk from A-B, allow ambulances to move unimpeded – but which have removed any vestige of multifaceted humanity from the experience of visiting a hospital or health-centre. 

As an example, when I was with my friend D as she had her son at a Glasgow maternity unit, she needed to walk to keep comfortable, so we were told to go and walk around the campus but not to go to far as her waters had already broken. We went outdoors and spent the rest of the day doing laps of the packed bitmac car park, because there was no other place to go. Another example recently, was a nurse I spoke to recovering from 15 weeks in ICU with Covid, who then spent another 15 weeks in a single room in the recovery ward with a view of an empty car park and no visitors. She said the second 15 weeks were what did in her mental health.

These are examples of single function design. The outdoor spaces are not designed in an integrated way. When I am explaining what clinical and therapeutic landscapes should do, I say each intervention should have at least five benefits. A car park at a maternity ward could so easily have a beautiful path around and through it for doing laps when in labour – and seating, biodiversity, SuDS and artworks. Better still - ditch the car park altogether and create multifunctional therapeutic greenspace for exercise, labour, mums groups, physio, OT and rest and respite.

It was therefore with genuine interest that I read the recently published Scottish Government and NHS Assure Climate Emergency and Biodiversity Strategy for the next four years. The NHS in Scotland is targeting net zero by 2040. The Lancet describes climate change as the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century” and this document recognises that climate change is inextricably linked to health inequality – one of Glasgow’s biggest issues. It is a really good document exploring issues as diverse as the disposal of anaesthetic gases to the need to embed active travel.

The inherent challenge lies in joining things up in an organisation full of embedded silos. Greenspace is an effective mechanism for integrated thinking because it can deliver benefits to almost every aspect of the Government policy:

  • Active travel
  • Biodiversity
  • Waste management
  • Water and flooding
  • Staff wellbeing
  • Community health
  • Exercise and physical therapies
  • Health inequalities
  • Air quality
  • Microclimate
  • Carbon capture
  • And so on…

And yet there are not any landscape architects at policy level within the health service in Scotland. The teams at the top are mostly led by project managers and architects. We are not going to be able to deliver function and humanity well without an understanding that the spaces in between buildings are more important than the buildings themselves – landscape being the very air we breath, the food we eat, the energy we use, the spaces and places that allow us to travel, the places in which we communicate and meet others, where community is formed.

Landscape is a dynamic network that allow us to think connectively and successfully create multifaceted designs that deliver both functionality and humanity for the good of us all and the good of our planet. Landscape is a key to unlocking the wider potential of the NHS.




May 25th, 2022

I grew up with a dressmaker mother and a tailor Grandmother, but never realised the huge influence that has had on my work in construction, until I was writing last month’s blog about my aunt Fiona’s RIBA Dinner Suit, lovingly tailored for her by my grandmother Louise.

When I was at University in Edinburgh I struggled with construction for the first two years. I was a bright student, but I had never been taught anything remotely related at school, so I came to university with A levels in art, geography, classical history and English literature. My work experience included a year at Clothkits – a sew-your-own dress shop, but no building sites. I had not built anything except lego houses with my sister, although I had made my own clothes since childhood.

Construction was alien and intimidating. It did not help that we were taught by a pair of elderly male architects with intricate and ancient OHP sheets of beautiful but illegible hand drawings showing window jambs and threshold details, barely reinterpreted for landscape design.

The breakthrough came at the end of second year, when I realised that construction is simply SEWING but on a bigger scale. In fact, if you can sew a dress or a bag with pockets and zips, you are working with highly complex issues of materiality, volume, form and tensile strengths. Large scale construction has its own jargon designed to impress and exclude, whereas for me the language of sewing was familiar – and directly applicable.

In my final year at ECA/ESALA, I won an EDI Award for my construction project. I approached this project, the design of an outdoor theatre, with an enthusiastic use of sheet metals that could be folded, moulded and riveted - almost like clothing the urban space.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that I use sewing analogies all the time in my more strategic work too – the idea of a patchwork city, stitching fragmented places back together, threads, layers and webs all have their roots in sewing. This language is used all the time at erz and I suspect it is no coincidence that Rolf's mother was also a tailor and pattern cutter.

I highly recommend a book by our colleague and friend Clare Hunter called “Threads of Life: a History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” which is sort of about sewing, definitely about cultural history, and which shows how sewing has influenced myriad aspects of our creative lives. 

“Threads of Life: a History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle”

Clare Hunter

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 9781473687936



March 28th, 2022

Fifty years ago my aunt Fiona was one of very few female architects working in London and my grandmother made her an black evening suit so that she was not assumed to be an architect’s wife when attending RIBA dinners and evening events.

Nearly 20 years ago I received an email from a site manager addressed to “Gents”. I was the only female member of the design team and the only female designer in my office. My then boss, the rather excellent gent, Marc van Grieken, complained on my behalf and quite a stink ensued. It did not happen again and there was an apology.

I now jointly head a brilliant team of ten designers at erz, eight of whom are talented and empowered women. Perhaps times have changed?

Perhaps not.

In the last six months I have had three emails addressed to “Gents” from three different multidisciplinary professional teams. Each time I have pointed out that I am not a “Gent.” I did it politely, with humour, in a short email.

One person, whom I had never met, called me on my mobile to accuse me of accusing him of sexism. In the other instances nobody acknowledged my email and the use of “Gents” has continued. One of my team mused that if we addressed an email to “Ladies” we would be met by puzzlement not frustration, even though there are now many more women in the construction industry than there were twenty or fifty years ago. Another colleague notes that when she talks about "my director" in conversations about work, people often go on to talk about "he".

Do you have to be a man to be able to call out sexism in the workplace?

Raintown, Raingarden, Rainscape.

December 21st, 2021

When did swimming outside become “wild swimming”? Things we have always done outside are gentrified by new titles and commodified by purchases of dry-robes and wetsuit shoes. I recently swam at the White Loch with some neighbours on a warm evening and felt elated for days afterwards from the cold and that smell of fresh alive water. I am not wild -  this is a natural and life affirming thing for anyone to do – to swim outside and to play in water. But we have removed the ability for many people to access or enjoy these simple things and this is both shameful and dangerous – witness the surge in drownings last summer when it was hot and inexperienced swimmers struggled in the cold waters of our lochs and rivers. People living in Scotland should be at one with water because it is fundamental to our landscapes and therefore our lives.


How do you achieve this in an inner city? We have so much water in Glasgow, we cannot tame the leaks and bulges, the springs that burst from hilltops, the puddles in the potholes: because of Raintown downpours, the grass here will always tend towards sensual wetland and bog. Indeed, the city exists within the context of a sub-temperate rainforest, evidenced by the rich ecosystems of our gutters and downpipes. But we are still escaping a Victorian inheritance of culverted burns, drained lochs and canalised rivers. There is a burn under our Southside Primary School, another right under our house. Street names betray the watery past – Bogton Avenue, Bath Street, Water Street, Camlachie (wild duck hollow), Goosedubbs Lane – where the provost’s geese gathered in the puddles or dubs.


I have been reading about Gothenburg and their creative celebrations of rain for the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city. Glasgow is seeking new water management approaches through the Avenues projects, but really this is an engineer led initiative. Glasgow’s watery landscape could be brought to vivid life through a radically playful approach. At erz we build puddleponds and playful rills into our school designs, mud kitchens and wetlands in our nurseries and schools projects, with willow and alders soaking up the groundwater. We could be doing similar playful things in our public realm –


  • why not a waterfall down Buchanan Street ending in a cascade at the riverside?
  • a seasonal paddling pond/ice rink in George Square?
  • an Argyll Street canal with a catwalk/towpath for showing off your fashion purchases seeing yourself reflected gloriously in the water?


All those carparks could be bounded by wet woodlands, the Molindinar daylighted in its ravine, frog-filled wetland gardens on Glasgow Green and bathing pools with sociable café decks on the edge of the Clyde. A massive water slide would draw tourists to Kelvingrove Park, and architect designed bathing huts next to big sandy riverside beaches would be let to local families where the White Cart cuts through the Southside at Linn Park.


This is doable and affordable stuff in the context of a massive spend on climate change mitigation. We can use the rainwaters for positive purposes, instead of spending millions on attenuation tanks and sewers. Not just rain-gardens but rain-landscapes.


Happy Christmas, stay safe and well and bring on the rain.

Landscape architects against the Blah Blah Blah

October 27th, 2021

In 1971, when I was a baby, Ian McHarg, a Scottish landscape architect trained in Edinburgh and at Pennsylvania University, published Design with Nature, a seminal work which stated that

The most important issue of the 21st century will be the condition of the global environment.

Landscape architects who studied under McHarg in Scotland or at Penn, or under his successor David Skinner at Edinburgh College of Art, come from a bloodline of climate activism, biodiversity enhancement and understanding of complex landscape systems. Today’s graduating classes from Edinburgh are featured in this month’s Landscape Design journal in celebration of COP26 and their work demonstrates both the continuation of this ethos – and the power of new thinking. Their work overwhelms the timidity of the official discourse in Glasgow. Hurrah for the students at ESALA and their tutors Anna Rhodes, Lisa Mackenzie and Chris Rankin for challenging the Blah Blah Blah.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s landscape architects are quietly getting on with their life-on-earth-supporting jobs whilst other professions shout loudly about COP26. Every single strand of work at erz, and at all but the most highly commercial landscape architects, is about the relationship between humanity and environment.

A few years ago I attended a Scottish Landscape Institute cross disciplinary event at Holyrood where road engineers, energy consultants, foresters, politicians et al shouted it out, and where I was informed by one pale, stale male from another sector that landscape is just one of many silos. Our landscape is not a silo. In time honoured fashion I have spent several years thinking about what I should have replied:

Landscape is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the energy we use, the earth beneath our feet and the stars above us. It is what sustains all life on earth.

Landscape architects know this and in the autonomous work that many of us do, we produce designs and strategies for freeing rivers, creating wetlands, greening cities, generating green energy, empowering people to get outside and be healthy. The grist of a landscape architect’s work is not undertaken with developers and architects and does not get many awards or much press. 

So a big COP26 plug for my dearest Glasgow green places by landscape architects old and new:

  • Glasgow Necropolis 1831 – one of the earliest planned and most spectacular cemeteries in the UK designed by David Bryce.
  • Rouken Glen Park with its waterfalls, rills, lades and channels - part grandiose estate, part post industrial ruin, part Scottish glen - and 100% unique sense of place.
  • The Molendinar Burn Park in Royston by Loci Design, a playful 1990s rescue of the burn from a deep culvert bringing a derelict site back to life and life back to a community.
  • Rottenrow Gardens by Gross Max 2001 – contemporary green space in the heart of the Strathclyde University campus – with recycled elements from the old maternity hospital, in the manner of Duisburg Nord. This space was so richly designed and sensory when it opened, but is largely lost already and already under refurbishment. 
  • Buchanan Street and Royal Exchange Square by Gillespies 2002 – still going strong after twenty years. I worked with Fosters on a rival competition entry at the time and I am glad that the Gillespie's team won.
  • City Design’s Hidden Gardens 2004 – a welcoming sanctuary in the midst of multicultural Govanhill with a shout out to Rolf Roscher my co director at Erz. The Hidden Gardens uses landscape design to celebrate diversity and ethnicity in unexpected and subtle ways.
  • The exhilarating steps at City of Glasgow College by Rankin Fraser, 2019, by far the most exciting bit of the campus, and who would have thought of putting in those crazy pine trees! Brilliant.
  • The newly opened Claypits regeneration by LUC 2021 at the canal – sensitive and timely, ecological and delightful.

And at our office we are especially proud of a few very green projects:

  • The therapeutic grounds of the Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice – palliative care by designed erz with nature, in the manner of Ian McHarg.
  • The UK’s first natural school playground – the Urban Jungle at Merrylee Primary School - full of trees, children, owls, bats, foxes, hedgehogs and - green parakeets.
  • The integrated green infrastructure strategies that we have developed across the city from Maryhill to Darnley, Easterhouse to Cardonald, exploring how water management and biodiversity enhancement can be a catalyst for improving population health, social inequity and wellbeing – climate change adaption as a positive force for community regeneration.

And lastly hurrah to Ian McHarg – one of Scotland’s visionaries and one of the world’s most influential landscape architects – I met him twice and he scared the life out of me. I’ll leave him with the last words:

Clearly the problem of man and nature is not one of providing a decorative background for the human play, or even ameliorating the grim city: it is the necessity of sustaining nature as a source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge and, most of all, of rediscovering nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning

(McHarg, Design With Nature, 1971, p.19).


by Ian L. McHarg

ISBN 13: 9780385055093

ISBN 10: 0385055099

Paperback; Garden City, Ny: Natural History Press, 1971-08; ISBN-13: 978-0385055093