It Takes One: Annabel Downs

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Annabel Downs

It Takes One: Annabel Downs
London, England,
United States

How would you define a cultural landscape?

A cultural landscape is a piece of land that has been shaped and modified by man, manipulated and designed if you like, to create a place that reveals and informs – maybe with a little investigation - something about the times in which it was created, the designer and the place itself. These places are accepted, received into our daily lives, and we often just take them for granted. Sometimes we aren’t aware of them and sometimes we don’t regard or value them for what they really are and what they represent and for what went into creating them.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

I was invited as a volunteer to catalogue a collection of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape drawings that he had just donated to the Landscape Institute, located in London. The Landscape Institute is a Royal Chartered organization which supports and promotes the profession of landscape architecture in the United Kingdom, similar to the American Society of Landscape Architects, in the United States.   I had already trained as a landscape architect, and was wondering how to get back into work after a ten year break bringing up our two sons.  I opened one of the drawers of Jellicoe’s plan chest, just to have a look -- and I have been working there part-time for 13 years, ever since then.  We initially thought the Jellicoe drawings would be a discrete collection, but soon after I arrived, Dame Sylvia Crowe died, then Michael Brown, and we were for the first time in the Institute’s history, able and willing to receive landscape drawings and papers.  I had worked with Sir Peter Shepheard and collected hundreds of his drawings and job files from the office store, located in a damp crypt in North London.  I quickly realized how vulnerable all these papers and drawings of landscapes were.  Practices needed the space and old drawings were being cleared out and often thrown away.  There was no system of saving or recording these drawings.  I pulled a small team of wise advisors around me and we set up a strategy.    

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

As a result of this project I am learning so much about how differently people use drawings to communicate ideas.  I’m fascinated by the process of working out designs that look good on paper, fit the brief, captivate the client, and persuade funders. Equally fascinating is how these designs are translated on site, the dealings with contractors, the unforeseen problems and issues that invariably arise, the publicity that follows, and the potential awards received.  And then with some of the projects we have drawings for, the resurrection and restoration or destruction of these places.  There are so many stories and connections associated with these projects and the landscape architects.  Many of the designers have relations with the United States as well, through training, teaching and or work.  We are raising the profile of the archive collection, the work contained within it, and the landscape profession generally.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

We are often dealing with the converted, whether it is through talks to various societies, or people who visit the archive inquiring about particular projects.  I have no doubt that when I express my passion for these places I make people see and think differently about their own perceptions and values of places and designers.  I have not been in a position yet to confront or influence developers or government agencies or even the general public, but I look forward to being part of a team to achieve serious enlightenment and change.  Setting up the archive at the Landscape Institute has had some very unexpected, heartwarming benefits.  We often need to contact some of our older, retired members for information about particular projects they have been involved with, or colleagues they worked with.  In many cases, their response has been overwhelming and enlightening, and we have come to realize that through the archive they are re-engaged with their profession and the Institute.  There aren’t a lot of resources available for the archive, and so for the last year or so we have relied heavily on volunteer help, and that has been fabulous.  The volunteers bring loyalty and enthusiasm and leave with a passion, awareness and understanding of 20th century landscapes and say that they will find another archive to work in. That is one of the greatest complements and achievements. 

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

Don’t take anything around you for granted. Fall in love with places, cherish them, and raise their profile. When they are threatened, fight with everything you can muster so everyone knows what really is at stake.