British pride in native talents?

Kathryn Gustafson, creator of a memorial to Princess Diana, talks about the fouling of her fountain by dogs and diapers.

By Stuart Jeffries
Published October 12, 2004 3:00PM (EDT)

Kathryn Gustafson shows me a delightful drawing. It depicts two people kneeling before a rapidly flowing stream, one of them running their fingers moodily through the water. It is a scene of contemplation and calm.

This was one of the drawings that the American landscape artist submitted to support her winning entry to build the memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales, in London's Hyde Park. It bears little relation to reality. The day after Gustafson's fountain was opened by the queen in July, high winds brought down a deluge of leaves, blocking grilles in the memorial's pool and causing a flood on the grass 15 meters wide and 30 centimeters deep. It looked awful. Soon after, dog owners let their pets pollute the 210-meter oval water concourse. Humans too paddled in the streams during the hot weather, and some people dumped used nappies in the water courses that had been lovingly hewn out of De Lank granite from Bodmin Moor.

Gustafson had tempted fate at the memorial's inauguration. She said: "I've never seen a job go as smoothly as this. I sometimes wondered if we had a guardian angel. The best bit will be when the public likes it."

If the public did like it, their actions said otherwise. And then things got worse; several visitors injured themselves as they slipped on the granite. At the same time, Gustafson's ring of bright water faced a tsunami of press criticism. Even sympathetic writers compared it to a giant Scalextric track or a Disney-like splash ride for children. The more vicious ones called it a puddle, a moat without a castle, part of a conspiracy to forget the woman it was supposed to be memorializing.

Then the water stopped flowing. A two-meter metal fence was put up to keep the public out while engineers investigated the problem. The fence is still there. For some the whole thing seemed a clunking metaphor for Diana -- the cycle of her life had gone up, down, around and up again really fast, and then unexpectedly, er, stopped.

It was an embarrassing debacle for an internationally renowned, award-winning landscape artist, and Gustafson, who has offices in London and Seattle, disappeared from British public view for a while. The brouhaha, she says now, gave her an irksome insight into what it must have been like to be the subject of her most controversial work. "I'm sure glad I'm not her," she says. "Just that little window into that level of scrutiny was enough for me."

For her first face-to-face interview since the debacle, Gustafson says she would prefer not to meet me at the Diana memorial, but rather at her offices in Kentish Town in London. There she concedes that she failed to predict how many people would visit the memorial, not to mention what unappealing things they would do when they got there.

"When it first opened, 5,000 people an hour came to see it," she says. A flicker of remembered dread passes across her otherwise serene face. "How could you anticipate that? How can you solve a problem like that quickly? If it was a question of a stadium with 70,000 seats that would be all right, but there was no precedent. The turf around the oval couldn't survive those kind of numbers. The level of management has had to be increased because of the level of people. We really underestimated that. I thought we had a guardian angel over the project; I really wish she'd come back."

But surely there was more to the problem. Didn't she feel revolted by how some of the memorial's visitors behaved? "There's something that happens in sheer numbers. Individuals lose their self-consciousness," she says diplomatically. "When one person does something, others follow. A friend of mine told me that with economic housing, if some kids throw a rock through a window, then you should repair it fast otherwise you'll have three windows broken. If you repair that first window quickly, it says it's not acceptable to do that and it stops that copycat behavior. It is the same with the memorial." How? "Putting a fence up to protect it. Though I do hope as things calm down that one day that fence will go away." She is not sure when that will be feasible. "We just need time to solve the problems."

Gustafson is appealingly contrite about some of the errors she and her partners made with the memorial. "I feel we made a mistake letting people walk in the water. I apologize for that," she says. But she didn't envisage that they would go paddling or dog washing? "No. I thought people would picnic near the memorial, walk by and run their hands through the water, think about their lives, think about Diana." There are now signs around the memorial telling visitors not to walk in the water -- though they will become relevant only when the fence comes down.

Gustafson has had problems with the British public before. Her rhododendron dell, part of a planting project in Crystal Palace in south London, has been mangled by people stealing plants. "We even wired them to the ground, but they still dug them up." That project, too, had a water feature designed by Gustafson that has never worked properly. That said, what remains of the planting is very beautiful indeed.

She argues that, amid all the fuss, the true nature of her project has gone unrecognized. "Let's talk about water quality," she says, "because that has been totally overlooked." Approximately 100 liters per second of extremely pure water, she points out, is pumped uphill from a storage tank beside the Serpentine. As it is pumped, the water races over granite whose surface has been textured to oxygenate it and remove nitrates. That oxygenated water eventually winds up in the nearby Serpentine, helping to cure the boating lake's algae bloom problem.

Part of the aim, she points out, was to cure not just the Serpentine, but also the site where the memorial is built, a piece of flooded land where trees often died by standing in polluted water. It is an environmentally healing fountain, then, or at least was meant to be.

The granite "knobbles" that texture the water were created by computer-operated drills working from software that mapped how rushing, dappling, leaping water would look. Gustafson started with clay models, which were digitally mapped at Ford's research and development department in the U.S. "Everybody seems to have ignored the good news about this incredible British work on this project." The granite was cut in Northern Ireland, for instance, "Everybody who worked on it did a fantastic job. I called the team the A-team, they were so good."

But then the pump broke, and British pride in its native talents was restored to normal levels. "So the pump broke. It's not headline news," says Gustafson. Actually, it was; but her point is that it shouldn't have been. "So some people fell over. People fall in streams all over the world. I'm not saying these problems and people's injuries aren't important."

What drew her to competing to build the memorial in the first place? "Hyde Park is what lured me," she says surprisingly. "It's just gorgeous and also I had this concern for the park." Intriguingly, she suggests that her conception for the memorial, which has been taken as being a female riposte to high-rise phallic memorials such as the Albert Memorial nearby, was more a response to the park. "Hyde Park is one of the most important parks in the world, and I thought it would be wholly inappropriate to impede or penetrate those views that go down from the site over the Serpentine."

As for Diana, Gustafson confesses she knew little about her until she died. "I have lived and worked in France for 30 years, so British royal news was hardly important. But I remember the day she died. I was in my studio in the U.S. working with a horticultural expert from Wales. He was this irreverent guy. Then the morning she died he called his wife and she told him the news. He just went gray. And I thought, Whoa! This is the last person I would have thought would have been concerned about Diana's death. And it made me think: 'What kind of power is that?"

Gustafson's design was selected after a vote by trustees of the Diana Memorial Fund over a reportedly more avant-garde proposal by British artist Anish Kapoor. "My job was to understand the essence of her and why she was loved, so that when you go to that memorial you feel the essence," says Gustafson. "I read a lot but what impressed me was that like all of us she had positive and destructive things happening to her. But what are little bumps for us were, because of the spotlight, experienced like compressed pressure for her. What impressed me is that she stayed whole throughout it all. Her secret garden, her inner self, her basic integrity stayed with her. That's why it's an oval. It's also contemporary, feminine and flowing. Like her."

Perhaps the Diana memorial will experience the same evolution as Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, which initially faced a lot of hostile criticism but is now very popular. "I hope it will be like that," says Gustafson. She says that she was very aware of how the London Eye became a hit with the London public and it's hard not to imagine she's a little envious. It will take time for people to love her 3.5 million-pound memorial to Diana -- if they ever do.

Born in 1951, Gustafson started professional life as a fashion designer who retrained in France as a landscape designer. "After I did that, my father, who was a surgeon but obsessed with gardening, was so pleased. He felt as though he could talk to me for the first time," she says. Gustafson has designed everything from elegant electricity pylons to a Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, Lebanon. Next month, her garden at the Treasury in Whitehall will open.

Typical is the recently opened Westergasfabriek park in Amsterdam, a site poisoned by toxic gas holders but now a 15-hectare park with reed beds, flowing water and environmentally friendly paths not only for cyclists but also frogs. It's been a wholly lovely experience, Gustafson says. "I loved working on it."

Has she enjoyed working on the Diana memorial? "Yes. It's a fantastic thing to have done. It's the first time I've tried to represent a person. And what a person!" She pauses and then smiles. "But I'm not sure I'll do this kind of thing again."

Stuart Jeffries

MORE FROM Stuart Jeffries

Related Topics ------------------------------------------