Life & Style |The Steel Cliff
1 Floom Magazine Writer Richard Weston 1


Richard Weston

Professor & Writer

I’ve wanted a pond since childhood and last summer, after taking early retirement as Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University, decided to bite the bullet and make one in my south-west-facing front garden – much to the initial bemusement of the neighbours! It’s in a single-sided close in Dinas Powys near Cardiff: the eight houses face a screen of conifers and are set a metre below the road – ideal for creating the feeling of a private outdoor room.

Along the boundary with the neighbour I designed a ‘Steel Cliff’ backed by a beech hedge. It consists of three layers of bent steel sheets, slotted and welded together on site: the geometry creates small ‘pocket gardens’ that have been planted with Sea Thrift, Creeping Thyme and sempervivums. The ‘Cliff’ rises sheer from the water and as the layers meet the slope they turn at right angles to run across as retaining walls for shallow planting terraces. I chose mild steel rather than Corten because the rust feels more natural and varied – and should still outlive me. The rich, earthy colours come alive in the sun and are a perfect foil to the green foliage and flickering shadows. 

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The pond is edged and crossed by porcelain ‘Stepping Tiles’ with images, captured from 1-2mm details of a Moroccan agate using a microscope, fired into the glaze. Minerals have been a passion for many years and similar images are used to make ‘weston’ scarves for Liberty. Several here include linear crystals growing through the agate that remind me of irises rising from water. The correspondences between radically different scales in nature have always fascinated me and I love the interplay between these permanent squares of porcelain, seasonal changes in the plants, and the evanescent play of light on water – it needs only the slightest movement to turn the reflections of the Steel Cliff into undulating, Gaudí-esque forms.

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The pond is aerated by what I call the ‘Water Volcano’. Made by my friend Rodney Bender of Innovative Glass Products in Swansea, it was created by stacking small shards of recycled glass over a cone of sand and then fusing them together in a kiln. Water ‘erupts’ through a borosilicate glass tube and flows down the irregular surface to create a fringe of tiny waterfalls – the reflections have a decidedly lava-like quality and the sound greatly enhances the feeling of seclusion. 

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The patio extending from the living room is laid in a square steel grid and I thought of it as an abstraction of a seashore. Variously sized pebbles, graded as on a beach, are edged and interspersed by tiles printed with an image from a Hungarian agate that recalls an intricate fractal coastline seen from the air. Small rhomboidal areas of concrete are awaiting prints of images captured from similarly angled calcite crystals, and among the pebbles are occasional shells and polished jasper pebbles – all very grotto-like. Small circles of glass are embedded in the patio to link paving to pond and to reflect light. From Spring to Autumn, tiny circles of light – like constellations of stars – appear across the living room ceiling, while in the winter the low sun reflects off the rippling water to transform the ceiling into a pulsating artificial sky. 

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The strong geometric frame, so vital in a small garden, is softened by naturalistic planting inspired by the pioneer birch woodlands that colonise waste ground and post-industrial sites. I am not a plantsman and for help turned to my friend Vicki Wade, a young garden designer who has won two Gold Medals in the RHS Cardiff Flower Show. Single- and multi-stemmed Himalayan Birch trees (Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’) give height, structure and screening and are surrounded by evergreen grasses and ferns. Seasonal colour is provided by diminutive ‘Tête à Tête’ daffodils (what else in Wales!) and flowering perennials – as I write the Aquilegias are still blooming profusely and the Geum rivale are covered in their delicate, bell-like flowers.

As the fulfilment of a childhood dream, the pond has received its ultimate seal of approval with several visits by a pair of mallards – a new experience for my cats! I suspect they are now preoccupied with tending a nest on a nearby lake but am told they ‘tour’ the ponds of the village and are likely to return.

An award-winning writer on architecture Richard was, until recently, Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University. His many books include the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize-winning monograph on Alvar Aalto; the only authorised study of Jørn Utzon, architect of Sydney Opera House; and the critically acclaimed Materials, Form and Architecture. He has exhibited on several occasions in the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition and his work has been published in numerous magazines. He is now working on art/design apps and a website for children.

Find out more about Richard Weston's work here.