Dezeen Magazine

Sebastian Cox

"Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet" says Sebastian Cox

Biodiversity should be promoted over aesthetics, says designer Sebastian Cox in this interview following the rewilding of a golf course as part of the Birch Selsdon hotel in South Croydon, UK.

Margate-based Cox has been rewilding 230 acres of land at the recently completed Birch Selsdon hotel in South Croydon since January of last year.

"Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that we are in a crisis," said Cox, who recently discussed regenerative practices as a guest on Dezeen's ongoing Climate Salon podcast.

"We're in a climate and biodiversity emergency, and I am increasingly disinterested in aesthetics and much more interested in systems," he told Dezeen at Birch Selsdon.

Rewilded golf course in South Croydon
Sebastian Cox has rewilded a former golf course at the Birch Selsdon hotel

The hotel's site includes a former 18-hole golf course, which was rewilded – the process of allowing habitats to return to their natural state by minimising human intervention.

It has become a rolling landscape of grasses and wildflowers such as orchids, evening primroses and oxeye daisies, in what the hotel describes as one of London's biggest rewilding programmes.

Designs must "influence and change" people's aesthetic preferences

Cox, who is known for crafting solid-wood furniture from timber harvested at his own managed woodland in Kent, believes that projects like this can change people's perceptions of outdoor space.

"The biggest responsibility we [designers] have as a profession is to influence and change culture, and people's aesthetic preferences."

"And so first of all, we should be downgrading aesthetics in terms of their importance when we're assessing something," continued the designer.

"And if we are going to consider aesthetics, we should be thinking along the lines of what the needs of the natural world are if we want to acknowledge and try to tackle the emergencies that we've created."

The golf course has been left untouched with the exception of small visitor trails and oversized timber seating made by Cox, who rewilded the site alongside landscape designer Imogen McAndrew.

Cox plans to introduce a small number of grazing animals including sheep and pigs, which will distribute seeds and encourage the growth of more flora and fauna.

Wild orchids at Birch Selsdon hotel
Wildflowers including foxgloves have emerged at the site

According to the designer, the golf course provided fertile ground for a rewilding project because the old parkland was originally underpinned by a strong seed bank. By simply ceasing mowing and using chemicals on the ground, "the native flora was all waiting and ready to go," said Cox.

"People think that with rewilding you need to sprinkle wildflower seeds," he explained. "It's not true at all. The first principle should be that you stop cutting [the landscape] back and see what grows through and then make your assessment."

"As soon as you stop that process, what you realise is that you're sitting on a mosaic of different habitats," he continued.

There are also plans to dig a pond in a naturally wet, clay-based area of the site that will be left to fill up with rain and create a watering hole for the wildlife.

Cox explained that if animals were not introduced to the rewilded site and it was allowed to grow without any intervention, the site would become woodland within 20 to 30 years.

"That's where the herbivores come in – they suppress the trees from growing too vigorously or too abundantly, but they also then allow some to grow through," he said.

"It's not about creating a zoo or a sort of nature reserve for nature only," continued Cox. "It's a cultural landscape – so we do recognise that humans have a place here."

"There isn't a single corner of the UK that isn't human-influenced"

Cox advocated for the rewilding of Britain's heavily-manicured golf courses, which occupy five times as much of England's landscape as orchards, according to a recent report by The National Food Strategy – an organisation that describes itself as the first independent review of England's food system in almost 80 years.

However, the designer warned of the risks of rewilding land that could otherwise be used to grow crops locally.

"When we think about restoring nature, if we are talking about removing farmland to do that, we [Britain] are already massive importers of food – something like 50 per cent of our food comes from overseas," said Cox.

"So when we say we're going to remove this area of farmland and rewild it, what we're actually talking about is effectively importing more food."

"When we talk about rewilding in the UK context, very quickly, it becomes potentially problematic in terms of being quite a colonial approach," continued the designer.

"We've ruined our own nature through years and years of intensification. Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet, which is crazy."

"We're in the bottom 25 per cent of countries in the world in terms of where our nature was and where it is now. There isn't a single corner of the UK that isn't human-influenced, at some point," he added.

Birch Selsdon hotel occupies a 19th-century mansion
The project forms part of the development of the Birch Selsdon hotel in South Croydon

Cox believes that architects and designers should become more in touch with their immediate surroundings, which is an idea referenced in his 2019 manifesto Modern Life from Wilder Land.

"What this comes down to is, designers and architects who are removed from the landscape need to acknowledge that if they procure any kind of material it has an ecological impact somewhere in the world," said the designer. "We've all got way too used to feeling like things just come from somewhere overseas."

"I acknowledge globalisation, and I see that as important to an extent, but I think we need to question it and think about how we can behave on local scales at a global scale as well," he continued.

"Beauty is irrelevant to the needs of nature"

Cox stressed the importance of rewilding to encourage biodiversity but also the necessity of maintaining more managed landscapes in order for humans to produce resources and "survive as a species".

"I think that the key thing to all of this is how do we use our land?" he said. "Because rewilding happens in one setting, forestry happens in another and we need to acknowledge that human need does matter. I don't advocate that we all just kind of forage for our existence."

At Birch Selsdon, Cox worked with London studio A-nrd, the hotel's interior designer, to turn trees harvested from the grounds into furniture while the hotel's various restaurants will also incorporate surplus nettles from the site into their menus.

Entrance lobby of Birch Selsdon hotel
Cox and A-nrd created furniture from timber harvested from the site

Cox urged designers to be led by the natural materials locally available to them and said that in some instances, swapping stone walls for hedgerows could encourage biodiversity when creating area boundaries.

"The fact that we're all obsessed with oak and walnut completely baffles me," he said. "Nature shouldn't be subjected to these short-term trends."

"Beauty is irrelevant to the needs of nature," continued Cox.

"We should be working with the materials that are produced via landscapes and inverting that relationship from one where human need comes first [and instead] actually looking at what it is that nature wants to give us."

The portrait is courtesy of Sebastian Cox and the photography is by Adam Lynk.

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