Denis Wilkinson – who had a brief but highly active and influential career in landscape architecture in Manitoba – was raised in the northern English town of Sunderland. Wilkinson graduated with diplomas in Architecture and Landscape Architecture from Durham University’s Kings College before departing to earn a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.
Upon receiving this degree he was hired by the prominent Philadelphia office of Karl Linn; this position was followed by employment in the San Franscisco practice of Lawrence Halprin. It was while working in California that Wilkinson was offered, in 1962, an appointment in Winnipeg by University of Manitoba School of Architecture Dean John A. Russell. Russell had been in contact with University of Pennsylvania professor Ian McHarg – under whom Wilkinson had studied – in in regard to the Canadian school’s establishment of a program in landscape design. While the University of Manitoba did not yet have a program devoted to landscape architecture, the plan was for Wilkinson to work as a landscape architect on campus while also lecturing at the school and aiding in the development of a new department focusing on this field.
In 1964 Wilkinson submitted a “Proposed Landscape Programme for the Campus of the University of Manitoba” to the school’s Board of Governor’s. This strategy aimed to set the campus apart from its suburban context by creating an “aura of eloquence, beauty and meaning.” This goal to be achieved by means of such gestures as the planting of a double row of trees at the campus’s edge, the pedestrianization of some internal corridors (including that between the central Administration building and University Crescent), the widening of pedestrian corridors, an increase in the number of covered or sheltered building-to-building corridors, wide-scale tree planting and berm-building and the introduction of meeting places such as fountains and sculptures at the intersection of paths. The project was ambitious; for the summer of 1964 the approximate cost of tree planting was to be $37,500. While the full extent of this plan was never realized, a number of aspects were, including the introduction of trees and berms in the area of the Russell, Music and Fine Arts (now Architecture II) buildings and a number of decorative sculptural bases. It has been noted that this design also introduced native tree and shrub species, as in such sites as Carson and Bowles Court (both since modified).
Beyond his work at the university, during his time in Winnipeg Wilkinson also participated in a small number of other projects. Amongst these was the landscape design of Libling Michener’s Southwood Village (Snow Street, 1967; Leslie Stectcheson, project architect). Here, above a parking garage, Wilkinson created a serene interior court with curvaceous paths and extensive and diverse planting, complimented by benches, sculptural installations and a fountain. Two of these sculptures were designed by renowned Canadian artist Joe Fafard (then a student in the university’s Fine Arts program) and three – plus the lovely, stepped fountain – were executed by Wilkinson. In addition, in the course of this five years in the city Wilkison was responsible for the design of the Steinkopf Gardens at the Manitoba Centennial Centre (555 Main Street & 190 Rupert Avenue, 1967), a sunken garden which runs in-line with James Street. Named for Maitland Steinkopf – a former member of the provincial government who over saw the Centennial Centre’s development – the Steinkopf Gardens originally featured a large pool holding sixteen fountains, above which was suspended a twisting stairwell connecting the ground level to the lower space. A series of ground-level concrete stairwells also descended from the east, with sloped plantings of birch, pine and other species held to the side by slightly off-set, meandering walls. (This space was modified during a 2011 renovation by Winnipeg landscape architecture firm Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram.)
While in Manitoba, Wilkinson was furthermore engaged in such commissions as the grounds of St. Paul’s High School (2200 Grant Avenue, Winnipeg, 1964), the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant (1331 Inkster Boulevard), the Villa Rosa Home (784 Wolseley Avenue), and Westwood Village and work on the campuses of the Universities of Saskatchewan; two of these projects were in relation of Libling Michener designs. In 1968 Wilkinson departed Winnipeg to assume a position as associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was short lived and he returned to England where he started a private practice out of his home in Harrogat. Wilkinson also taught part-time at both the Leeds Polytechnic Institute and at the Manchester Polytechnic Institute. He returned to Winnipeg in 1988 to participate in the Canadian Society of Landscape Architect Congress. Wilkinson is listed as a member of the Landscape Institute.