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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 10-Dec-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 27

Wordcount: 1271


Heed the call of nature



Landscape architecture is an old and noble art, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY, and not to be used as a verb.

A friend of mine, a successful London landscape architect, rails passionately against what she calls “landscape as a verb”. This mystifies many people, who see nothing wrong with the notion of “landscaping” something. The red rag, though, is the idea, hidden within that popular assumption, that landscape is something you can roll out around a building, like astroturf, perhaps, or carpet, and cut to fit.

Why the resentment? Because landscape architecture, so its proponents argue, should be considered from the start of a project and designed with the buildings to create a unified whole. Two recent Sydney events – a rare public lecture by the great cult-modernist Bruce Mackenzie and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture (NSW) Annual Awards – suggest this point may bear repetition.

Landscape architecture is a relatively recent name for a relatively ancient artform. The term was first used by a Scot, Gilbert Laing Meason, in his 1828 treatise, On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy. Meason’s focus was on architecture fitting naturally with its landscape, not vice versa.

This emphasis was reversed by the first self-described landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). Olmsted was designer of New York City’s Central Park, champion of the City Beautiful movement and founder, it is generally accepted, of the landscape architecture profession. (He was also sacked from the Central Park project in 1877, much as Griffin and Utzon were later sacked here, although at least by then the park was substantially complete.)

For Olmsted, landscape architecture was one of the highest human callings. “What artist so noble,” he said, “… as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty … sketches the outlines, writes the colours and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realise his intentions.”

It sounds like gender war, put like that, and yet Olmsted’s idea of not just perfecting nature but directing her for years or decades ahead continues to enchant. Bruce Mackenzie touched on it briefly in his recent talk to the Twentieth Century Heritage Society of NSW.

Mackenzie is one of the unsung heroes of Sydney design; unsung because his approach, which later became standard, looks at first like un-design. Landscape architect for many of Sydney’s most accomplished high-modern buildings, Mackenzie pioneered the native bush landscape in Australia; the idea that minimum intervention gave maximum value in a fragile continent.

Mackenzie’s landscapes include UTS’s Ku-ring-gai campus (multi-award winning buildings by David Don Turner); Dee Why Civic Centre and library (Col Madigan); the Australian National Gallery’s sculpture garden, Canberra (also Madigan); the still controversial Pettit and Sevitt houses (Ken Woolley) at St Ives and elsewhere; the Reader’s Digest building in Surry Hills (by John James, including a spectacular roof garden); and the Illoura Reserve, Peacock Point.

All of them are now under threat, partly because they’re so successful that people don’t see them as made landscapes at all but as nature’s handiwork, which therefore begs disdain. UTS’s Ku-ring-gai campus is a prime example. Built as the William Balmain Teachers’ College between 1966 and 1971, it was designed, say its architects, with Italian hill towns in mind – plus a little influence from Frank Lloyd Wright, London brutalism and the “nuts-and-berries” Sydney School.

Though, its presence on the rocky hillside is more castle than hill town, with tiered roof gardens cascading majestically down the incline planted with drought-resistant plants, and internal courtyard gardens bringing full-height scribbly gums and paperbarks into the middle of what would otherwise be dreary university corridors.

In the ’60s builders expected to arrive, raze the site and start work. Mackenzie raised eyebrows by quarantining most of Ku-ring-gai’s 20 bush hectares, despite recent fire damage, behind hurricane-wire fencing and painstakingly protecting even sandstone plateaus with several inches of dirt and fill. By 1971, when the building was opened, even the builder took pride in the bush’s exuberant regeneration.

Now, 40 years on, landscape is still integral to both the castellar massing and the delicate interior, where the greys of eucalypts play against the silvery off-form concrete, infusing the whole with a subtlety and strength that are remarkable in the architecture of any time or place.

However, the threat remains real. If this were manicured garden-scape like, say, Versailles, its demolition would be unthinkable. A bush site, though, automatically classifies as “potential development site”.

Ku-ring-gai came without dowry to UTS, as part of Richard Dawkins’s 1989 shotgun schedule of university-CAE marriages. For UTS, always short of funds, the difficulty of running a major campus with no public transport to speak of (even bus services are almost non-existent in off-peak times) was considerable. No faculty wants to be 25 kilometres from the seat of power, so the exiled disciplines were those already disempowered, such as nursing and education, plus business courses that could stand being in one of the prettiest places in Sydney.

UTS made no secret of its desire to sell the Ku-ring-gai campus, but Ku-ring-gai Council’s opposition was equally clear. In 1995 it rejected UTS’s proposed new access road from Lady Game Drive; in June this year it rejected a rezoning proposal that would pave the way for some 566 residential dwellings.

In the meantime, UTS had acquired title to the land and valued it at $18 million, with a further $34 million of buildings. They’re figures to make you itch, when every dollar in tertiary education is a triumph.

UTS is currently believed to be urging the State government to “call in” the site for rezoning. Such a move would highlight the government’s recent idiocy in cancelling the proposed rail station at UTS Ku-ring-gai, although the new Epping-Chatswood line runs directly beneath the campus.

The best solution is probably Ku-ring-gai Council’s land-swap suggestion, installing North Sydney TAFE at Ku-ring-gai and freeing TAFE’s Gore Hill site for redevelopment. But a rail station would still be good.

The AILA Awards, announced last month, occupy the other end of the spectrum. A nice enough bunch of works, they ranged from the sweet little Camp Cove pathway by Aspect, Sydney, to the BP site at Waverton by McGregor + Partners which, with its extraordinary lengths of timber decking and galvo balustrades to keep us from ever touching nature, won the Overall Design Excellence Award.

My favourite, though, delighting me with its elegance and wit, was Salad Bar, a gridded vertical garden for city types by Turf Design, a growing wall for your strawberries and coriander.

The rest fell broadly into two camps. There were the bureaucratic policy documents (such as Public Art Design Frameworks, Vegetation Management Plans and so on) and the gentrificatory, such as the city council’s doctordolittling of Kings Cross into a good taste centre with matching shop-signs and genteel pavement inlays in memoriam to all that glorious, muscular, flavoursome sleaze.

This is as much down to the clients, as the designers. One can only feel for Olmsted’s “artist so noble”. Oh, for anything tasty, wacky, intelligent, unexpected or grand. Anything without balustrades.

Then again, I do have a whole new part of speech for my London friend to rant over: landscape as an adjective, a describing word. Like cosmetic, decorative or pusillanimous.


TWO PHOTOS: Design growth … the UTS Ku-ring-gai campus, designed by David Don Turner with landscape architecture by Bruce Mackenzie (main); and the Salad Bar by Turf Design. PHOTO: by SAHLAN HAYES


In the December 10 Architecture & Design column, the designer of the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, was incorrectly attributed. It was designed by Harry Howard and Associates in 1978-9.


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