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Garden Design

Review: Landscape Australia Conference, Sydney

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

May 20, 2017

The Landscape Australia Conference** in Sydney on 6 May was interesting, well presented and organised, covered a good range of topics and kept me alert and attentive all day, even in the dreaded after-lunch-and-now-in-the-dark-watching slides timeslot.

Organised by Architecture Media, publishers of Landscape Australia magazine, the one day conference at Sydney’s UTS had both international and local speakers. Two speakers presented per session, followed by a panel discussion with a moderator who was also expert in that field and co-ordinated some Q&A from the audience. Although I enjoyed each presentation, I particularly liked the more informal panel discussion. If a moderator is knowledgeable, personable and has listened attentively, she/he can can bring together the themes of the talks and tease out the complexities of the ideas, often giving a more obvious and understandable ‘take home’.

While the theme of this one-day conference started off about beauty, the take home ideas for me were:

  • we can learn even more than I had realised from indigenous landowners about land management practices that create more biodiverse and resilient landscapes
  • respect and learn from the ancient traditions of garden making
  • understanding that gardens and landscapes are both ephemeral and long-term in equal measure.
  • that plants are at the heart of the best landscapes and gardens, whether it’s a prairie rooftop in the US, a tropical garden in India or an Islamic garden in snowy Canada.


SESSION ONE – Aesthetic Perception

Thomas Woltz – I’ve heard Thomas speak before at the Australian Landscape Conference in Melbourne a few years ago and knew to expect the best, as he is an exceptionally articulate and compelling presenter. And to have designed a landscape in which trees are allowed to grow, only to be cut down in their maturity…well, you’ll have read on now to learn why!

Opening his discussion about beauty, Thomas quoted writer Wendell Berry:

“You don’t know who you are until you know where you are”

to explain how the best practice of horticulture is to connect us to place. He rejects the current ‘pattern-making’ trend in landscape architecture and looks to the “richness of stories in the soil” and a landscape architecture where “form should be bound to ecology“.

Thomas walked us through a few indicative projects, including a native American plant wetland prairie on the site of an old naval cemetery at Wallabout Bay, and also the massive and solemn 9/11 Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania. However the most striking and original Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) project is the Memorial Groves in Houston, Texas.

This site was originally a forest/savannah/prairie that was fire-managed by local Indian tribes who kept a balanced mix of bald cypress, pine, sweetgum and oak which ensured an open forest that supported game like bison and deer for hunting. However the complete clearing for the site for the Camp Logan WW1 training camp and then unmanaged revegetation through the 20th century after it became a memorial park in 1924, has caused the proliferation of dense thickets and many weed species like camphor tree, Chinese tallow and privet. From 2011, the lack of biodiversity combined with a decade of debilitating drought killed off about 80% of the forest trees across the park.

The new masterplan will remove invasive species, and replant 105,000 seedling trees. According to the NBW design, these trees will be planted in grids, representing the marching soldiers that once paraded across these grounds. And then we have the most controversial part of the design – when any forest grid reaches the age of 25 (the average age of a soldier who died in WW1), each tree will be ceremoniously cut to the ground, and then replanted the following Armistice Day, symbolising both death and renewal. Have you ever heard of that in a public park before?

I also very much enjoyed Thomas describing the garden that NBW has designed for the Aga Khan in Canada. In a time when the demonisation of Muslims fills the news, it was wonderful to learn about a garden being made that represents the culture of learning and equality of Ismaili Muslims, even if creating an Islamic garden in the freezing cold Alberta seems a little whacky.


Andy Hamilton – Andy has worked extensively with Tom Stuart Smith in the UK and talked about the ‘New Perennial Movement’, pioneered by designers like Oudolf and showcased to the world in New York’s famous High Line park. He described the opening of the High Line as a “line in the sand“, after which people have come to expect richer planting schemes in public parks.

The New Perennial Movement, which at first concentrated on block planting of perennials and grasses, has now become more nuanced and subtle, with a diversity of complimentary species scattered through a planting matrix, so that

“the eye dances across the plants”

This planting design is mostly too complex for plan drawing and is better done in situ, with the designer setting out the plants prior to planting. Although much landscape design training pushes designers towards a perceived need for simplicity and repetition to create satisfying plant pictures, Andy ably demonstrated that a highly complex planting scheme can succeed in even tiny spaces like window boxes.

A greater diversity of species also means that it’s possible to recreate stable wildflower communities like those found in the North American prairie. Although most wildflower meadows have used these plants, Andy is now working on a seed mix of Australian and South African species that’s sown 18 months in advance. While the mix and ratio of plants is predetermined, the results appear pleasingly random and uncontrived.

Andy also walked us through a couple of notable projects on which he was the lead landscape architect, including the marvellous Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech, Morocco, and a private tropical garden in Kerala, India. I particularly loved this garden, as it avoided all the obvious ‘resort-style’ garden clichés of colourful foliage, mass planting and regimented trees, instead emphasising sinuous lines of textural contrast and green-on-green foliage through the garden, the elegance of curving tree trunks and stone crazy paving that’s reminiscent of naturally cracked earth. Beautiful stuff.

Moderator for Session One: Katrina Simon, designer and visual artist


SESSION TWO – Indigenous Land Management

Bill Gammage – What a riveting talk this was! Bill’s work will already be known to many who have read his extraordinary 2012 book The Biggest Estate on Earth – how Aborigines made Australiareviewed here on GardenDrum by James Beattie. It’s an extensive and well-researched body of work which reveals, through 18th and 19th century paintings, descriptions and later photographs from all around Australia that the landscape which European settlers found when they first pushed into Aboriginal territory was not an untamed wilderness, filled with the thick undergrowth we now call ‘the bush’. In fact, it consistently reminded them of a “gentleman’s park” (Robert Dawson) or a “lightly timbered” country estate, with wide open grasslands interspersed with copses of trees and tongues of shrubbery. These beautiful landscapes, many with picturesque vistas to distant landmarks, were created by Aboriginal people using one main tool – controlled burning.

Bill explained how regular burning prevented irregular burning – the life-destroying wildfires that now threaten many of our towns and cities each year, and how this taming of fire to create landscapes that suited the nomadic, hunting and gathering Aboriginal lifestyle was a great achievement. Firestick farming used seasonal patterns of hot burns, no burn, grass-only fires and burning the edges of forests. It kept grass growing on the richest, most productive soils (rather than trees), prevented wildfire, maintained diversity, ensured an abundance of food and allowed resources to be easily located.

Although firestick farming is still very much a cultural tradition of northern and Western Australian Aboriginal tribes, I wonder how much of this traditional knowledge has stayed with those of eastern and southern Australia.


Ralph Johns – Ralph explained in his mihimihi (Māori for introductory speech), that he was originally from ‘Old South Wales’ and is now New Zealand based. He talked about Māori attitudes to land, including concepts such as ‘whenua‘, where the land is accorded the same rights as any human. His Isthmus practice considers urban design to be a holistic process that involves land, people and culture.

Ralph’s ideas are firmly fixed in public landscape architecture being driven by the distinctive character of the place, rather than any designer’s ideas about creating disembodied perfect places.

The Onehunga Foreshore project in Manukau that Ralph talked most engagingly about was a challenging one – reintegrating a foreshore cut off from its hinterland after the construction of a coastal highway. It’s a road planning blunder all too evident in many coastal towns and cities, where the very thing the drew people to that place through history – beach, sea, shells, fish and rocks – is, in the present, forcibly divorced from its place by six or more lanes of constant traffic. The ‘new’ Onehunga Foreshore, connected to the town by a pedestrian bridge over the road will recreate as closely as possible that which was lost, with the hand of the designer only faintly visible in pedestrian promenades and a few built elements.


Moderator for Session Two: Professor Jakelin Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research at USyd and Ngarigu woman from the Snowy Mountains.


SESSION THREE – Landscape Resilience

Sylvia Karres – so what insights can a Dutch landscape architect working on dykes and generally water-filled landscapes, often a scary number of metres below sea level, offer those who live on one of earth’s driest continents? I was surprised at how much I got out of Sylvia’s talk, who, as it turns out has done quite a lot of work in Australia including collaborating on Melbourne’s Federation Square. In fact that word, ‘collaboration’ came up very frequently in Sylvia’s presentation and it reminded me how often professional women like to work in that way, bringing together the best minds who prefer to commit to a team-oriented rather than personal result.

Sylvia’s work is big picture, public landscape architecture stuff but it’s clear (refreshingly) that her focus is always on the people that will use these spaces, rather than just the elegance of the layout or form. The new landscape outside the Kunst Museum in Copenhagen is a magnet for people, with its 32m-wide central pond inviting a ‘sit-around’ rather than ‘walk-by’ atmosphere for visitors.

One of Sylvia’s ares of interests is in the reworking and extending of old cemeteries to welcome new faiths and cultures, using ground-level burial vaults, columbariums and urn gardens.

The only downside to Sylvia’s talk was that she’d tried to fit in too many projects, leaving us to whiz through a lot of tantalising slides in the last few minutes. (Read more at karres+brands)

Alexis Sanal – Unfortunately time was against me staying to hear Alexis speak about her design practice in Turkey. If any GardenDrum reader can fill me in on her presentation, I’d be very glad to know more!

Moderator for Session Three: Claire Martin, landscape architect with Oculus, Sydney


The other important stuff:

Food and drink: morning and afternoon teas were great but the lunch table was a little light on for quality offerings for those who, like me, got caught up in interesting conversations on the way to where it was being served.

MC: Editor of Landscape Australia magazine Ricky Ray Ricardo kept the day humming along more or less to schedule without having to resort to bossiness.

Sponsors: great to see well-known brands like Ozbreed, Porter’s Paints and Christie Parksafe supporting landscape education.

The verdict: All in all, this was an excellent conference to which I’ll give ★★★★ (4 stars out of 5). And I am also delighted to be able to give it a gender balance ‘Edna’s Score‘ of 46%, allocating 2 points each for keynote speakers and one point each for moderators.


[Catherine Stewart attended the Landscape Australia Conference as a guest of Architecture Media]

** Please note that this Landscape Australia Conference from Architecture Media, the publisher of Landscape Australia magazine, is a different from the Australian Landscape Conference, organised by Warwick and Sue Forge and held in Melbourne every second year. The next ALC is in Melbourne in March 2018, coinciding with the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show.

Landscape Australia magazine last held an ‘Australian Landscape Conference’ in the late 1990s.

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6 years ago

This sounds like my kind of conference. Music to my ears to hear, “you don’t know who you are until you know where you are”.

6 years ago

I love Bill Gammage….there…I’ve said it.

But this bit – ” And then we have the most controversial part of the design – when any forest grid reaches the age of 25 (the average age of a soldier who died in WW1), each tree will be ceremoniously cut to the ground, and then replanted the following Armistice Day, symbolising both death and renewal. Have you ever heard of that in a public park before?”

…and I never want to hear of it again. I love America, but sometimes they take the cake for inane pretension.

Nice report Catherine, thankyou. Good to hear the whole new perennial movement marches on. Got a lot of legs contained within it IMHO.