2015 Landscape Designer’s Conference

A Summary

I attend every conference held biennially, commencing with visits to a collection of different gardens for the delegates to peruse. I personally find this the most interesting part of the whole conference. But the speakers, with the exception of only one, were this time very interesting and inspiring.

For at least the last 3 conferences, the overwhelming consensus of opinion has been towards sustainable landscapes. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Art and Nature: Conflict and Harmony in the Landscape’, but each speaker, the bulk of whom were international, continually referred to the sustainable aspects of their work and often the fact that it can be difficult to get clients to understand the need for this shift. But it is not just clients who are not absorbing this move; landscape designers themselves do not appear to have a proper understanding of what a sustainable landscape really entails. As the winner of last year’s Landscaping Victoria ‘The Sustainable Landscape’ and the owner/designer of Australia’s first and only Ecotourism garden, I feel that I have at least a modicum of knowledge and experience to substantiate this claim. And I have been invited to assist with the classification for ‘The Sustainable Landscape’ for future entries in the Landscaping Victoria awards process.

One of the gardens that we visited was Phillip Johnson’s own private garden at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. He was also a speaker at the conference. His manner of delivery is inspirational, robust and ‘ebullient’ as a friend of mine suggested. But I take issue with his concept of sustainable, and I feel that the international speakers may have also been rather surprised with his take on sustainability. His own garden is so highly engineered that it is most definitely not sustainable. The massive earthworks machinery that would have been required to move into place massive rocks alone is unsustainable. I think that the thought process is that if the rock is locally sourced, which I believe in this instance they were, that then it is OK to use them and place them with heavy duty earthworks machinery. This is not so. Sustainable landscapes are about using the site as it presents, not reconstructing the whole site to accommodate whims in the form of a billabong – no matter how good it looks.

The international speakers were Martine Reine-Cano, a German who hails from Buenos Aires; Helen and James Basson, an English couple working in Southern France; Thomas Doxiadis who works in the Greek Isles, Xavier Perrot from Brittany who works with Andy Cao on international projects, and Diana Viesner from Columbia, South America. The Australian speakers were Phillip Johnson and Viesturs Cielens from South Australia. Phillip was inspirational about his billabongs which really are remarkable – but not sustainable. The other chap – I turned off. I thought he was a bore.

I find at these conferences that there is a strong degree of modesty associated with the delivery by the international speakers. It is not quite the case with Australian speakers which is disappointing. I personally think that Australia has been left well behind the rest of the world in relation to how it manages sites for landscape design. There is far too much intervention and hard landscaping.

One of the international speakers, James Basson alluded to the entrenched habit of creating outdoor rooms with outdoor kitchen. I have thought for many years that this practice is obscene; it is refreshing to hear that others are of the same opinion. And in many respects this practice is an Australian phenomenon. So maybe the Australian landscape designers need to rethink how they manage sites, so that they are less ostentatious, because it really is just an ugly display of wealth. Why not donate this surplus money to some worthy cause in the name of philanthropy?

Throughout the garden visits, there was evidence of repeated use of Brachychiton rupestris, the Bottle Tree and a Kurrajong. Many of these plants hadn’t factored in the eventual width of their girth and will barely last in their current position. What is the point in planting these trees, only to have to remove them because of inappropriate initial placement? It suggests a considerable lack of horticultural knowledge when this happens. And plants make a garden, so this knowledge is imperative to any worthy garden designer.

A very salient comment made by Thomas Doxiadis was about the effect of climate change leading to zone shifts. Our current climate is broken into zones. With the increasing incidence of climate change, all these parameters that determine our zones will change. He made reference to the massed migration from troubled Middle Eastern countries and the effect of this on the world. But he also commented that Australia may very well end up having mass emigration to cooler countries if climate change isn’t resolved before the earth’s temperature gets too high. AND these migrants will be the wealthy looking for a better climate i.e. ‘economic migrants’.

I would dispute a comment made by James Basson in his first talk that ‘a garden should never be flat’. I have designed many a flat garden and with the right interpretation of the site, they can look absolutely fabulous. And for a sustainable fanatic, his comment was wrong because he would have had to manufacture the site to change the flatness. Sustainability is always to leave the site as it is.

And a quote that I particularly enjoyed, said by James Basson once again and quoting Penelope Hobhouse ‘You have to be old to be good at garden design’ suggests that at my age, I am just about there! Penelope Hobhouse has been a speaker at earlier conferences; she is a remarkable mature aged landscape designer who is highly regarded worldwide. And she is right – it takes years and years to learn our trade; plants take many years to learn, not only the plants’ botanical name but how it grows and what conditions it likes for optimum growth. And a good designer needs to have a massive repertoire of plants to draw from for different situations. This is what differentiates a good landscape designer from a dull, bland designer – they know a lot of plants to make their gardens come alive.

Alison Aplin