February 2013


John Hirst

Work of wonder

The Australian Garden. © John Gollings / Taylor Cullity Lethlean
The Australian Garden

The Australian Garden, a suburban annexe to Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, is now complete. There is a lot of growing still to be done, but a judgement on the project can already be made: after the Opera House, this is the most stunning piece of design in Australia. Garden is a misnomer; it is more a grand sculpture with plants.

The Opera House is married to the Harbour, with water on three sides. The Australian Garden is totally unconnected to its locale. It is a shock to come upon it.

The Royal Botanic Gardens bought a parcel of land at Cranbourne on Melbourne’s south-eastern outskirts in 1970. There were announcements that it was the location of a future Australian garden. I thought this was to be a worthy attempt to render the low scrub that covered the site as a botanical wonderland. The low scrub is still there; visitors are encouraged to hike and picnic in it. It surrounds the Garden, forming a plain wrapping for the gift within, a tableau of the Australian landmass and its flora. 

Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens began, as was the practice of the time, as a scientific project: to collect and cultivate plants, to analyse and order them botanically, and to discover and promote the uses to which they might be put. When William Guilfoyle took over the Gardens in 1873 they were transformed into something else: a romantic landscape in the English mode with broad lawns, enchanting vistas and a classical temple. They became pleasure grounds, though the scientifically inclined could consult the labels on the plants and learn their Latin names.

The Australian Garden was designed by Kevin Taylor, Kate Cullity and Perry Lethlean, landscape architects. In their hands the scientific project was fully resumed. The aim is to display a great variety of native plants and to represent their habitats.

Their firm was not much more than the three partners themselves when it won the contract for the Australian Garden. It now has some 30 employees and regularly wins prizes. It is a firm in the new style: clever, non-hierarchical, no suits, open-plan offices. Perry Lethlean, the director who heads the Melbourne branch, sits with the rest of them. “It’s not an office,” he says, “it’s a design studio.” Staff collaborate on projects around tables and work closely with clients. But that process is firmly guided: “We make sure we get the vision right,” says Lethlean. “Mood, character, intent; all the decisions flow from that.”

Their vision of the Garden began with a huge disc of glowing red sand in which desert plants were to grow, not scattered as in nature, but symmetrically in circular beds. This is the first part of the Garden you see, with the red sand subverting all that you expect of a garden and the tidy beds weirdly restoring it. The approach is emblematic of the whole. The native plants are not used to re-create the bush; they have been regimented and massed into highly artificial, novel forms, bringing them more fully to attention.

The desert garden is closed off; it has to be viewed from above. I assumed the public were kept out for fear they would damage the fragile sand. No, explains Lethlean: “You enter it by the mind and imagination. It’s like the Japanese Zen garden, a miniaturisation, an abstraction” – in this case, very successfully, of something vast.

The best viewing position is from the restaurant, near the entrance. This is the one blot on the landscape, the work of a separate architect who did not co-operate with the Garden’s designers. It was at first built with small windows too high to look out from. These have since been enlarged, but there should also be a broad balcony or walkway from which to view the desert.

Around the desert are grouped other habitats, clearly delineated. The water here is not for picturesque effect, as in the mother garden in Melbourne, but to define river and estuary habitats. There are imitation sandbars and pebbly beaches. The site was once a sand mine with a lake near the entrance. The designers fought hard to have it filled in. This was to be the place for the desert garden. They would make lakes and streams to their own design.

The desert waterway runs alongside a lengthy red escarpment, a massive work in iron, the raw element refashioned to speak of the land from which it was taken. Lethlean is delighted with an accidental discovery made when they were testing the pump that recycles the water. When the pump was turned on, you could hear the approach of the water running over the stones of the creekbed. So now the pump is regularly turned off and on. Sound is one of Lethlean’s preoccupations.

The Gondwana garden displays the plants that were common to the southern landmass from which Australia broke off 40 million years ago, including the recently discovered Wollemi pine. The approach is through the ‘rift path’ with high stone walls on either side suggestive of the break-up of Gondwana. At the moment the walls are blank; a mural showing the break-up might give it more point.

The plant designer of the Garden is Paul Thompson, who worked from the beginning with the landscape architects. Within the Garden, plots have been sublet, as it were, to a number of garden designers who work on a particular theme: gardens of the 1950s, a water-saving garden, a kids’ backyard, a future garden. The aim of the original botanic gardens to educate and instruct has also been fully restored.

The close ordering of the plants gives a French flavour to the Garden – hinted at by the light steel folding chairs – as do its many playful elements. There are collections of colourful watering-cans on poles in the water-saving garden. The garden of the scribbly gums has a broad scribble in concrete crossing the path. It is possible to walk across a lake on lily pads in the form of circular steel grids, with only a low kickboard to prevent a tumble into the water. Somehow the occupational health and safety people have been kept at bay on this project. You can paddle in the desert waterway alongside the red escarpment, though you must paddle between the flags.

Lethlean was very attached to the steel lily pad concept, which was only realised well into the project when further funding came through. Possibly it was his idea, but you don’t get far with Lethlean in establishing individual responsibility. “We don’t think about authorship,” he replies. The garden staff tried to talk him out of the idea on the ground that the pads would soon be covered with duck shit. “Don’t be a worrywart,” was his reply. They are covered with shit.

Other than the desert, visitors can walk through all parts of the Garden. There are two small eminences that allow views of almost the whole Garden. It is a pleasing prospect, not a landscape pretending to be natural, as the mother garden does, but a harmonious assemblage with its own clear purpose. It’s the boldness and confidence with which the native has been reworked that makes this a landmark in our cultural history.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

Cover: February 2013

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