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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2007 Issue

Representing a Continent
A new botanical garden in Melbourne favors reference over replication.

By Marc Treib

Representing a Continent Mark Stoner

As both a continent and a country, Australia challenges those collecting and presenting its flora. The distances across its surfaces are enormous, its geographies are highly varied, its climatic diversity extreme. In response, the number of species of flora and fauna that have evolved—and today still survive—in these conditions is correspondingly vast; among the eucalyptus alone are more than 700 types, all but a handful found native in Australia.

The recently completed Australian Garden at the Cranbourne annex to the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne addresses these horticultural issues square on, but its displays make no attempt to mimic natural patterns found in the wild. The design scores successes on several fronts, finishing off a brilliant conceptual idea with precisely resolved construction details and sophisticated applications of living and inert materials. Although particular to making botanic gardens, many of the concerns that lie behind the design apply more broadly to other landscape typologies as well. These include the composing of ecotopes, visitor orientation and education, the role of imitation in fashioning landscape form, and, not least of all, the art of landscape design in the early years of the 21st century. In addition, the design of the botanical garden raises the greater question of landscape as representation. For example, do designed landscapes that suggest, or even replicate, the natural geographies with which their visitors are familiar provide a more comfortable base from which to understand their ecologies? And what is the role of abstraction in landscape design in general and public landscapes such as these in particular?

The botanical garden represents a specialized type of landscape with demands unique to its mission: to propagate plants from various geographic locations within a limited area governed by local soil and climatic conditions removed from the plant’s point of origin. When the collection comprises only native varieties, or those indigenous to a small nation, the trials may be few. But the difficulties compound accordingly when the institution is faced with the prospect of collecting flora from a vast continent marked by drastic variations in aridity and fertility. Irrigation and amended soils mitigate the problems of moisture and nourishment respectively; glass houses modulate problematic temperatures. But viewed more generally, the notion of assembling plants from around the world within a single ecological zone is inherently fraught with problems.

In the past decade, new botanical gardens have tended to steer a safer course, restricting their collections to species and varieties that thrive under local circumstances. In the Jardi Botŕnic in Barcelona (1999), for example, architects Carlos Ferrater and Josep Lluis Canosa and landscape architect Bet Figueras provided the landscape for vegetation limited to Mediterranean climates. The network of walkways that enmesh the hillside also structures collections from Africa, the Canary Islands, Chile, California, the Mediterranean itself, and Australia, each zone heralded by a small plaza marking the intersection of two or more paths. The lesson learned is that similar climates—thousands of miles apart in location—may generate and support vegetation quite different in size, color, and form.

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