The 2015 Australian Landscape Conference – held in Melbourne in late September – was a memorable two-day session. More than 600 local and international attendees followed the thought-provoking input of landscape designers drawn from overseas and Australia.

These people are expert, energetic, upstanding deep thinkers. Here is what I learned from Martin Rein-Cano (Germany, ex-Argentina), Xavier Perrot (France), James and Helen Basson (France), Diana Wiesner (Colombia) and Thomas Doxiadis (Greece). And from Phillip Johnson (Victoria) and Viesturs Cielens (South Australia)

eco planting Diana Wiesner
Eco planting on the Colombian hills. Design Diana Wiesner

Try to work ‘with the landscape’. This is always a challenge, and as the world’s population expands and open space shrinks, it’s not always possible. Especially in big cities, you need to develop diverse spaces for diverse people – as Rein-Cano has done in Copenhagen, and Wiesner is doing in Bogota. In open countryside, poor soil and harsh climate often shape the scene. James and Helen Basson, working in the south of France, say you must always keep in mind the bigger picture of the landscape, enjoying cracks and crevices, working with and around rocks to create a balance between hard and softer (plant) elements, accepting that during summer, gardens should be allowed to quieten down. Says James:

‘Summer is the hardest time of year for us. And it is the most beautiful.’

Scape Design
Work with and around rocks – Scape Design in France (James and Helen Basson)
Design by Doxiadis+ From the library of
Blend natural landscape with man-made nature and culture – Design by Doxiadis+ From the library of Clive Nichols

Garden design should blend natural landscape with man-made nature and culture. Thomas Doxiadis explained how, in a small open space in a crowded part of Athens, he combined minuscule elements of landscape (like carefully chosen hard materials and plants) with input from locals, who provide anything from volunteer construction to unsolicited graffiti. Martin Rein-Cano imprinted the outlines of a lost Benedictine abbey into an open landscape.

Central Bogota from the air
Blend streams with people/buildings and pieces of open space in Bogota, Colombia. Design Diana Wiesner

We must acknowledge that ever-increasing numbers of people live and move only in large cities. Diana Wiesner believes today’s designers need to develop a more intimate social relationship between cities and their surrounds. In Bogota, for her it’s a question of blending more than 100 streams working down from the mountains (and more often than not, concreted or visually obliterated) with whatever open space can be set up, and with around eight million people. Amazingly, this doesn’t deter her; seek out her website images of skilfully designed public spaces – The Droplet Garden in China, The Third Millennium Park in Colombia – to see how she does it.

SUPERKILEN Design TOPETEK1 with Martin Rein-Cano Image by Iwan Baan
Places for recreation, production and living – SUPERKILEN Design TOPETEK1 with Martin Rein-Cano Image by Iwan Baan

In creating gardens and landscape spaces we must accept the change in velocity that’s occurring in today’s world. Martin Rein-Cano describes this in terms of climate and nature, but also of ever-increasing migration. ‘Everything is faster, and we have to adapt,’ he says – as he did in the internationally award-winning ‘Superkilen’ park, completed in 2012 and now one of Denmark’s 10 most visited sites.

‘Once we made gardens to give us a sense of being rooted to the place. Now we must update our ideas so that they are simultaneously foreign yet belong to the place. Private spaces are less important today, public spaces are more significant (and relevant) as places for recreation, production and living.’

Broad input can be important. Rein-Cano describes people – especially the very high percentage of foreigners in Copenhagen as:

‘a good accident, one of the contextual elements with which you work. You must try to involve them, manipulate them, let them grow. But don’t let them stop your creativity!’

Diana Wiesner says that in making gardens and landscapes, it’s vital to maximise returns from people and (where possible) to give free rein to individual expression.

Design by Phillip Johnson
Atmosphere and light – Design by Phillip Johnson

There’s more to design than planting. Phillip Johnson talks about working with ‘atmosphere and light’ to create different vistas through the day – and about introducing billabongs (through rainwater harnessed from adjoining roofs) to larger garden spaces. ‘The billabong is the soul of my projects,’ he says. ‘It fluctuates with nature, dries up – and then comes back. Gardens and landscapes must be able to adapt to the amazing seasonal change that we are getting in Australia.’ Viesturs Cielens talks about space and time. Ideally he likes to spend a year observing the place where he has been asked to do design work ‘before I put anything on paper’.

Waite Garden Design Viesturs Cielens
Take time to think before designing – Waite Garden Design Viesturs Cielens

Appropriate design need not always cost money. Thomas Doxiadis believes that rather than designing and then assessing cost, one should first ask how much money is available, then decide on the best result. He talks about creatively changing the cost and benefit of landscape projects:

‘‘We have to work with what we have. But we need to show that there is a bit of a future, and how the crisis has taught us to practise differently.”

In Greece, where the financial situation is dire and the landscape market very small, he ‘designs through poverty’, advocating simplicity and replicating intricate plant communities in natural-style design (an approach shared by James and Helen Basson – but queried in friendly style by Martin Rein-Cano). He suggests using recycled materials and volunteer workers; Viesturs Cielens has taken a similarly simple approach since the early 1980s in South Australia’s challenging environment. Designing a large public space around a former industrial complex near Delphi, Doxiadis wanted to retain parts of an old 1950s highway, painting them yellow to encourage children to play. He advocated indigenous plant species like Phlomis and Helichrysum, and placed cafeterias within an existing forest.

Design Cao Perrot
A place for dreaming and imagination – Design Cao Perrot Studio

Gardens are places for dreaming. Xavier Perrot believes in stimulating people’s imagination. There is pure beauty in nature; designers must use this as a starting point, blending it with changes in weather and climate and with the way light comes and goes throughout the day (and night). If you create beauty, he says, you will touch feelings and emotions – whether through using recycled materials, artfully arranged planting, scents, changing colours. As he did with two American projects.

Cloud Terrace Design Cao Perrot Studio
Cloud Terrace, Washington. Design Cao Perrot Studio

A hand-made willow tree set in a lake in Texas has 80,000 mother-of-pearl leaves that look silver in the harsh midday light yet golden as the evening moves in. In the ‘Cloud Terrace’ at Washington DC a clear crystal ‘cloud’ hangs above an elliptical mirror pool that’s surrounded (in early spring) by lush mauve wisteria. There is a sense of arrival, wonder, delight and mystery – for him this is part of creating a garden.

And perhaps this is how it should be, for all of us.