An interview with Peter Connolly. Interviewers are Kirsten Bauer and Chris Sawyer.
Kirsten Bauer: Peter can you start by explaining who do you think you are and what your practice has been for the last ten years?
Peter Connolly: I see myself as an educator, a designer who is an educator. One of the things about being an educator is that I feel it is an incredibly privileged position to be in. I am interested in how people design very concretely. Being an educator gives you the luxury to sit with people on a very close basis and watch every little move they make, where they are going, what they are trying to do and the greater ambition they have. My research has been based on following through someone’s initial ambition to where they take that and all the things in between.
The practice involves the study of concreteness of design and how abstract ambitions are dealt with in concrete ways. There is an over-riding interest in experimentation, which is how do you produce something that is new and open to a notion of a newness? In order to understand that, you have to know how conventional practice works, so I pay a great deal of attention to how things tend to be done professionally, academically, by students, by landscape architects and all the limitations and propensities that come with that: what is powerful and at the same time limiting about it.
Chris Sawyer: What are the particular qualities of being landscape educator in Australia that might be different from being an educator elsewhere?
PC: There is some conservative aspect, which comes with being a post-colonial culture. You tend to take things from elsewhere and follow the path of least resistance, but there is also another side, which a psychologist in a recent interview described as being like teenager. Slightly wild and not clear what you are meant to be doing and so there is this space there, an interesting space to explore things and I think a lot of a interesting Australian designers are people who are able to embrace this.
KB: How does that work in an environment where people can suggest that we appropriate other theory from other countries?
PC: A theory is a set of related notions of things that do something, they are useful and you throw them away if they are no good and get another one. You always have to do that. The good writers of theory, the ones who are most influential, design their writing to be like that. So I think for some Australians they use it as a judgement thing, if it works it is almost an aesthetic issue: is it working, does it seem hollow, does it gel, does it propel things.
KB: Considering the theme of Kerb is rural/regional would you suggest that there are any design techniques or theories which relate to these grander processes operating in our country?
PC: Is this some kind of hankering for the Dutch condition?
KB: Where is the Australian equivalent in landscape theory and technique?
PC: Firstly think it is irrelevant to Australia because that is a it Dutch thing and it maybe totally inappropriate to desire such a thing. Their condition is incredibly narrow and narrow in a way that allows them to focus on it. From the studio I did in the Mallee and other studios, the settlement patterns of Australia are light and have their own logic, which I think is very powerful. And you get that in urban situations as well as very rural ones. I don’t think landscape techniques deal with that. They tend to be more arrangement. composition and function and that stuff doesn’t deal with some of those powerful but seemingly weak conditions.
KB: There is pressure at the moment for the universities to be more locally specific, but more competitive in the global economic structure?
PC: Locally specific in what sense?
KB: In the sense that you have to be incredibly specific and regional in your approach and the way you educate and what you produce. At the same time the lack of funds makes this objective very difficult to achieve.
PC: I guess in terms of the local/global problem, it is always as though it is either one or the other. Local has always been global and the current so- called globalisation is merely another round of changes. The medieval world was a global world with a global economy. So this is just a different version of that.
CS: Yet in many ways globalisation has contributed to the erosion of traditional boundaries, including the sense of ‘national’character which has long shaped perceptions of the country. Today these types of boundaries are dissipating, allowing more flexible points of view and in doing so reinvigorating the specifc. What does this mean for a local landscape culture?
**PC:**To me, you don’t set out to make a local design culture, you have a particular site of opportunity that you are in and you try in and make the most of that. In the seventies there was a whole lot of discussion about genus loci and it tended to assume or explain it in of terms of cause and effect - that is, Sydney is, has its character because of the Rocks. It was essentialist.
KB: Would you like to define the conventional and technique, and explain what those terms mean with examples?
PC: In terms of convention I looked at where students came to a dead-end in what they were doing, how they were unproductive. I was trying to demonstrate that there is this in-built theory in landscape architecture. One of the functions of theory is to show the workings of such things and how they are unproductive and those in-built things tend to be clichéd and simplistic and don’t really deal with the world very well.
Then there are many conventions of landscape practice that do very concrete things. I am interested in how certain ways of doing have certain effects and they tend to repeat themselves. It is very easy to dismiss things, which are conventionally practised. Landscape design practice is very efficient, it has a start and a finish and it gets the stuff out. An office is like a very powerful machine and it has all sorts of propensities, which you could never in get in your own bedroom as a student. How can you treat that as an art you can learn from?
KB: Are you offering that practice is also a design technique?
PC: In practice you deal with all sorts of wild connective-ness to the world, which you can never get in an institution and you have the whole machine of the economy of an office running, which you have to keep up with and or you can steer that or you can let it steer you. A good office is one in which the economic motor and the art of it run together.
KB: What is technique then?
PC: It is concretely about how you use representation or how you relate to representation. For example, you can do all sorts of things with a shovel that you can’t do with a pen, but there is this incredible power you have once you use representation. You can shift whole mountainsides or try out three different versions of the of mountain and adjust it: You can’t do that with a shovel. The negative implication is that representation and landscape architecture have a very perplexing relationship and both the propensities and the complexities aren’t really given much attention. Most conventional practice tends to assume that representation is a picture of design. If you let yourself be taken by that, then you tend to regard form as scenographic.
CS: So technique might be universal in that sense. Our job as landscape architects then becomes about managing the collision of technique and the local condition.
PC: You don’t even have to think about the regional question: if you are attentive to how you are dealing with things, then you almost invariably deal with the is difference which is local. I feel as though there is a general lack of faith in the everyday world, a denial of the here and now and of how do you do something that deals with that.
KB: Do you think that is reflected in the way a lot of designers and teachers talk about designing unique Australian landscape now? There still seems some pressure, in that you are only a good Australian designer once you have designed the unique Australian landscape.
PC: I don’t know about the iconic landscape. Maybe I have been in an environment that tends to be somewhat anti-romantic. did some typological research, which dealt with surf-lifesaving clubs along the bay. The condition of the clubs in Melbourne (on the east side of the bay) is such that, at sunset, at a certain time of the year, on certain days, families will travel down the east-west roads for ten kilometres from the far eastern suburbs. They will leave at a certain time and they have to park at the right place, so they will have visual access for their kids and to be able to get to the fish and chip shop and they will also go to a place which is not too crowded. So they will always be negotiating with all of sorts of factors. Each one of these places has multiplicity. As Deleuze says, nature is not ‘is’ it is ‘and’ ‘and’ ‘and’… Once you look at all the connections something gains weight, something gains speed.
KB: Why are students and practitioners trapped into those streetscape bits and pieces rather than understanding that the streetscape IS part of that?
PC: think it is actually very hard work. Our culture has been scenographic culture for the last two hundred years. It is certainly understandable that designers who come from a scenographic culture are obsessed with visual things. When you design according to a brief, it is very easy to see that what is beyond that is not important. The economy sort of works against you as well, you have to complete it in a certain timeframe. How can you be economic as well as detailed with connections?
CS: You face it everyday in practice; there is a whole lot more you want to look to at but you just can’t and I am just trying to find a way of circumventing that situation or adapting to it.
PC: Deleuze uses the term ‘sobriety’, sober act. He talks about multiplicity and richness. How do you deal with the complexity of the world and the functioning of that in a simple way? The old way in landscape was to look at all the factors and it was the comprehensive, rational, planning model and it was linear and it it supposedly legitimated an end point. The world actually works very differently from that. The world works catastrophically, as inflections and repetitions. With the surf-lifesaving clubs, if you can let yourself see how they repeat, you can actually see how all the factors relate to each other and it is not that you are interested in all the factors, you actually want to be strategic. You are only after the factors that are relevant to you: the ones that make a difference. It might be the height of a wall, a which might affect the whole relationship of the suburb to the water.
CS:How articulate as a society do we have to be for these types of issues to start having an impact on the way landscape architecture is practiced? How do you teach people to become aware of these other events that maybe ‘unseen’ and do you think there is a mechanism by which we can become more observant?
PC: I sense some anxiety in the question, which I find a little bit a foreign. To me it isn’t about once we were blind but now we can see because now we have this new theory. Whatever becomes useful you head off in that direction and make connections. Anxiety stems from thinking you have to have total control. It is much more pragmatic to be able to make small steps with what works. In the last decade I have seen amazing things in Melbourne with the way people do design.
CS: I am still anxious.
PC: It is good to be anxious. It is really easy to be critical of these current times, when you have this economic philosophy which seems to be dominant. One of the problems with that way of thinking is that there is always a truth behind things, which you can then find. think there is a pragmatism now which has two sides. One which is totally accepting of how things are; ‘psychological correctness’ and you just go with wherever that takes you. The other is that you can construct and discover things, which aren’t those cliched truths, which were probably never there anyway. They may have been’ strategic at the time but they are irrelevant now. You can discover new connections; it is about making connections.
KB: I am wary of getting kerb propositions like, what is the role of landscape architecture in the regional environment. Do you think it is productive to continually try to and define the role of landscape architecture now and in the future?
PC: I think it comes back to the idea that you inhabit a certain site, from that point you can then work out what connections you can make, what potentials there, are. If the site is in Melbourne, what can you do institutionally, what connections can you make in practice, what is relevant out in the world? Regional questions don’t seem to be that relevant in Melbourne, but in Western Australia they seem to be more relevant.
KB: Do you get the impression that regional communities are starting to put pressure on urban communities to take some responsibility and that is being enforced politically as well as emotionally. Shifts are starting to occur on that level.
PC: I imagine there is some sort of political economy, which may to need to implement big changes in the Murray-Darling Basin. Those things in the past would have been dealt with as engineering exercises to and may still need to be dealt with as engineering exercises or social planning exercises, but everything seems to be much more integrated and so landscape may have some sort of role in there.
KB: Do you feel that you have some sort of statement. Do you feel a conclusion should be something that you offer in terms of possibility or an observation?
PC: One of the most perplexing issues is this relationship to representation. For you to be able to produce anything at all you have to appropriate something from the world into representation. It isn’t just a graphic thing. When you are dealing with the world, the world confronts you in some way and this isn’t usually recognised. This is aesthetics as far as I am concerned. It isn’t that you can just map anything randomly and you will get all sorts of stuff and that is diversity and multiplicity as James Corner seems to suggest. But the world confronts you and you have to take that on in its own terms. It confronts you in a repetitive way. From there you can then work out how those things react together to produce this particular problem you have. All good knowledge is problem-based it knowledge, it isn’t truth. It adjusts itself to whatever the thing is at hand.