A recent publication by Professor Cathrin Bull of the University of Melbourne, New Conversations with an Old Landscape,1 is the most comprehensive contemporary national overview of the professional activity of landscape architecture to date. Necessarily broad, Bull’s publication concentrates on the way in which landscape practice has changed, primarily in response to natural environmental influences, throughout four decades of professional practice. Given the national perspective of New Conversations with an Old Landscape, it is appropriate that specific state histories of professional landscape practice be documented to augment the growing body of academic review of professional practice.
The following article forms part of current doctoral research into the history of landscape architectural design in Western Australia, and reviews influences on the development of civic space from 1829 through 1950.
Visiting Sydney in the late 1990s and walking past the city’s Hyde Park at daybreak I was surprised by the sight of assorted mounds of material occupying the open space of the park. I was even more surprised and unsettled when one of the mounds rolled over to reveal a person. These mounds, the temporary habitats of some of Sydney’s homeless, were a part of the public face of Sydney. Such is the role of urban civic space. It is the place where a city reveals itself. The revelation is not limited to the ways in which the space is occupied; it is also intrinsically linked to the aesthetics of the space, the semiotics of which create a library of expression. That library of expression presents as a reliable lens through which to trace a history of a community’s professional design history — thus it is through the typology of civic space that the following introduction to the history to landscape architecture in Western Australia is traced.
A thumbnail - private to public/city to suburb
The nexus of the public park lies in the practice of opening the private parks of the very rich to the public on special occasions. In the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) private gardens were opened up on festivals and special holidays, while much earlier in Ancient Rome Julius Caesar’s gardens in Trastavere and Agrippa’s gardens in the Campus Marius were actually deeded to the Roman people.2 The association of garden with the notions of privilege, power and equity was further expressed after the French revolution (1787-1799) when all former Church and aristocratic gardens were permanently opened to the public, forever after inscribing those spaces with a political ideology.3
Equity of access was motivation for the development of the public park movement which began in England. Instigated by JC Loudon, the first public park, Birkenhead Park, Cheshire, was laid out by Joseph Paxton in 1843.4 The public park movement was quickly adopted in America through the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted, who, similarly motivated by the pressing social needs of the industrial-capitalist era, worked with English architect Calvert Vaux to design New York’s 800-acre Central Park in 1857.5 Significantly, the form and ideology of the public park soon adhered itself to the suburb in both continents as increased industrialisation eventually led to the development of town planning. In Britain, this manifested in the Garden City Movement through Ebenezer Howard while in America Olmsted championed the City Beautiful movement.
At the time Loudon was clamouring for public open space in urban settings, his political and naval compatriots were dealing with the issues of overcrowding and industrial expansion in a manner with much broader and far-reaching consequences. Britain’s answer to overcrowding and the concomitant social problems was to remove the problems to another location under the auspices of colonisation. (Perhaps the first of the ‘nimbys’.6) Many individuals who committed misdemeanours in order to survive the rigours of industrialisation, found themselves in 1788 as the founding citizens of the new British Colony of Australia where initially the occupation of open space was a challenge rather than a recreation. While most of the states of Australia boast a miscreant foundation, South Australia (1833) and Western Australia (1829) were established as convict-free colonies. Although Western Australia eventually succumbed to the temptation of free convict labour in 1848, it was initially promoted as an agricultural real estate venture to the British middleclass.7 Helen Proudfoot’s essay Founding Cities in Nineteenth Century Australia notes Louis Hartz’s suggestion that the pre-occupations of the age in which colonies were founded become the guiding principles of their foundation ethos. Thus according to Hartz, the Enlightenment influenced the development of colonies such as New South Wales while the utilitarian and capitalist doctrines prevalent in the industrial revolution influenced colonies established in the nineteenth century.8 Hart’s observation is an interesting one.
Is the capitalist perception of landscape as commodity guiding cultural development in this state? f yes, then what are the implications for landscape architecture, and if no, then what if is the foundation ethos of Western Australia and how does it permeate through design? These questions are raised here not so much for specific answers but rather as lines of inquiry.
The Swan River Settlement, ostensibly a self-proclaimed legal colonisation of Western Australia, commenced in 1829 as a real estate venture. In parlance that has Romantic overtones still familiar in the twenty-first century, a small amount of capital (three pounds) granted an individual forty acres of idyllic pastures and the promise of newfound wealth and happiness in a far off land. The new settlement included a somewhat hasty installation of three townships along the banks of the main water traffic artery, the Swan River. These towns, a coastal port town, Fremantle, an administrative town, Perth, and an agricultural town, Guildford,9 were all formed using the template of a grid. Order was imposed on the landscape in an egalitarian spirit that included, along with standard-sized allotments, squares for internal open space and surrounding open space parkland. Thus the embryonic city spaces of the Fremantle, Perth and Guildford were seeded.
While order was imposed on the ground, it was not so easily imposed or the population. Early maps (see 01) of the Perth townsite indicate the intent to set aside a significant central core and foreshore areas as public space.
Unfortunately, these civic opportunities were rapidly squandered due to a combination of the physical constraints of the site, ie limited expansion opportunities, together with pressure from settlers anxious to obtain land before the expiration of government grants in 1830. Indeed the opportunisn or lack of civic sensibility, of the early colonists was so endemic that whilst Governor Stirling was absent from the colony for some months during 1834, his second-in-command, Lieutenant Governor Irwin, bowed to local pressure and released government reserve foreshore land to allotment holders. This action led to the townsite losing the intended prospect of built form embracing the openness of Perth Water, a situation with which the town, now city, continues to struggle. On his return, Stirling had to use his personal funds to buy back a site for Government House and retrieve what was left of the government Domain.10 This marked the first of many official endeavours over the ensuing centuries to win back some of the promise of the original setting for the town.
Reclaiming the public domain Whilst the new settlement was understandably focussed more on immediate survival than any long-term civic concerns, it is unfortunate that the intended civic spaces of Perth were so quickly and irresolutely surrendered. Whether underpinned by the initial private enterprise mentality of the settlement or the constraints of the city site, Lieutenant Irwin’s actions of privileging short-term private commercial needs over long-term civic needs not only indefinitely compromised the spatial dynamics of the city, but also legitimised opportunism. In July 1844, in reaction to a growing recognition of the self-generated restrictions facing the city in terms of civic and recreation space, Council passed the first statutory plan of Perth. This resulted in the setting aside of government reserve spaces to both the east in the form of Perth Meadows, later known as Gloucester Park, and WACA Grounds, and to the north where a swamp was reserved, later becoming Wellington Square and then ‘the old Recreation Ground’ (see 02).
In the following year, the new governor, John Hutt, released the portion of land on the Terrace acquired by his predecessor back to the public, thus giving rise to the site of Stirling Square, now known as Supreme Court Gardens.11
The following three decades saw a gradual realisation of public space for the township. With the arrival of convict labour in 1850, many civic projects, previously beyond the resources of the colony, were now feasible. In 1859 the reputedly lumpy main streets of the now City of Perth12 were groomed to a smooth surface with the resulting spoil being used as infill behind a limestone retaining river wall.13 While the levelling of the streets was both pragmatic and aesthetic, the reclamation of river land and formalisation of the river edge was a far more profound act. Prior to this intervention the river edge was one of land and water meeting informally and ephemerally, where the rise and fall of the tide was still registered and the foreshore flora and fauna were still present. The installation of a hard edge to the river signified the commencement of the urbanisation of the river foreshore, a project still anticipating completion some 150 years hence.
As Perth expanded to the north, an attempt was made to amend earlier squandered opportunities for internal civic space, giving rise to Albert and Russell Square. While Albert Square eventually also succumbed to expediency, being halved by a continuation of Hay Street into Subiaco, Russell Square remains intact as one of Perth’s earliest examples of the English town planning tradition of a residential enclave with a roadway encircling a central garden.14 Expediency, in the form of government reaction to growing health problems associated with a polluted high water table, also led to the draining of the wetlands on Perth’s northern boundary and the creation of Hyde Park from Third Swamp (Boodjamooling).15 Undertaken on grounds of ‘health and revenue’16 this action was primarily motivated by a need to prevent disease and realise real estate. Given that both the United States and Britain were experiencing a far more philanthropic approach to the provision of public space through the ‘parks movement’ one could ask if this supports Hart’s premise mentioned earlier of the underlying capitalist ethos of land development in Western Australia.
Indeed in commenting generally on the gap between theoretical aspirations for ideal land use and the actual realisation of the same, town planner and historian Robert Freestone recalls the observation of British town planner and historian Peter Hall who speculated that innovations in government policy come in response to dangerous social crisis, such as epidemics, wars and depression.17 In the case cited above, land gained by draining Lakes Kingsford, Irwin, and Sutherland was initially used for small- scale farming and market gardens18 whilst Third Swamp only reverted to parkland in 1897 when efforts to drain the swamp for residential purposes were abandoned due to interference with domestic water supplies.19 Furthermore, the opportunity to expand the city northwards realised through the removal of the physical boundary of the wetlands was ironically lost in 1879. The natural barrier initially created by the lakes, was reinstated with the physical barrier of the Perth railway line, station and marshalling yards over the drained Lake Kingsford. This action heralded almost a century of overtures for the undergrounding of the railway facilities in order to regain that northern link which was fleetingly available. And the overtures continue. As recently as February 2004 the City of Perth mooted the possibility of an east-west railway undergrounding that would link with the new underground southern rail link into the city.20 The proposal is still under investigation.
It is worth pausing at this juncture to consider the implications of the initial manipulation of Perth’s wetlands and in so doing consider a hypothetical alternative approach. The environmental issues associated with wetlands facing Perth at that time, that is, drainage problems, contaminated groundwater, mosquito plagues and seasonal stench from the receding summer water levels, were similar to those facing the American town of Boston in 1875. The Boston solution driven by landscape architect Frederick Olmsted saw the development of a nine-and-half-kilometre linear park system known as the Emerald Necklace that variously embraced waterways, encapsulated a 160-hectare Arnold Arboretum for Harvard University and culminated in the 220.5-hectare Franklin Park. Olmsted’s approach to dealing with the conflict of urbanisation and natural systems resulted in a paradigm shift in both the utility and aesthetics of landscape architecture. Rejecting the tabula rasa approach to landscape of erasure and transplantation of an imported aesthetic, Olmsted worked with the issues of tidal flow and stormwater to engineer a solution that retained much of the existing landform. Additionally, in the Back Bay Fens component of the Emerald Necklace system, he rejected the simulacra of rustication found in sublime English landscapes, insisting that the whole design work with a single ‘leading motif’ and was resolute in using vegetation typical of salt marshes and mudflats.21 Olmsted’s heirloom to Boston ultimately provoked a paradigm shift in landscape architecture and anticipated the marriage of science and art that became manifest in the environmental movement of the mid-twentieth century.
If one looks at the original wetland system of Perth and its environs (see 01) it is possible to imagine townsites growing out from the more substantial water bodies such as Lake Monger and Herdsman Lake, and then for these towns to be linked by a system of parklands abutting the wetlands. The important difference is that parklands in this proposition are the system, or the organising device, rather than a part of the system. Perth at the time in question, however, was dealing with the immediate problems of expansion. Armed only with the limited artillery of the colonial sensibility of the grid and the English landscape aesthetic, it would take over 100 hundred years before Perth’s civic landscape sensibility registered an approach such as Olmsted’s Boston Park system. John Oldham’s 1959 design for the Narrows Interchange park system included a formal application of indigenous vegetation, however, even then the use of indigenous vegetation was primarily decorative rather than applied environmental aesthetics. Nearly fifty years later a landscape intervention at the eastern end of the Perth foreshore, the Point Fraser urban wetland22 is both mildly ironic and iconic. Ironic, in that having removed wetlands they are now being reinstated, and iconic in that 150 years after Olmsted’s fusion of utility with aesthetic, we see the same realised in the City of Perth. Perhaps Hartz’s founding ethos principle is finally being diluted.
Despite the unrealised opportunities for increasing civic space cited above, the amount of land reserved for public use increased gradually with the reservation of Mulberry Plantation (Haig Park), a ‘reserve’ at Perth Meadows and ‘Victoria Gardens’ at Claise Brook, all to the east of Perth being allocated by 1871.23 By 1879, public clamouring for recreation space for city residents led to the reclamation of Perth Water between William Street and Barrack Street Jetty, creating the New Recreation Ground now known as the Esplanade.24 Perth Water relinquished more of its foreshore in 1903 when Supreme Court Gardens, Barrack Jetty and Union Jack Square were created from reclaimed land25 (see 03).
The formal, urban style of reclamation initiated in the 1850s continued through these projects, although occasionally, in times of high tide and heavy rainfall, Perth Water breaks its formal curtilage and inundates the reclaimed foreshore land, seeking its lost edge.
The most significant and visionary allocation of land for public use was, however, the 1871 reservation of a part of Mt Eliza by Surveyor General Fraser. Known as Perth Park and later King’s Park, the initial reservation was augmented by Premier John Forrest in 1896 to include all available land on Mt Eliza, creating a 412-hectare public park.26 Fraser and Forrest thus set the scene for the style of civic garden and park space for the City of Perth. Denied the opportunity of having any meaningful integration of internal civic space or substantial central garden, Perth, a city fringed with a verge of lawn, now boasted a unique bush garden without, rather than a civic garden within.
Turning to the bush for the provision of garden was probably an unconscious and yet apt move, in that the bush without, that is the non-urban landscape of Western Australia, was traditionally always the larder, first of Nyungar land, then the colony and eventually the state. Initially through an ancient and constant nomadic yield to the Nyungar people, then through a comparatively tenuous agricultural yield for the early settlers and finally through the first of many frenetic mineral yields, the Western Australian bush was and continues to be the place of both utilitarian and spiritual harvest for the people of this state. Perth, by default, as other to the bush, retains the character of a country town rather than an urban city.
Forrest’s gesture in retaining King’s Park for the people of Perth signified other major changes occurring within the city landscape. The 1890 gold rush in the Eastern Goldfields precipitated a population explosion, newfound prosperity for the colony and ultimately statehood by January, 1901. Statehood and wealth were expressed in an expansion of substantial civic and commercial buildings in the streets of Perth creating an urbanity, which was retained until the next major mineral boom some six decades later. The consolidation and cohesion expressed in the built form in the city was not duplicated, however, in the rapidly expanding outlying suburbs. It was at this stage that international influence, first expressed in the original grid form of the city, was once again introduced to the landscape of Western Australia. On this occasion, the conduit was William Ernest Bold, an Englishman who migrated to Perth in 1896. Described as a municipal socialist and strongly influenced by the Garden City and City Beautiful Movements of Britain and North America respectively,27 Bold, in his capacity as Perth Town Clerk (1901-44), introduced the notion of the public space as a right rather than an appendage.
Bold worked with other visionaries, such as W Brookman, Mayor of Perth, principle government architect G Poole, Harold Boas and C Klem, to promote the Greater Perth Movement aimed at developing Perth as a planned metropolis. The efforts of Bold and his colleagues manifested in Western Australia’s Town Planning and Development Act 1928 and the establishment of two Garden City suburbs, that of City Beach and Floreat Park on Perth Endowment Lands (see 04). Given the civic history of Perth, the achievement of Bold and his colleagues is even more remarkable in that their efforts were conducted under the auspices of government approval. This era of Perth’s civic history is thus highly significant as, for the first time, albeit expressed in outer Perth, there is a conscious sensibility of the greater expression of civic space. This is a sense that civic space is more than an opportunity to recreate, that it can be an expression of the cognisance of equity - that the civic presence of a city felt through the built form of its external space is the expression of that place.
Springing from the efforts of Bold et al and the Western Australian Town Planning and Development Act 1928, were two planning bodies: the Town Planning Board and the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission. Early work of the latter body under the leadership of architect and Perth City Councillor Harold Boas resulted in the 1930 Report for the metropolitan region, which included two recommendations significant for this essay. The first recommendation, in anticipation of future transport needs, was a traffic bridge connecting South Perth to the City of Perth across Perth Water at the Narrows. The second, building on the municipal socialist ideology of Bold was a recommendation that suburban development incorporate a system of parkway belts and reserves.28 These initiatives were not realised for another thirty years due to the Great Depression of the 1930s and Second World War. When resurrected, the recommendations were the catalyst for the first regional planning study, the Plan For Metropolitan Region: Perth and Fremantle (1955).28 Produced by Londoner Professor Gordon Stephenson of the University of Liverpool and Sydney recruit Town Planning Commissioner Alistair Hepburn, this study not only brought to fruition the visions of Bold, but also lifted the state’s provincial petticoat and allowed national and international ideology to dress the land.
The implementation of the Metropolitan Region Plan in turn proved to be the catalyst for the emergence of the profession of landscape architecture in Western Australia. In 1956 John Oldham was appointed the inaugural State Government Landscape Architect,30 marking the introduction of a landscape architectural sensibility to the civic spaces of Western Australia. Which brings us to the threshold of a yet to be written history, the influence of landscape architecture on the design of civic space in Western Australia.
Identifying the gap
While this history forms the ongoing study of a larger body of work, it is pertinent to reflect on the evolution of the landscape of Perth City. In the span of 130 thirty years those charged with forming city landscape had moved from being concerned with the immediate physical boundaries of river, mount and wetland, to priming the city to act as the traffic conduit for an elaboration of the Garden City ideology imposed across a network of yet to be established suburbs. What then of that initial landscape, and the early influences of those charged with forming the city landscape? Does the glimpse of civic sensibility evidenced in the movements of Bold, Boas and others endure? Do international or even national sentiments and ideologies find expression in the civic landscapes of Western Australia? If so, are they interpreted to become unique public expressions of place? Or does the legitimised opportunism evident under the administration of Lieutenant Irwin in 1830 become, as suggested by Louis Hartz, the guiding principle of the city’s foundation ethos? These questions form the basis of the next stage of investigation in which a selection of civic spaces built between 1960 and 2000 will be critically analysed to ascertain landscape architecture’s contribution to civic ideology and form in Western Australia.
- C Bull, New Conversations with an Old Landscape: Landscape Architecture in Contemporary Australia, Images Publishing Group, Victoria, 2002.↩
- S Kostof, The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form through History, Little Brown, Boston, 1992, p. 166.↩
- H Conwayt, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1991, p. 27.↩
- S Kostof, p. 123.↩
- S Kostof, A History Of Architecture: Settings And Rituals, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, p. 653.↩
- An anocronym for the planning term ‘not in my backyard”.↩
- C Stannage, The People of Perth: A Social History of Western Australia’s Capital City, Perth City Council, Perth, 1979, p. 7.↩
- H Proudfoot, *Founding cities in nineteenth century Australia’, S Hamnett and R Freestone (eds), The Australian Metropolis: A Planning History, Allen Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 2000, p. 11.↩
- C Stannage, pp. 29-33.↩
- G Seddon and D Ravine, The City and Its Setting: Images Of Perth, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1986, p. 99.↩
- G Seddon, p. 101.↩
- Perth became city on 23 September 1856, M Pitt Morison, ‘Settlement and development: The historical context’, J White and M Pitt Morison (eds), Western Towns and Buildings, p. 32.↩
- Ibid, pp. 32-34.↩
- Ibid, p. 3.↩
- Boodjamooling is a wetland with abundant wildlife and edible plants used by Aboriginal people (the Nyungar people) as a meeting place and food source. A Gaynor, ‘Hyde Park’, Richard Aitken and Michael Looker (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Australia, 2002, p. 323.↩
- M Pitt Morison, ‘Settlement and development: The historical context’, p. 32.↩
- R Freestone, Model Communities: The Garden City Movement in Australia, Nelson, Melbourne, 1989, p. 5.↩
- M Pitt Morison, “Settlement and development: The historical context’, p. 32.↩
- A Gaynor, Hyde Park’, p. 323.↩
- August 2004, http://www.perth.wa.gov.au/html/↩
- C Beveridge and P Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, Universe Publications, New York, 1998, pp. 83-85.↩
- August 2004 http://www.perth.wa.gov.au/html/accessed↩
- G Seddon, p. 119.↩
- I Hocking, Perth, The Building Challenge, The Master Builders’ Association of Western Australia, 1987, p. 68.↩
- M Pitt Morison, ‘Settlement and development: The historical context’, p. 44.↩
- C Garnaut, ‘Bold, William Ernest’, R Aitken and M Looker (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, p. 96.↩
- J Georgiou, ‘The metropolitan region’, Western Towns and Buildings, p. 248.↩
- O Richards, Designed Landscapes in Western Australia Final Report, Australian Heritage Commission, Commonwealth of Australia, 1997, p. 12.↩