By Ben Newell, Associate Director – Landscape Architecture, Design + Planning

No site is a blank canvas. It has taken me decades as a landscape architect to really understand this. At university, we were taught about the ‘genius loci’, or the spirit of place – that sense a visitor gets when space has a meaning and graduates to becoming a ‘place’. It’s one thing to make your own reading of a place’s meaning, but it is daunting to then create something new that clearly and powerfully tells the stories of the collective and the individual. In 2020, we’ve all had to rediscover and rely more heavily on our public places. Our communities need places that are grounded by their local environment and context while being able to convey a genuine and personal meaning to all that use them.

I’ve always believed that our purpose as landscape architects is to reveal and amplify this sense of what a place is, to seek out its meaning and to create a design that tells this story.

What I have learnt is that this process can only occur through collaboration with artists, place makers and architects but it is the landscape architect who can ensure that the design and construction team can fully express and reveal this sense of place, layer in meaning and create spaces that are true to the meaning of ‘genus loci’!

A few things I have learnt that have helped me consider how to get the best out of a space include:

  1. Be the eternal student.Research the stories of the site and understand the environment, history and culture that have shaped the places.
  2. Gather a team.If you try by yourself, you’ll only ever be able to tell your version of the story. Ensure you collaborate with people to maximise thought processes and ideas to ensure well-rounded and considered outcomes.
  3. Create meaning from every day.Every element you design has the potential to carry the story, so be sure to consider how your design thinking and approach may alter the characteristics, final forms and placement.
  4. Master the in-between.Be subtle. Even absence can tell a story – be prepared to allow people to create their own meaning and apply their own narrative to a place.
  5. Don’t lay it on too thick.If you get too creative and load the site with too much content with no meaning or connection, people will only get confused. Keep it simple and sophisticated – less is more.
  6. Never ‘plonk’.So many places are ruined by the ‘plonk art’ phenomena, where a generic site is designed and then jazzed up with pieces of ‘art’ and embellishments that have no meaning and or connection. It does nothing for the place except create clutter and confusion.
  7. Know your role.As the landscape architect, you are the curator responsible for bringing all of the design elements together and will ultimately need to deliver the project in its entirety, meeting community expectations, ensuring people’s safety, and creating something unique and memorable while delivering on time and on budget.

My role on the Southbank Broadwater Parklands project is an excellent example of how these seven lessons help achieve successful outcomes.

  • Before we commenced the design, we developed a complete understanding of the site through a series of collaborative workshops where we exchanged ideas and listened to diverse views.
  • At the centre of the project was a high profile adventure playground. These are often very complex and technically challenging elements to design and, in our case, presented an enormous opportunity to convey the stories of the site. We had to ensure the playground was fun, memorable and safe. We used a multi-disciplinary team to work through an integrated and collaborative process. At one point, the design team discovered that we would need to simplify our approach to refine what was most important to bring our ideas to life.
  • The team worked hard to understand the context well beyond the site to ensure we were capturing the spirit and essence of the place. We looked as far as the Scenic Rim mountain ranges in the Gold Coast hinterland and connections across the Broadwater to the Spit and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. This enabled us to delve deeper into how the site was connected and influenced by the environment and to respond to the region’s unique landforms and coastline through the artful use of an 18-meter-tall adventure play tower. More than just a new landmark of the Broadwater neighbourhood, this tower now serves as a vantage point to draw attention to the surrounding geographic features that characterise the region. The adventure play tower is inspired by local shells found within the estuary, interwoven with the connection of migratory birds that may nest, before flying off to warmer climates. These two components formed the basis of our design inspiration.
  • We integrated a series of play mounds inspired by local sand dunes, as well as a strong connection to the local estuary’s influence of sand, sea life and tidal movements. Together, these connections expressed through subtle cues lead to the main event, the awe-inspiring and highly memorable moment that leaves the observer with little doubt as to the story of this place.

The expression of place in a public space can be reflected within a range of scales and forms, with hidden layers that develop and enhance the experience the more times you visit. Like a good film re-watched or a good book re-read, it reveals additional artistic layers each visit.

As a landscape architect, I try to create public places in the same way, in collaboration with artists and other storytellers, because a site that tells the stories of a community becomes, over time, the place the community will turn to when they need to rediscover themselves.

Ben Newell is an Associate Director in the Design and Planning team in Brisbane at AECOM.

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Banner Image – Black Beach Reserve, Kiama