crowning light

date 2005
location diary farmers hill, arboretum, canberra
medium charcoal, grasses, white stones, light
dimensions 24m x 50m
photographer artist
collection unrealised 2004-2008

Historically known as Dairy Farmers Hill, the landform is allowed to interrupt the grid. An artwork, Crowning Light, encircling its base further accentuates the summit. Constructed primarily from charred logs – 2003 bushfire relicts – and lit from within, Robyn Backen’s elegant piece is a poignant reminder that the forces of the natural world can not be controlled.



CANBERRA’S PUBLIC LANDSCAPE is largely a picturesque derivative, save for the extensive tree plantations that accentuate its street cartography. The winning entry in the Canberra International Arboretum and Gardens Design Ideas Competition, 100 Forests/100 Gardens by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (Sydney) and Taylor Cullity Lethlean Landscape Architects (Melbourne), is a welcome departure – even when taken at a glance, this boldly geometric scheme, labelled “radical” in one Canberra Times headline, eschews the picturesque trope.

The submission was unanimously selected from the five finalists shortlisted in the first stage of the open competition (see Architecture Australia May/June 2005). According to its authors, 100 Forests/100 Gardens is a design “not chiefly based on aesthetics” and should be seen as a “strategy, a program and an ongoing event”. Conceptually, the designers will revegetate the 250 hectare site with a grid of 100 forests and gardens, composed of endangered species from throughout the globe. This thematic emphasis arose from the team’s consideration of “the very real issues of sustainability, biodiversity and public environmental concern”. An implicit stylistic bias for the “natural” often underpins such concerns. However, in this case the designers’ study led to a highly-regular, formal plan – as Frank Lloyd Wright once famously remarked, “What nature needs from man [sic] is interpretation, not imitation”. (Although it is unclear just what dictated the creation of 100 and not, say, 99 forests and gardens.)

Circulation through the site is via a loop road which links the forest and garden mosaic, visitor’s centre, hotel, amphitheatre and other features dictated by the brief. Paralleled by a network of garden terraces, this thoroughfare follows a somewhat angular or fractured trajectory. This, too, is a notable departure from the more familiar roads which sweep along and reinscribe contours. The design appropriates a local summit as its most remarkable feature. Historically known as Dairy Farmers Hill, the landform is allowed to interrupt the grid. An artwork, Crowning Light, encircling its base further accentuates the summit. Constructed primarily from charred logs – 2003 bushfire relicts – and lit from within, Robyn Backen’s elegant piece is a poignant reminder that the forces of the natural world can not be controlled.

The scheme’s compatibility with Canberra’s original plan, along with the interrelated heritage issues, is an inevitable but no less important critical measure of its success. At the coarse grain, 100 Forests/100 Gardens nests comfortably within the Griffins’ conceptual and physical design framework. Most folklore surrounding the Griffins’ quest to build their ideal city are typically tales of frustration and visions unrealized. Although these mythologies might accurately highlight their architecture and planning enterprise, the couple actually achieved greater success implementing their landscape design initiatives. In fact, 100 Forests/100 Gardens is to be constructed within the precinct Walter Burley Griffin originally reserved for a Continental Arboretum. Apart from this remarkable adherence to his original land use allocation, the new arboretum design is also compatible with Griffin’s landscape design approach. The Continental Arboretum was but one of a number of landscape propositions Griffin envisaged for the national capital. Most remarkable was his scheme to fuse beauty with utility and “cover” the city’s eroded and ring-barked hills with trees, shrubs and “carpet plants” co-ordinated by colour. Mount Ainslie, for instance, was to be covered with “yellow flowers and foliage” and Black Mountain with “white and pink flowers”. Some of these plantings still persist on the slopes of Red Hill. “Nature”, Marion Mahony Griffin recalled, was Walter’s “handmaiden” and he “always painted his pictures with a big brush”. Similarly carpeting the arboretum site’s undulating topographical canvas, 100 Forests/100 Gardens is no less admirable a painting. As well, the new forests of endangered species will serve utilitarian purpose as botanical seed banks.

More physically, the new arboretum derives its plan geometry from the couple’s Water Axis. This axial extension and elaboration, however, must leap not a garden wall, but a swath of the lake’s margins under National Capital Authority (NCA) control and the Tuggeranong Parkway. As the design attests, it is imperative that the arboretum be linked with Lake Burley Griffin. The realization of the scheme’s lakeside connection will be contingent upon collaboration between the ACT Government and the NCA. Disjuncture between the arboretum and the water would be tragic.

At a fine grain, the scheme does not resonate as strongly with the site’s Griffin heritage.

Save for its alignment within the city’s larger geometry, 100 Forests/100 Gardens responds to the immediate site as a cultural tabula rasa. Although little appreciated, the national capital is today studded with thousands of trees and shrubs planted under Griffin’s direction and to his design. Some of these relict plantings are to be found within the site’s boundaries, most notably a plantation of cork oaks (Quercus suber). As Griffin hoped the capital to be self-sufficient or “sustainable”, to use contemporary jargon, the cork oaks were established as a foundational planting for industrial use. Despite the considerable heritage significance of these trees, the design does not clearly acknowledge the plantation’s special status. Its identity is subsumed and the cork oaks merely become “just another” of the 100 forests. The same fate apparently awaits the remaining fragments of Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara) and Roman cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) plantations (the latter planted in association with Griffin’s proposal for a national cemetery). However, it is not too late to investigate the possibility of replanting or otherwise accentuating this vegetal cultural overlay. As one might expect in Canberra, along with placating the spirits of the Griffins, matters ecological and “sustainable” are paramount. In fact, when announcing the competition winner, the Canberra Times highlighted the design’s relatively minimal water consumption in its opening sentence! Indeed, the site’s aridity and the difficulties of providing an artificial water supply pervaded the competition and even led some to call into question the suitability of the site for arboretum purposes – with all due respect to Walter Burley Griffin.

The competition drawings leave much to the imagination. The design reads as a pattern or template, more surfacial than spatial, and the articulation and modulation of the matrix is yet to be fully developed. In its present configuration, the grid terminates abruptly at the site’s boundaries. Had more land been available, would we have seen 200 forests? This effect is perhaps exaggerated by computer rendering techniques, which are more effective at representing buildings than landscapes and the natural world. This in turn underscores the enduring visual allure of Marion Mahony Griffin’s original Canberra competition renderings, produced nearly a century ago. The arboretum’s success may well hinge on the detailed resolution of the various forests and gardens which populate the cells of the grid. For instance, apart from species, how will the spatial qualities of the individual forests vary? It is hoped that, along with its laudable coarse grain legibility, the “ongoing event” of 100 Forests/100 Gardens will also deliver much-needed highly crafted, intimately scaled gardens.

There is no shortage of magnificent panoramic vistas in the national capital. With the new arboretum scheduled to open in spring 2008, the national capital’s days as a monoculture of landscape design expression now appear to be numbered.



Design team Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer. Client Shaping our Territory Implementation Group, Chief Ministers Department, ACT Government. Business case Root Projects. Cost planning DCWC. Artist Robyn Backen. Engineering GHD. Forestry Rowan Reid, Paul Thompson. Soils Peter May.