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Steve Calhoun – An Interview With Landscape Architecture Australia_____

Steve Calhoun - An Interview with Landscape Architecture Australia - Tract Consultants

Steve Calhoun – An Interview With Landscape Architecture Australia

Steve Calhoun is the founding director of Landscape Architecture at Tract Consultants - a large practice working across landscape architecture, urban design and town planning.

Landscape Architecture Australia: What are the aspects of domestic garden projects that attract you to this kind of work?12

Steve Calhoun: While every project presents both an opportunity and a challenge, the real benefit of doing a residential garden is the immediacy and intensity of the experience since the design process requires a very close collaboration and mutual trust between client and designer.

Initially, I simply took the opportunity to design a domestic garden when it arose. As a young landscape architect I was hungry for opportunities and when an influential businessman and art connoisseur presented me with a really great garden project, I grabbed it with both hands. That decision has rewarded me professionally ever since, not only through my thirty-five years of continuing involvement with that garden, but through what followed.

While my initial encounter was fortuitous, that involvement and the other doors it opened weren't merely luck. They were the outcome of a positive and enthusiastic approach to my work and designs, which I fought for with energy and conviction. From that first garden, I have received over one hundred commissions for all sorts of projects, not only from that first client but also from others who had experienced the work.

LAA: Are there particular types of domestic garden projects you prefer or avoid (for example, urban, suburban or rural clients)?

SC: Over four decades working as a landscape architect, I have had the great privilege of working on domestic gardens that cover a full spectrum, from inner-urban courtyards to grand rural estates and the suburban scale that bridges the two.

Scale is not a measure of design quality and each garden presents its own challenges. What is common to each is my intent to tailor a design to the site, its context and the client.

LAA: How important is the site in informing your design concept and why?

SC: The site and its context are always vitally important for every project and every project type. Other considerations then come into play, such as the brief, the client, the budget and the landscape architect's own design philosophy. The challenge is to put all of the ingredients into the mix and achieve a really good aesthetic and pragmatic outcome.
LAA: Do you have a view on the role of art, craft, function and the prosaic, even mundane in these gardens? And if so, how are these expressed?

SC: All good designs should be expressed as a "work of finely crafted art" and at the same time be environmentally sensitive, respond to visual and sensual stimuli, have a narrative, be usable and be functional. One has to take all of the considerations on board and make sure each is dealt with and expressed strongly and clearly in the design.

That is, after all, what design is all about!

Many of my garden clients, some of whom I would regard as true art patrons, are collectors. Their houses and gardens are furnished with artworks and their view of design is as artistic expression.

LAA: Are there obvious pitfalls to carrying out residential garden work and do you have views as to why it is not discussed much in the Australian landscape architecture press?

SC: I think that garden design is not very popular with landscape architects because of [the industry's] emphasis on the public realm. There is also a perception left over from an earlier era that garden designers drive around in a pick-up truck with a wheelbarrow and spade in the back - this is a view that is unfortunate and narrow-minded.

Throughout the history of modernism the greatest designers all did gardens - Roberto Burle Marx, Dan Kiley, Garrett Eckbo, Peter Walker, etc. My philosophy is that it's not what the project is per se; it's what you make of it. The pitfalls of doing domestic work usually relate to what the clients and architects are like. I have had domestic clients from both ends of the scale - from pleasure to pain.

Commercial and institutional clirnts tend to be more predictable and easier to work with - it's less personal.

LAA: How many domestic gardens have you designed over the last ten to fifteen years (and types) and how important do you see this area of work in terms of your practice?

SC: That first garden I described in the first question was done thirty-five years ago. I haven't kept count but the number of gardens I have designed, including multi-unit developments and rural "estates," would have to run into the hundreds. Private gardens are not a very large part of my own or the office's workload, and represent less than 10 percent of our work, I estimate. Gardens are, however, important to both the office and the profession. They offer the opportunity to showcase one's work and skill and are invaluable as a "training ground" for budding designers.

LAA: What do you see as the future for landscape architects in this area of design in Australia?

SC: The potential is there but for it to become a significant part of the profession's work we have to embrace it. The architectural profession has and it has provided many architects with work and experience. The first thing we have to do is remove the word "domestic" from our list of banned words and elevate its status in the AILA awards.
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