Andrew Laidlaw is one of Australia’s leading landscape architects and designers, winning multiple awards and working on numerous high profile projects.
Andrew is most well-known for his work as the landscape architect at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. He is responsible for the design and development of the Long Island indigenous garden, the Perennial Border, the Rose Species Garden, Guilfoyle’s Volcano & the beloved Ian Potter Children’s Garden.

Andrew was kind enough to set aside some of his time so that I could interview him. I found his insights about the world of landscape design invaluable, and his manner warm, engaging and relatable. The interview was a good opportunity to combine my training in both communication and horticulture, and the product is something anyone interested in landscapes and how we relate to the natural world will find worthwhile. Andrew is a leader in his field, and the knowledge that follows in this interview is undeniably useful.




Broadly, how would you describe influences on your work?

The influences on my work I would say are very varied. In my early years I was very influenced by the shapes, forms and writing of Edna Walling, which any budding landscape designer would be. She writes beautifully and has such an Australian context to her work, but also talks about it in a romantic way, so it’s very captivating. I used to look at her work and almost try work with the forms and shapes that she would do on her drawings. So she was quite inspirational to me in those early years.
I’d have to say I worked for John Patrick for a number of years, and he taught me a lot of basic design things, about axis and line, so he was a very strong person in my budding years. But it took me a long time to feel confident with my own work, and then I started to look at some international designers and became quite inspired by Burle Marx, particularly Burle Marx and the shape and form of his work is so amazing that I looked at a lot of his forms and shapes and basically started to feel they came into my work a bit. In a very small way, the little serpentine shape of the children’s garden and the rill was really informed by his design. I just love the work that he does in that he sees his design work as a series of textures and shapes, and plants just become another one of those textures that he uses, so all of a sudden not being driven by horticulture, being driven from design, so making sure that the plants don’t drive the design. They are an important part of it, but they are part of the textures and the pavements and the gravels and pebbles and concrete are as well.

On that note, can you think of any influences on your work that may fall outside the traditional “design” influences; things that aren’t necessarily part of that culture of landscape design?

Definitely architecture is of a real interest to me; Walter Burley Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright, early architects like Courbesier are all people that I’ve read about and enjoyed their work. The other things that drive me are being inspired by natural landscapes, I’ve taken a huge amount from the natural landscape and how it’s inspired me to realise to realise that bringing the garden into people’s lives actually does that for them as well, so it’s that experience of nature. In some ways that’s informed my work…and it’s shifted again now to health and well-being which everyone is talking about, you’ve known that being involved in this but it’s great to hear that start being articulated. I’ve certainly got a realisation, particularly working in public landscapes, which I actually prefer to do now than private gardens, but in both those experiences you really are having quite an effect on people’s lives through their experience into nature.

You’ve done a lot of work that is really prominently in the public eye, how would you say it differs from private practice?

If you could turn off the tape for a minute I can really tell you (laughter). There’s a hell of a lot of selfish individuals out there, who are really, so obsessed with their own little plot I find it very difficult sometimes. And I have gotten a little older and grumpier and a little less tolerant of those type of people. I’m very lucky that I can pick and choose my clients, and I’ve had some wonderful private clients, some wonderful ones, but I’ve had a few shockers too, that I find I don’t have enough time for now to deal with. So I’m kind of naturally now receding from that sort of work.
It’s a very different animal, I think cutting your teeth in domestic landscape design is a really important thing because you really have to deliver at a micro level; your work goes under the spotlight much more closely. Whereas in public landscapes you don’t have to deal with some of that sort of detail. You’ve got lot’s of little functional issues that you’ve got to resolve. Even if it’s just dealing with pedestrian or vehicle traffic they’re the things you’ve got to work out on a micro level-they’re really important. They’re very different but I started on a lot of domestic design and moved into public and I was always worried about that a little bit, but I much prefer the shift where I am now.

It seems like the philosophy or message underpinning a lot of your work is the idea of an engagement with the wider public with the idea of open spaces. Why do you think that is so important?

I just think again, for people to make connections either other people, in community, or to plants is really important. By working in the public domain you have the opportunity through your work to hopefully inspire people to make those connections. And if it is setting up public landscapes where they’re just communicating that’s one thing. But what I really do find interesting is people, almost they don’t know it but they do have strong connections to other living things, and plants are part of that. So if you can really use your plants as one of the most powerful tools I think you’ve got in the design to really inspire people, they will love it. It’s just about them being surrounded by it, but the combination of all those things is to really try and connect people.

Is there a particular example that really jumps out in your mind as something that you’ve done that’s been really effective in engaging people in that idea?

Well obviously the children’s garden, it’s got a meeting place there, it works very effectively for people to be able to be completely immersed in the landscape. And I know it’s mostly children but parents are also appreciating that, and they are given time to allow their children to have that experience but quite often they are also enjoying quite a communal experience at the same time.
The volcano’s an interesting one because people are walking through that all the time so it’s less about bringing people to a place where they might sit and hang around. I mean a lot of the joggers come up and complete their circuit and sort of run back, but you’re still at least getting them off the Tan track in amongst plants. I mean the idea of that volcano is really to try and inspire people with that particular palette of planting, and in many ways even if they’re running past, they still get a sense that it’s quite a nice place to be and I’d hope that they might go home and try and recreate a bit of it; work with some of those plants.

How does your media work fit in with this idea of engagement? How important do you think it is to express these ideas to people on a level that they can take in and understand?

I think it’s important, and in my life it’s very important. I see my opportunity, my main thing is to try and connect people to all the culture of plants, and I can do it through my landscape design, I can do it through talking to them over the radio. I also like to think that you’re bringing in a broader sense of the landscape; a lot of commentary is on horticulture specifically like plant problems and pests, whereas that’s not my strong point and I never like to think it is, but I like to think if I’m talking about it I’m trying to broaden the breadth of what I’m talking about into more landscape and connection to landscape wherever I can. And plants as well, a love of plants.

You mentioned before that a lot of your recent work involves spaces that are specifically designed for children. How do you see that transferring across to adult enjoyment of those spaces?
I actually think the work for children, isn’t just for children. It actually has to be for the parents, carers, because the key for children to actually really experience the landscape so that they can connect to their own creative play, only comes when their parents are relaxed. So you have to provide these meeting places, places where they can get their coffee and have their toilet facilities, you have to set up landscapes so that the parents are relaxed and comfortable, which then allows the children to engage in real creative play.
So I would like to think that in all those spaces they have to include not just stuff for kids.

So how did you start getting involved in that type of child-focused work?

I’ve got four kids and those kids have all been through the Steiner system, and I started to get interested in creative play when my children were quite young. If you understand that system, you see that they don’t want them to learn too much; they don’t want them to be indoctrinated, they want the creativeness of that child to be expressed. That comes purely through play. So that was always an interest for me, and when I got the opportunity to design the children’s garden we looked at a number of different education models, there’s the Reggio Emilia model, there’s the Rudolf Steiner, the Montessori, and we realised that in the landscape to have that openness to it, so that it wasn’t too predictable. So I just became more and more interested, with kids at that age and all of a sudden getting the opportunity to design the children’s garden. In some ways it was myself and Jenny Hoysted who was in public programs up here, we’d started to see a trend in America for children’s gardens, because we were asked to come up with an idea for that space up there. At the same time $4 million had just been spent on the children’s garden in New York.
So we saw this and we thought “the Botanic Gardens is an adult language”, we need to be connecting with children, as a different way of connecting plants to people. That’s what botanic gardens reckon they’re all about but they do it in such a stiff, adult way that kids miss out.
Phil Moors at the time really liked our presentation. I was lucky enough to get a trip over to America where I looked at a couple of these gardens, and was pretty well horrified with what I saw. All this money being spent on basically a lot of gadgets, lots of plastic plants, really high tech scientific things, but completely absorbed in the adult plane. So they’d kind of missed the point. The best thing that we saw were these beautiful vegetable gardens where the community working with the children had summer holiday programs, and there was a whole range of wonderful mentoring and inter-generational stuff going on. And in fact coming back from there we definitely realised we needed a vegetable garden in our children’s garden.
It became very obvious to me, and I was working with a couple of teachers on that team, and I had a horticulturist, we started to realise that we needed this open landscape that allowed children to connect to the landscape, and play. Once we realised that, from a design point of view it became really easy. I just realised I didn’t need to have any of those sort of gadgets; I’d been obsessing myself about trying to be clever and smart, and do all these groovy things. In a way, a lot of money to be spent on a children’s garden is actually dangerous, because you can overdo it-it’s got to be quite simple.

Children aren’t shy about engaging with a landscape, can you talk about some of the challenges when designing for children?

A lot of children’s landscapes fail because of the soil compaction. It’s not because the kids destroy the plants. So a lot of parents and teachers will think that the kids don’t respect them, but actually it’s a misunderstanding because the soil gets so compacted, the plants can’t survive and the plants start to fail. It’s about 95% of the failure of early learning centres, school ground gardens, just because they’ve never understood what they needed to do in the first place.
It’s very true what you say though, that children’s garden up there is quite a sophisticated space, even though it looks very simple and natural. So there’s a couple of little design things that are slightly contemporary. But what is sophisticated about that is not actually the design, it’s actually what we’ve put into it to make sure it was going to survive. We changed the soil profile, so that now has a sandy soil profile, so it’s not dissimilar to footballers playing on the MCG. We put a lot of sand in that soil profile, we put subsurface drainage in there, and we water and we fertilise more there than we do in other parts of the gardens. Which some people might say is not that sustainable, but it is a children’s garden, that was our brief. With the soil profile being sandy, we naturally go through more water. We fertilise, and we fertilised early too because we needed those plants to be pumped up, to be mature enough to cope with the rigours of children.
And that’s why that landscape does not transpose out into the public landscape, because we can micro-manage those plants much more carefully. We grew those plants on to be big plants before they went in. All the ground cover is clump forming plants, they’re clumpers, because they have a much better mechanism of repairing themselves. Kids will tend to move through them. If you break a branch system of a shrub, it takes years and years for them to repair.
Soil profile and drainage is very important, and plant selection is incredibly important. Those things never happen in all those other (failed) spaces. You get the compaction, you get a lot of shrubby material that gets broken, and the place starts to deteriorate and it’s a shame.

Is there a particular formal process that you approach a design with?

There’s always a formal process and you must trust the process. You don’t want to start designing too soon because first of all there’s the brief. You’ve got to understand the brief, and sometimes you’ve got to reinterpret the brief and get that signed off. On any job, domestic up to public, you need that brief and you need to really understand that brief.
Then you need to look at your microclimates and your site analysis, and you need to really go in an understand your site. Once you’ve got those two things the beauty of it is it creates your framework.
Then you start playing with your ideas and you come up with your different conceptual ideas. Once you’re happy with those and you check back with your client you refine your design. So there’s a very clear process that all of us go through.
A lot of people start getting far too attached to their design ideas before they’ve actually checked their microclimate stuff and really understood the client brief, but if you keep it all within context it’s a very clear process.