Sylvia Crowe - Influence and Work in Australia

Richard Clough and Margaret Hendry

Sylvia Crowe made three visits to Australia, in 1964, 1965 and 1977. During each visit she responded to needs within the profession, acting as a catalyst to encourage government and industry leaders to employ landscape architects. As an observer at the second meeting of the Provisional Committee - set up to form the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) - Crowe encouraged each member that this was an achievable goal.

Her personal warmth and enthusiasm influenced many people. In a letter written years later, Brisbane member, Malcolm Bunzli recalls Crowe staying with his family, charming his three young children. At first they were overawed, until his son asked, "why are you so important?" She replied: "I suppose it's because I am a landscape architect just like your father". After dinner, the local group joined them and she spoke to each person, urging them to push forward the landscape cause.

Within two years of her final visit, the AILA awarded Crowe an Honorary Fellowship and, in 1990, the Award in Landscape Architecture as confirmation of her special contribution. The citation includes a personal note: "above all, her human qualities, her warmth of personality which permeates all with whom she comes in contact, and her honesty and sincerity towards her fellows which engenders in all who meet her a realisation that life is now richer for having had that experience" (Hendry, 1996).

Crowe's international reputation helped Richard Clough to make a case to the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) to offer her, and Richard Gray of William Holford and partners, a commission to prepare the masterplan for Commonwealth Park in Canberra. This came at a strategic time early in the development of a major landscape feature - Lake Burley Griffin and its surrounding parkland. The park became one of her significant achievements highlighed by the number of illustrations she included in the 1981 edition, of Garden Design.

Growing the profession in Australia

Her contribution and lectures came at a time when Australians were searching for an appropriate design concept on which to build. Many Australian landscape architects had studied in the United Kingdom and North America during the 1950s and 1960s. This movement, plus Crowe's earlier contacts with students in Australia formed the setting for the future development of landscape architecture. Earlier many horticultural and forestry graduates, as well as others from related design professions, had already worked as landscape designers. These and the returning students formed the basis for the profession to grow, acting as a catalyst to form an organisation modelled on the United Kingdom's Institute of Landscape Architects.

Through the enthusiastic work of Mervyn Davis, an individual member of the International Federation of Landscape Architects. the Provisional Committee, with an executive in Canberra, came into being in 1963 . This group drew up the constitution in preparation for registration. When Crowe arrived a year later, she was able to use her influence by giving lectures to raise public awareness about the importance of landscape architecture.

Until then, a strongly European style had dominated the profession in Australia. From the first settlement, many who had received their horticultural training in Britain - especially during the first 100 years - used traditional styles. Not until the era of the 19th century did a distinctly Australian identity emerge, particularly among people born here. Surprisingly, landscape designers did not translate this into their designs, although the introduction of agricultural and horticultural education enabled more opportunities for landscape design. Local artists and authors reinforced this growing national awareness at about the same time. Collectively, these events created a political climate that led to the federation of six separate colonies into a Commonwealth in 1901, and the need for a separate Federal Capital - leading to the foundation of Canberra.

As chairman of the AILA committee, Richard Clough arranged for Crowe to deliver lectures on landscape architecture in other cities. During her three visits to the mainland states - including Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane - members welcomed Crowe and shared local landscape problems with her. The topics of these lectures were wide ranging and illustrated her understanding of the different needs in each area.

In Sydney, she talked about the relationship between landscape architecture and other design professions. Later, at Adelaide, her awareness of the difficulties of adjusting to the harsh Australian landscape revealed an appreciation of the problems ahead. Her ability to interpret and use local illustrations enthralled her audience and won wide press coverage: "Australia has a wonderful opportunity for producing an environment for living directly from virgin landscape, and there are not many places left in the world where that can be done" (Adelaide Advertiser, 8 December 1964).

Sadly, the local landscape architects had 'not yet found how to translate the spirit of the Australian landscape to a humanised landscape'. In Brisbane in 1977, Crowe spoke about the landscape of power and the need to work with engineers to help absorb these dominant structures for the transmission of electricity into their landscape setting.

During her second visit Crowe travelled widely, encouraging and challenging colleagues to explore the spirit and character of their land. She supported every move towards the institute's formation. Her talks with heads of government departments improved the prospects for the employment of landscape architects. The sixth National President, Jean Verscheur, invited her to be the keynote speaker for the 1977 national conference in Perth, on the role of the landscape architect in the community. Later, at the Western Australian Mains Road Department, she gave a talk to 85 civil engineers about the importance of slopes and landform to help blend the road and their associated structures into the landscape.

By her third visit, local institute groups had flourished in each city and they arranged her itinerary. A special dinner was held in her honour in Melbourne at the historic house and garden of Rippon Lea, where she met many leaders of other professions. The following day, Professor George Seddon hosted a lunch at the newly-established Centre for Environmental Studies at Melbourne University. She gave a public lecture on the topic of 'Preservation of historic landscapes and gardens' at the State Film Centre.
During the last day of the visit, she met with the Minister for Forests and Water Supply, the chairman of the Forestry Commission and the president of the Royal Australian Planning Institute. On this occasion, she again drew attention to the need for landscape architects to become part of the design team and to be in tune with their own environment.

While landscape designers already worked throughout Australia until the post-war period, Crowe focused attention on the need for a greater use of landscape architects.

Commonwealth Park

A significant development had taken place in 1912, when Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition for Canberra. As a far-sighted American landscape architect, he highlighted the site's landscape features, using them so that the success of the design of the city depended on their development. Although Griffin ended his connection with Canberra in 1921, his design steadily took shape when the National Capital Development Commission began in 1958, This provided the opportunity for more landscape architects to be employed.

An early decision to reintroduce his central lake scheme highlighted the strength of Griffin's design concept. This included a 678ha water surface area and 33km of landscaped foreshore surrounded by 314ha of parkland. Commonwealth Park, located near the city centre, became an important focus in this area. The lake and its parkland remain two of the largest urban landscape projects undertaken in Australia.

In carrying out the work, NCDC employed its own staff for the planning and landscape design but used engineering consultants and civic designers for specific projects. This enabled individual projects to be absorbed into a larger landscape setting. From the first, they placed great value on design and every site included a landscape component. Clough became the first landscape architect appointed in the late 1950s and undertook the major landscape design work. Margaret Hendry joined him in the early 1960s. As both had worked with Crowe previously in Britain, they applied her philosophy and design principles in their work.

The scale of this undertaking shows the significance of the lake system. It formed a water axis dividing the central Parliamentary Triangle and created a land axis at right angles to hold the major national buildings and spaces, providing a magnificent view to the two principal buildings. The northern and southern sections on either side of the Central Basin formed the land axis. On its north shore, Griffin sited museums, galleries and theatres and surrounded these with public gardens, with the parliamentary and government buildings to the south. He often altered these proposals, and later the NCDC carried out further modifications, reforming the topography to allow for a formal arrangement along the central land axis. Other changes included the provision of a major throughroad, Parkes Way, and areas of open space.

As these changes took place, the consulting engineers, Maunsell and Partners, engaged to construct the Central Basin, were guided by Holford and Partners of London on civic design issues. So when the construction of the lake commenced in 1960, Canberra began to reveal Griffin's emerging design. The lake was finished four years later and became Lake Burley Griffin, in acknowledgement of Griffin's contribution to the city.

Meanwhile, the NCDC decided to locate the major city public garden in the north-west section of the Parliamentary Triangle, now Commonwealth Park. With an allocation of just under 50ha, half the site remained undisturbed by the construction works associated with the lake, and the remainder was re-formed to create the north-west shoreline of the Central Basin. A new freeway called Parkes Way formed the other boundary.

An additional feature, now known as Nerang Pool, acted as a pivotal focus in this area of the park and a pedestrian bridge, causeway and island were constructed to improve access around the pool. The area contained a site for the catholic cathedral, exhibition pavilion, an existing temporary hostel and some forward tree planting. Additional tree planting had taken place as part of the lake scheme, especially on the north shore of the Central Basin.

After the filling of the lake in 1964, the NCDC invited Crowe to co-operate with Richard Gray from William Holford and Partners to advise on its development as a park for horticultural displays. She first visited the site late in the same year and discussed the details of the park with staff from NCDC and the Maintenance Authority (the Department of the Capital Territory, Parks and Gardens Section). Crowe and Gray returned to London to develop the masterplan and report and, after assessing the draft, the NCDC approved the plan the following January.

Crowe's masterplan centred around Nerang Pool and included a paddling pool for children, a fort, an amphitheatre, play sculpture, sandpit, an area for intensive horticulture, a marsh, a floral garden and a fountain avenue. The plan envisaged a walled and scented garden and a conservatory strategically placed as a feature in a large grass area, bounded by established trees. These formed a linear pattern to contain differently detailed but associated spaces. The children's areas were placed near the existing underpass, in an area with safe access. A new pedestrian overpass to the west, built later, provided access linking the city to the park. She used the existing car parks to the north of Parkes Way to provide a dual role, especially at weekends.

Her design highlighted Nerang Pool, which linked to an Australian-type water course flowing over rocks and through large stepping stones. Part of Nerang Pool became a lily pond within a shrubbery and woodland setting. The large scale of the lake edge linked Commonwealth Park to the adjoining parkland and the immediate shoreline contained a ferry wharf and an area to allow boats to tie up and for spectators to view the activities on the lake. The existing exhibition pavilion remained, part of which became a cafe.

The NCDC programmed the works using Crowe's design sketches as the basis for the preparation of contract documents. Work commenced in 1966 and went on rapidly around Nerang Pool; then three years later demolition of the hostel took place to allow further development in the park to proceed. A later addition of a memorial water jet in the lake, to acknowledge the bicentenary of Captain Cook's discovery of the east coast of Australia, became an important feature. In addition, the jet, the pavilion and the cathedral site required better access for tourist buses and cars. Clough revised the plan in 1974 and Crowe confirmed these amendments three years later.

During her 1977 visit, John Mortimer, a manager of the park, recalls: "She was absolutely thrilled with what she saw and in particular with the way her ideas had been translated into reality" (Gray, 1996). Further modifications took place with the fountain avenue being replaced with a small pool. The overpass that formed part of the original design was completed later. However, certain features such as the floating restaurant were not constructed.

With the popularity and use of the park, other facilities were progressively introduced to cater for community events, especially the programme of 'Sunday in the Park'. Crowe's design aimed to create a park for all Australians. It reveals her mastery of design and sensitivity to the changing requirements of our contemporary society.