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George Seddon - his writings, articles and books



The GENIUS LOCI and Australian Landscape

by George Seddon            Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne.

originally published in Landscape Australia 2/1979



1.  Geology can sometimes make a powerful visual statement. Where it does so, respect it by avoiding trivial beautification : or structures that are out of scale or character. Tidbinbilla, ACT. (Photograph br Colin Totterdell)

THERE IS A LATTER-DAY PROVERB that any­thing xeroxed begins to lose its value. This is the Age of Easy Copying. I have a similar maxim of my own, that any place that you can get to by jet is unlikely to be very different from the place you just left.

International technology and easy communications have an homogenising effect all over the global supermarket (whatever else, it is no village), and thus works to reduce regional diversity in urban form, architecture, food, dress, and even vegetation. For example, as little as twenty years ago, most cities in the humid tropics were distinctive at least in their trees. Now there is a very limited and small vocabulary of street trees from Cairns to Chiengmai: Delonix regia, the Royal Poinciana; several species of Cassia; Spathodea campanulata, the African Tulip Tree; a few palms; Terminalia catappa, the Tropical Almond; Dillenia indica; and the ubiquitous Rain Tree.

These are all magnificent trees, extravagantly beautiful in flower, but it is extraordinary that a part of the world remarkable for the diversity of its tree species should so quickly be reduced to uniformity in its towns.

Does it matter? I believe that it matters a great deal, for a variety of rather different reasons, ranging from ecological through aesthetic to psychological. Some of them will be illustrated later. The psychological dependence on regional and local identity is marked in all technologically 'primitive' societies - in much of Papua New Guinea, for example, there is a wealth of local knowledge about particular places, their physical characteristics, their special uses, and the kind of behaviour that is necessary to maintain both, encoded in a series of taboos, negative and positive constraints on behaviour that Westerners have sometimes described as superstition.

The early Greeks had very similar beliefs and practices, and a legion of tutelary deities - the spirits of place - to guard each' stream or grove or mountain. That body of legend embroiders the cloth of our Western tradition, but it now has no functional place in it, only a decorative one.

We make sense of experience by generalising, and could not function without so doing. Every noun in our language takes meaning from a perceived likeness between different objects, and every verb, from a perceived likeness between different events or actions. Yet experience itself is of the specific, and each of us is an individual with a need to see ourselves in a unique set of relations, as well as in general ones. This need is not fully met in an homogenising world, and many features of our life, including much of the fashion industry and the bizarre featurism, still characteristic of domestic architecture and suburban gardens, are evidence of unfulfilled cravings for personal identity set in a distinctive environment.

Those who are responsible for the care of landscape in this country can do much to resist the effects of homogenising technology, to individuate by under­standing and clarifying the locally distinctive - in short, by respecting the genius loci. What follows are some suggestions as to how this might be done, and some possible reason for doing so. The suggestions are all commonplace, but they are nevertheless regularly disregarded:



1.   Understand the geology, and display it where you can.

Road and rail cuttings often reveal the geology of an area in a satisfying way. If the rock is not strong enough to stand as a cutting, then it may be necessary to face it, or to use crib walling or reduce the slope and cover it with turf. But it is not uncommon for the natural rock face to be covered over for reasons that are primarily aesthetic.

In Melbourne, for example, one of the most significant internal boundaries is that between the Tertiary basalts of the western third of the metropolis, and the Silurian mudstones and sandstones of the eastern two-thirds. This boundary coincides in part with the Yarra, but it is not the river that makes the significant boundary, but the geology, as Ivanhoe and Heidelberg show clearly (both 'eastern' suburbs, west of the Yarra, but east of the basalt).

This transition is shown well in Barkers Road in Kew and Hawthorn - the road leaves the basalt flats of Collingwood to cut through the Silurian rocks of the high eastern ridge along the river. Further south, Burwood Road makes a similar entry, but here the cutting has been 'beautified' with basalt terracing, planted out with gazanias, agapanthus and other pleasant but commonplace exotics. It is also very fashionable in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne to use large basaltic boulders to make gardens in imitation of the Ellis Stones gardens.

Basalt does not belong in these areas, and anyone who uses it should be very clear in his own mind just why it is being introduced. Fantasy gardens which create their own environment are legitimate in special circumstances, especially if they are self contained and not continuous with a larger, semi-natural environment, but they should be exceptional.

The gold of Hawkesbury sandstone is part of the riches of Sydney, and it is everywhere, in cliffs, cuttings and buildings. Rock and stone are as a rule used well in Sydney, because the natural example is omnipresent, yet even Sydney has some very inept stonework: along new sections of Mona Vale Road, for example, cuttings are faced with a veneer of crazy paving. The exposed surfaces represent bedding planes, but are laid at a 30° angle to the true bedding planes of the Hawkesbury Sandstone. Toodyay Stone, a hard flaggy quartzite, is often used thus in Perth and Fremantle, with deplorable results. The outcropping calcarenite and limestone of coastal south-western Australia has a distinctive beauty that seems not yet to be adequately valued, since outcrops are often vandalised by developers and public authorities.



2.   Study the landform, and build in sympathy with it, if possible.

The handling of landform is particularly clumsy and insensitive in Australia, although many farm houses of the last century were beautifully sited. Camden Park House, built by John Macarthur's sons, is a striking example, facing west down a long gentle incline to the Nepean, rising again to a low hill, where, a little off-centre stands the tall tower and spire of Camden's Church of St John, built by the Macarthurs to the Glory of God and to improve their views; behind it in the distance, the backdrop of the Blue Mountains with the peaks of Mt Victoria and Mt Wilson accenting the skyline.

This view is a combination of nature and artifice; the house is angled for it, the unbroken lawn leads to it, the flanking tree plantations frame it, the church on its hill enhances the middle distance, the Blue Mountains close it - and the view from the opposite side, the east or garden front, complements it by being so different. Set on a rather small plateau or shelf of land, planted as a semi-circle of lawn and garden, dropping steeply to broken country, a billabong and natural bushland, which is more civilised in near view, much wilder in the background, and all more initimate in scale than the sweeping vista to the west.



2. Black Hill. Canberra (formerly Black Mountain), courtesy of Telecom Australia. Black Hill now forms a companion-piece to Red Hill, although the comparison will not be complete until it gets its own Mugger Way. The cork plantation in the foreground is big enough to create its own environment. (Photograph by Colin Totterdell)   


3.  Like beauty, soil is only skin deep. Here's to skin! Clear felling of pine plantation. Buffalo Creek. Victoria.      (Photograph by Soil Conservation Authority. Victoria)


This eye for a site was not limited to great houses. It was as true for many a modest farm house, but it is a skill that has been lost. A `view' today seems to mean only a large range of visibility, as from the Westgate Bridge, or from aggressive houses rearing above the landscape on the Mornington Peninsula or Mt Gravatt to peer at equally aggressive neighbours. Skillion roofs are set at an angle contrary to the slope; the flow of the landform is disrupted by trivial shapes, or by brutal cut-and-fill to produce level building sites.

Most of the Yarra River has been filled along its banks, flattening out the swamps and billabongs, and oversteepening the banks to leave the river out of sight in a trench with steep and unnatural banks. Landscape architects have a little trick all their own called `mounding'. The creation of new landforms with big earth moving machines has exciting possibilities, of which the underground car park at the University of Melbourne gives an interesting example.

It is also sometimes convenient to use mounds of earth to screen or to reduce noise. But the arbitrary tumuli or long barrows that now begin to appear in affluent suburbia - the long barrows of Mona Vale in the northern suburbs of Sydney are a major example - have nothing to do with natural landforms on this continent, although they bear some relation to glacial landforms in North America and Europe, whence the device has been copied. I hope also that we will have no more waterfalls beginning and ending nowhere - even the waterfall in Commonwealth Park in Canberra, on a generous scale and exceptionally well done, is ludicrous to my eye. No natural spring could possibly emerge from that granite bouldered construct on the limestone plains by the Molonglo.

Some public agencies have shown a new feeling for landform in the last decade. In Victoria, the Country Roads Board has created a fine mega­sculpture in the Wallan By-pass section of the Hume Freeway; failure of the road-bed has meant inadequate public recognition of this achievement. The highway is beautifully fitted to the land in long sweeping curves. The overpasses are tied securely to the hills from which they flow, and the road carries the traveller up and over the Dividing Range with kinesthetic pleasure.

The State Electricity Commission (Victoria) now goes to great pains in the difficult exercise of siting its power lines. Fisheries and Wildlife have some interesting design successes, most notably the information building at Tower Hill near Warrnambool. This was designed by the late Robin Boyd, and the circular building with domed roof faithfully reflects the bare rounded hill forms behind and around it. It is unusual for a State agency to sponsor work of such distinction.



3.  Study the soil.

Any gardener will improve the soil if he can, by digging in compost, adding gypsum to clay, and by fertilising. For an enclosed garden, it may even be legitimate to replace the soil entirely, with `mountain soil' or an organic-rich sandy loam. Remember, however, that you are certainly robbing Peter to do so. In the larger landscape, excessive fertilising will mean that there is then a temptation to use plant materials that would not otherwise grow on site, and this may commit you to substantial long-term maintenance. There may also be ecological costs, and aesthetic ones. The fertilisers will add to the eutrophication risk to streams and lakes.

Changes in vegetation may make a landscape more vulnerable to adverse conditions, reduce wildlife habitat, and look out of place against the bleached colour typical of so many Australian landscapes.



4.   Interfere as little as possible with the natural hydrology.

To increase or decrease stream flow will lead to either erosion or siltation. Where the velocity of run-off is necessarily increased in one part of the system, for example by roads, this should be compensated by decreasing run-off elsewhere, for example by infiltration beds, reforestation, or retarding basins.

There are now many devices for the systematic analysis and conservation of natural hydrological systems, and these give a better long term return on investment than the very costly corrective devices required by ignoring them, a case where `Design with Nature' is good practical advice.

There are also some obvious aesthetic rewards for doing so.



5.  Study the natural vegetation, and the existing vegetation.

The design of self-maintaining systems should be a general aim, although it can rarely be fully achieved, and there may be departures from it for specific, clearly defined purposes. One must also recognise the identity of cultural landscapes; the poplars of the middle Hawkesbury around Wisemans Ferry; the gentle vineyards of McLaren Vale; the great pine and cypress windbreaks of the rolling lava plains near Flinders in southern Victoria, almost black against summer-blonde pastures; the backyard almonds of Adelaide and the elms of inner Melbourne, where a eucalypt may look and be out of place.

To grow only native plants is not a proper aim, which should be rather to grow appropriate plants - but the definition of 'appropriate' must rely on much physical and cultural information. One should nevertheless use local plant material, germinated from a local seed source, in the large landscape as a matter of general principle. Departures from this principle may often be legitimate, but should have an explicit justification. The variation in plant material is one of the strongest natural cues to changes in the local environment, but once again the forces of homogeneity are at work.

In the Hume Freeway section praised above, there is one landscape inadequacy, and that is in this use of plant materials. A rather limited range of landscaping plant material has been used, drawn for its practicality and easy availability and familiarity, from around Australia. Perhaps one-third comes from southwestern Australia. The Dividing Range is one of the great internal boundaries in a country that generally lacks marked differentiation, separating the southern coastal margins from the inland Murray Basin. This major transition is not recognised in the planting scheme on the Hume Freeway, which thus homogenises its route, and diminishes the genius loci in this respect.

It sometimes looks as if the rather limited range of imported exotic plants used to adorn our gardens and landscapes in the past has been replaced in the last decade or so by an equally limited range of native plants - native, that is , to Australia, but rarely indigenous to the site where they are planted.

I am not an extreme purist, and am well aware, for example, that Eucalyptus ficifolia grows much better in Melbourne than it does in most of Western Australia, where its natural range is limited to a small area on the extreme south coast. There is in fact a vast range of Australian plants that have scarcely been tried in general cultivation - many of the rainforest trees, for example, thrive in the Royal Botanic Gardens in South Yarra, but are almost never to be seen outside them in Victoria - the species of Lomatia are a case in point.

There is also a very great deal of work to be done in the design use of Australian plant material, a subject which men like Glen Wilson have pioneered. The use of repeated verticals, so easily achieved by close-planted species such as Eucalyptus maculata can give stunning effects, and there are many striking design possibilities which rely on the light canopy, fine and diverse foliage, subtle colour variations sensuous trunks and irregular symmetry peculiar to so much Australian vegetation. All this should be explored for special effects.

In the larger landscape, ecological principles should generally apply. They can also be very effective, soothing by their harmony in an urban setting, as Bruce Mackenzie has shown so well at Peacock Point        (Landscape Australia, No.1/1979, pp 19-27).


4.  The Murrumbidgee River in the ACT near the site of the proposed Tuggeranong city centre. The interface between city and the natural hydrology of the region will need extraordinary care if the quality of this river is to be maintained. Quality includes visual quality, and therefore the cypress pines in the foreground and the casuarinas at the water's edge. (Photograph by Colin Totterdell)


5. (a)    A farm road by the Murray River near Mildura. The trees are River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis). Nothing else could look so right, nor so relaxed.   (Photograph by George Seddon)


5. (b)    Snow Gums on the High Plains, New South Wales. The design potential of the Australian vegetation has not yet been adequately explored. The light canopy here makes a filigree against the sky. (Photograph by Colin Totterdell)


6. (a)   A whitewashed plank bridge over the Ovens River near Bright has a pleasantly rural character; it is a bridge that is good to walk over, or to lean over, and right for Bright. (Photograph by Colin Totterdell)


6. (b)    A 1970's farm house in a `timeless' Australian style, well sited, appropriate visually, and with a symbolic continuity of style that strengthens its relation with the land. (Photograph by George Seddon)



6.   Respect the cultural landscape.

There are many good local and regional landscape practices: the whitewashed low wooden railing around the country race-track for example, is preferable to the tubular steel with which it is sometimes replaced. Street names attached to the walls of buildings, rather than needing yet another pole rising from cluttered pavements, is an old and urbane practice in inner Sydney. The pepper tree (Schinus molle) is as much a part of the cultural landscape of Australian mining towns as any gum tree.

The cultural landscape is made up of the sum of such details, reflecting our impact on the natural environment. Unfortunately, this principle cannot be applied incautiously, because much of the cultural landscape is not worth respect, a sad truth that applies not only to the dreary landscapes of part of the western suburbs of Sydney, which are often subject to the scorn of aesthetes, but equally to most of the Barrenjoey Peninsula, where many of the aesthetes live, in an area of great wealth and breathtaking natural beauty among houses of equally breathtaking vulgarity. However, the hand of man has enhanced some landscapes: the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, for example, and much of rural Tasmania. Such landscapes must be conserved, and their lessons applied elsewhere.

7.  Tropical rainforest along the coast north of Cairns, a uniquely rich environment and the last major stretch of lowland rainforest in Australia, currently being cleared for holiday homes and dubious farming projects.(Photograph by Colin Totterdell)



7.   Analyse the genii loci of our landscapes, and celebrate them.

The landscapes of England have been loved, analysed, recreated, used as the background for poems and plays and novels for hundreds of years. Wessex is Hardy country, and the lakes are Wordsworth; East Anglia is interpreted through Constable, and Kent through Chaucer: this rich overlay of association deepens our experience and understanding.

In Australia, Heysen invented the gum tree, and Tom Roberts showed us reddish landscapes, a change from the sombre colours of McCubbin, or the south-of-France palette of Streeton. But most Australian landscapes are unlimned and unsung. Dorothy Mackellar and her pop poem about loving a sunburnt country (which she did from a house on lush Pittwater with a rainfall of around 1300 mm) has probably done more to wean Australians from the hose than any landscape architect; programs like those of the ABC Natural History Film Unit - Exploration North is the latest series - have also had a major impact.

The view of some professional landscape architects that the way to get good landscapes is to get on with the job of design, and that words are all a waste of time, is clearly inadequate. Landscape architects will never play more than a partial role in managing landscape in this (or any other) country - but it can be a critical one if they are articulate, can say what they mean by good design as well as show it, can give meaning to words and phrases like `compatible' and `incompatible', `in harmony with the landscape' and so on, by the capacity to analyse in words - and photographs and sketches - the specific qualities of specific landscapes, thus showing us all how to pay homage to the genius loci.

This is a task that has barely begun.



These seven points are commonplace. Any landscape architect is likely to have heard them all in the first few lectures of his first term of professional training. Some of them are put into practice on occasion, but there are few practitioners who make a conscious attempt to apply all of them all the time, with the outcome that some landscape architects are helping to create a Hilton International Landscape, a bland, easily disgestible setting that makes no demands, belongs to no place, and makes the international middle class traveller feel at home anywhere in the world: the price that he pays is that he is really at home nowhere.

Moreover, much landscape management is in the hands of people other than landscape architects - Shire Engineers, for example, who may not be familiar with these simple principles and may need help in applying them.

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