Canberra and region - Projects and sites


Garden of Australian Dreams
National Museum of Australia, Canberra

introduction / article 1 /photo essay 1 / photo essay 2 / ACT Project


Extract from 'Mapping the Nation and Writing the Garden'
by Richard Weller
Landscape Australia 3-2001 pp40-44.
August 2001

Photos: Room 4.1.3.



Tangled lines formed by Boolean computation carve voids into architecture and set out landscape spaces. The threads of the tangle come from a playful negotiation of urban design guidelines extrapolated from the original Cartesian axes set out by Walter Burley Griffin.

The tangled or knotted condition operates as a metaphor of a nation's interwoven pluralist destiny. In particular, the design sets out a new axis between the nation's spiritual centre (Ayer's Rock-Uluru) and the nation's political centre, Parliament House. The whole site planning can be understood as making a complex emergent configuration between the two aforementioned referents. Contrary to modernist Canberra, the site planning makes use of its waterside location and also forms a large inner space for a garden.

The Garden of Australian Dreams is a micro-cosmic representation of Australian self-consciousness, based on virtuality and simulacra as opposed to mimesis of `nature'. It is also a project, which claims to be landscape design about landscape design, explicitly challenging orthodox landscape expressions. It is a space rich in meaning and is perhaps the world's largest built map!


details of water feature


National Museum of Australia

The site is a peninsula on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia's planned 20th century city and political capital. The National Museum of Australia is charged with documenting Australia's popular culture through the themes of Land, People and Nation. The building for the museum is pensively connected to the Gallery of First Australians, Australia's premier collection of indigenous culture. This whole museum complex shares the peninsula with the academic cultural institution, AIATSIS, The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

The Museum not only enhances its remarkable picturesque location, but also metaphorically reaches out to the broader cultural landscape of the nation. It does this through two noteworthy features, the Uluru Axis and the Garden of Australian Dreams. The Museum's buildings are to an extent structured by the former and they in turn generously create the space for the latter.

From a landscape architectural point of view, the project set out to speak about Australian cultural conditions as vested in landscape, that is, landscape as a changing cultural artefact, not a given. Our point of departure was not to reiterate the partial truism that the land makes the people, but to turn around and consider that the people now make the land. The landscape design also eschews traditional landscape symbolism and materials. Similarly, this work is concerned with the cultural construction of landscape, not a particular mimesis of `nature'.


The map provides a continuous groundsheet, and is derived from two main maps: a standard English language map and Horton's map of tribal boundaries of indigenous Australia. The map folds and rises like a sand dune or ridge to form a tunnel.


details of graphics underfoot


The Uluru Axis

In master planning Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin inscribed many axes toward other state capitals and local landscape features. We thought it time to add another. The 'Uluru Axis' as it became known, demarcates a relevant national orientation as it reaches for the centre of the nation's landmass and its navel, Uluru. This new axis allegorically brings the monumental Parliament House into line with the monumental Uluru, thus establishing the dialectical bookends of the project.

In- between these references, the complex of the museum is built along the guidelines of knotted lines, according to Boolean geometry made available through computer-aided design. The axis, a huge red line across the peninsula that rises up and curls back on to itself, suggests a nation no longer looking so much to imperial centres for confirmation but one maturing to focus on its own internal contradictions, a different route by which it assumes global citizenship.


'Uluru' complete


'Uluru' by twilight


The Garden of Australian Dreams

The Garden of Australian Dreams is constructed from arrangements of copies, that is, its elements can be sourced to cultural artifices, not original landscapes, as, for example one finds at the Australian National Gallery. As well as this attempt to play into the symbolic order of things, the garden is concerned with manufacturing landscape design surfaces and forms through the generative power of computers. Generally, the garden is concerned to find a space between the popular and the academic, the virtual and the real, the political and the poetic, and the playful and the serious. The Garden of Australian Dreams is about emergent senses of place, about writing, mapping, imaging, reading and singing the country.

It is fundamentally a map of Australia upon which visitors can walk and read complex layers of information. A footstep across the map would equate with 30 miles across the real landmass of Australia. The ground surface of the garden is a richly patterned and written concrete surface made to look like a map printed on fabric that has been stretched and folded across the site. The map connects the National Museum and the Gallery of First Australians, thereby suggesting a shared cartography between different land-use practices and different cultural interpretations of property and place.

The garden can be thought of as a theatrical interweaving of both the `Great Australian Dream' and the `Aboriginal 'Dreaming'. The former being the ideal of acquiring a cornucopian suburban property and the latter a mystical system of mapping and a comprehensive set of creation myths vested in landscape. Both are landscape based mythologies, both concern defining boundaries and kinship. Both are profound systems of orientation.

The two main maps used are a standard English language map of Australia and Horton's map of the tribal boundaries of indigenous Australia. The names and lines of these two maps interweave, erase and overlay one another, forming a complex weave. Other mapping information used to form the surface of the garden includes: vegetation maps; soil and geology maps; electoral boundaries; maps of Australia's history of exploration; road maps; a weather map taken from Australia Day 1998; the Wik land claim; and various cartographic oddities, such as the Dingo Fence and the Western Australian border, derived from lines inscribed by the Pope in the late 15th century to divide Spanish and Portuguese interests in the region. Adding to the mosaic is the word 'home' translated into the various languages spoken in contemporary Australia and written across the surface of the whole map.

The map provides a continuous groundsheet, but it is not always flat. It folds and rises like a sand dune or a ridge to form a tunnel, so visitors can, in one brief passage, pass under the layers of information. Although not yet complete, the tunnel space is to offer an aural interpretation of place, a counterpart to the visual and written surface. The topography of the garden was originally abstracted from models of Shrapnel Valley in Gallipoli. In construction, the folds of the map surface have lost much of their designed complexity.

At one end of the tunnel, closest the Gallery of First Australians, is a small metallic room. From the front it looks like the armour of an infamous Australian criminal Ned Kelly. The room is actually a camera obscura, a late Renaissance optical tool that purported to offer `objective vision' - everything this landscape is not. Once inside the camera, visitors can appreciate an upside-down image of the outside world and in this sense they are not only occupying the space of the criminal, but also the space of their own heads, as Rene Descartes would have it.




The map is an official document, a kind of social contract and so it bears various written signatures. Edmund Barton, Australia's first Prime Minister's signature is written on the end of a large red `X'. It is uncommon knowledge that many Aboriginal people signed (and still do sign) documents with an X. The X is a sign made under duress by a party who could often neither read nor write. Another signature is the word `Australia'. It is written very large, half in and half out of the water at the northern end of the garden. The word is written in reverse, as if held in a reflection. The word has been copied from a five dollar note and, as it scribbles its way across the whole width of the garden, one is reminded of Marcus Clarke's quip that in Australia nature seemed to learning to write. Nearby in the water is a fallen dead tree and a flood gauge.

In the midst of the mapped surface is an area of well kept grass, a small swimming pool and a Phoenix canariensis (Phoenix Palm). This tree of life is a counterpart to the indigenous dead tree in the water. It is an emblem of the paradise that European's wanted to find in the New World and the paradise that Aborigines lost. It is also emblematic of the suburban paradise that dominates Australian popular culture. The Phoenix Palm stands in a small square yard of lawn that is cut by the `X' signature.

Facing the lawn is a `Dream Home', a large empty room. The Dream Home is not a literal copy of a typical Australian suburban home, rather it is one of the interior rooms such as the `Living Room' extruded. Thus the Dream Home doubles as a modernist box. Upon inspection it is a strange room, reminiscent of Magritte's interior scenes, with a moveable corner and an enormous door. From inside the room you can see nothing except the sky, so that the Euclidean space of the white cube frames the fractal space of the sky.


The 'Dream Home', a large empty room - a modernist box - with eight blue poles that recall Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles, a controversial icon of the post-modern Australian culture.


The view from the 'Dream Home'.


This space can also be used by artists producing installations that relate to the changing exhibitions of the Museum. The front of the Dream Home can be used as an outdoor summer cinema. Behind the empty Dream Home are eight blue poles, recalling Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles, a controversial icon of post-modern Australian culture.

Other painters variously referenced in the garden include Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Jeffrey Smart, Gordon Bennett and Russell Drysdale. Incidentally, like Pollock, the whole map surface is a sort of chaotic painting on the ground plane, the technique used by traditional indigenous Australian artists.

Sitting on a small porch off the front of the Dream Home, and laughing at all of this, is the garden's gnome - a monstrous figure of an 'antipodean', the sort of mythical, mutated people that, back in the Middle Ages, Europeans thought might live in the antipodes.

Whilst we have been conscious of where our work might position itself in terms of local and international landscape architecture, our primary labour has been to make a place richly imbricated with the light and shadow of contemporary Australia.



Richard Weller, Director, Room 4.1.3 Pty Ltd,
and School of Architecture and Fine Arts,
University of Western Australia, Nedlands WA 6907.


August 2001


Project Details

The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, ACT, Australia

Landscape Architects:  Room 4.1.3 Pty Ltd, Sydney/Perth, Australia
Project Team:  Vladimir Sitta, Richard Weller, project principals.
Team Members: Elizabeth Burt, Kioshi Furuno, Luca Ginoulhiac, Scott Hawken, Silvia Krizova, Pavol Moravcik, Maren Parry, Daniel Firns, Karl Kullmann.
Architects: Ashton Raggatt McDougall in conjunction with Peck van Hartel Trethowan, Melbourne, Australia
Location:  Acton Peninsula, Canberra ACT, Australia.
Competition: 1997
Construction: 1998-2001
Budget:  External areas total $14.5m,landscape $4.5m
General Contractor:  Acton Peninsula Alliance, Canberra ACT, Australia
Landscape Contractor: Urban Contractors Pty Ltd,Canberra ACT, Australia
Size:  Approximately 10 ha



introduction / article 1 /photo essay 1 / photo essay 2 / ACT Project



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