Existing in Place: Past and Present

Landscape architects play a significant role in designing and constructing the aesthetics of a city. They maintain the details of history when no one else does and, most importantly, are crucial in creating a sustainable environment for the future.

The big picture and the details

It is clear that someone embodying this position of a landscape architect or urban designer requires an interdisciplinary design approach. For their work to be impactful, a landscape architect needs to act as an environmental activist, historical researcher and a creatively aesthetic designer. Damian Thompson is one such person.

Thompson is a landscape architect director at Brisbane based multidisciplinary design studio Lat27. I met with him to discuss design as creative thought applied to cities and the scope of some of his projects, which require a grounded big picture but also attention to detail.

Prior to meeting with Thompson, I will admit that I did not know much about urban design or landscape architecture. To me urban design was a field of study that I vaguely recognised as everything from town planning to public art. And landscape architecture has to involve plants, right?

I had never really thought through how public places are created, of the people that are thinking about both the big picture and the smallest details. Thompson explains how Landscape Architects need to constantly “yo-yo back and forth” between the macro and micro.

I’ve been to some of the places that Thompson had a role in designing, such as the Ekka plaza and RNA showground. I’ve been a part of the music festival crowd at Laneway that effortlessly flowed from one stage to another and I’ve sat at the main arena at the Ekka with a strawberry ice cream in hand.

I have experienced firsthand these urban renewal public places, but, it was not until I toured around the space with Thompson that I began to understand the broad field of landscape architecture.


Designing RNA and the showground master plan

LAT27 were involved in the design and documentation of the RNA plaza, as well as the master plan of the showground, which had an urban renewal focus.

Walking around the space with Thompson made me acutely aware that being in public areas I was usually oblivious to the amount of thought each design decision was given, in order to make my experience better.

Thompson clearly knew the space like the back of his hand; he navigated the area confidently, despite the drizzling rain and he was more than happy to point out the tiniest details and was very forthcoming in his explanations of each design choice.

The designing of these spaces involve an intersection of historical, environmental and community considerations.

Through landscape architecture techniques, designers can manipulate how society interacts with an environment. Landscape architects have the capability to influence our culture to become more sustainable.

It is difficult to explain “the feeling you get when you walk around a big city like London or New York”. You can instantly sense that you are in one of the great cities of the world. Thompson says “it’s a subsequent set of events and history that lead it to be like that”.

It is these designers – landscape architects, urban designers – who aim to preserve the history of a city, in particular the details that may otherwise be overlooked.

Landscape architects as historical researchers dig through the layers of a certain environment and pull that past into modern design. Thompson believes it is in this process where you find the identity and character of a place, where you can be creative.

It is true that not many people care or preserve the historical context of a place; however, Thompson explains urban design is about “accentuating and caring about the past of places”.

I saw this theory in practice at the RNA showground with the porte chochere canopy structure roof Lat27 designed, that was made to sit across from the heritage façade of the RICC, resembling the older traditional horse stable roof.

I could see how the space had been opened up by the strategic moving of the old ticket house and the creation of a ha-ha. I had absolutely no idea what Thompson was talking about at first when he pointed at a green patch of space and asked if I knew what a ha-ha was.

These sloping green spaces were traditionally used in farms to maintain the illusion of a view while keeping the animals out of the house. In this circumstance the sloping green hill works simultaneously as a mirage and another green space to sit, for example, for families watching the fireworks at the Ekka.

Thompson, along with his colleagues at Lat27 had to conceptualise the RNA showground as a renewable space that functions for everything and everybody. The space caters for music festivals go-ers, the Ekka with crowds of families and even caravan shows where the weighty vehicles are driven through the space.

The historical and environmental considerations are addressed by the smaller design details, such as the natural waterway catchment plants that clean storm water before it hits the drain and then ultimately the ocean.

Even the roots of trees are cased in plastic cell protectors, guarding them against the heavy weight of trucks.

“The whole point is to make cities more livable… in Brisbane everyone lives in the suburbs really; urban design is about wanting people to live in the city,” Thompson says. Through this process of design the goal is that people will actually live in the city where they will be able to walk more and actually “exist there”.


Brisbane as a liveable city

While Brisbane is not considered one of the big cities in the world, it is certainly becoming more liveable. In 2014 the Monocle Magazine of the world’s most liveable cities named Brisbane number 25. Thompson believes “Brisbane is a young pup, which is exciting” as far as design standards go.

Certainly as Brisbane grows and technology continues to progress and become more a part of our lives, this too could affect how designers work. There is great potential to crowd source ideas and engage the community via social media when developing public spaces.

Thompson was exposed to these methods during his involvement in the Flood of Ideas project that was established post Brisbane floods in 2011. This initiative aimed to gather creative ideas from the community about how Brisbane should respond to floods and mostly to create a platform where these discussions can take place.

Whilst this technology is exciting for the future, Thompson is naturally cautious due to the lack of control and amount of monitoring that would be required to undertake such online community engagement.

Thompson began his career in Brisbane, studying Landscape Architecture at QUT, where he was encouraged to think about good ideas not just professional outcomes.

He explains that it was useful that there was “a lot of cross reference between different design disciplines, which is vital…good cities today mean that experts are all working together and listening to each other.”

It is fitting that Lat27 are sponsoring a fourth year QUT design award, encouraging and promoting students to achieve a similar scope of design caliber.

This height of design achievement can be seen in the well-known saying among designers that if you’ve made a good space, then both the locals and visitors will enjoy it.

It is clear that it is the history of a space that inspires landscape architects on the character and identity of a place and the environment that encourages them to maintain an urban renewal focus.