A recently released book about the architectural work of Robin Dods in Brisbane and, to a less extent Sydney, reveals much about the development of Australian gardens (Robin Dods 1868-1920, Selected Works, by Robert Riddel, 2012). Trained in London under some prominent Arts and Crafts architects, Dods brought back many of the ideals of this movement to turn of the century Australia. A key part of the ideal was the equal treatment of a house and its surroundings including the gardens, fences and the outbuildings, so that as much as possible, the house would be embedded in a supporting landscape. It could have been a total package of recreated rural bliss on newly developed suburban blocks.
The Arts and Crafts garden held the promise of a recreated medieval enclosed garden or a simple early renaissance formal garden as the accompaniment to the house. Houses were to appear to grow unselfconsciously from their surroundings. While the ideal for the building was irregularity, variety and complexity, the gardens were to strive for the opposite. Not only did this formality in the garden seem to contradict the aspirations for the house, but it appears out of step with the self-professed desire for living places that were intimately connected to the soil and entwined with the surrounding processes of nature.
As one of the key instigators of the movement saw it, we could not hope to recreate the unique complexity of nature and so we should not imitate ‘the wilfulness or wildness of nature’, but rather we should fence off the gardens from the surrounding landscape and create distinctive natural spaces for humans. In his two rural houses, The Red House in Kent and Kelmscott Manor house in the upper reaches of the Thames River, William Morris had enclosed courtyards and outdoors rooms responding to the shape of the houses and detached from the outside world.
These outdoor spaces offered a comforting containment with a soft geometry of forms. Unlike the later High Renaissance gardens, all was not subordinated to ‘line and level’. Stonework often lacked the precision and evenness of formal gardens with individual stones obviously expressed, perhaps with plants between, but placed and shaped as regularly as necessary to maintain the essential sense of geometry. Possibility it was only the dilapidated state of old gardens, the weathered, slightly shabby nature of their current condition that appealed to the Arts and Crafts eye. Medieval knot gardens with aromatic plants and culinary herbs, originally without box edges, were preferred to carefully clipped parterres. The ideal was the creation (or preservation) of intimate spaces that had a unity or wholeness that was as comforting as a well-worn living room.
While this may have been the promise, the reality in Australia was a little different. Robin Dods and others were designing new buildings in newly developed towns with little established vegetation to soften, balance or frame the forms. Without mature trees, there is a bluntness to the high-blocked timber houses of Brisbane that means no comforting confinement in the spaces immediately adjacent to the house could be created. Even today, some suburbs are unbroken fields of grass barely divided by netting fences, with houses appearing as self-contained fortresses, especially if the original openness provided by verandas had been destroyed by later ‘closing in’.
The form of the houses that Dods created also seemed some distance from the tumbled down asymmetry of their English inspirations. With external cladding limited to oiled weatherboards, sharp white trims, including valance and balustrade, were employed to sharpen or control the composition. The rhythm of the veranda also lent itself on interpretation as an arcade or a colonnade so injecting elements of Classicism into the traditional house form. Porticos with pediments appear in some of Dods’ designs; houses as well as public buildings. Photographs in the book suggest that the accompanying gardens were developed as expansive Italianate platforms often with shapes hinting at ornate parterre displays. Layered outward-looking terraces set in an axial framework were perhaps the easiest way of organising the open spaces of Brisbane. These formal terrace gardens could help frame the view of the houses that were to the focus of the designs.
One of the possible descendants of the Arts and Crafts tradition, are the outdoor entertainment spaces of recent decades. While providing rooms and divided spaces, these are invariably heavily worked, carefully composed spaces that change with the prevailing fashion, often with no aesthetic connection with the house. Absent is the agelessness, gentle implied order or unintended variability of their potential 19th century ancestors; the imprint of the input from generations of owners. Instead, the gardens are sequentially made-over – that is completely replaced – by the impatient generations.