Sense of place

Sense of place

Landscape Architect Tony Milne discusses how context in design can connect people with the surrounding environment.


Is there anything wrong in simply sitting back, smelling the roses and admiring grass we have fertilised and watered? Or, should our landscapes and gardens deliver more, should they communicate meaning and respond to context, and if so what is meant by context?

If we think of two of our iconic literary pieces – Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – context and setting underpin these marvellous narratives. They conjure up a strong sense or spirit of place, often referred to as the genius of the place (genius loci).

I recall from my days as a geography student, we were introduced to the study of why certain places hold special meaning to particular people. This was further advanced during my landscape architecture studies. Destinations said to have a strong sense of place have a strong identity and character that resonates widely. Context is often related to our experiences of a place, how we see it and interpret it, and construct meaning from it.

Consider the various experiences you have had in different places. Whether it is the sight of a skink bathing on the sun-drenched rocky tors of the rugged Otago landscape, the colourful sardine fishing boats lapping at their moorings on the Greek Island of Aegina or the sun-bleached olive trees on the slopes of the same island. Perhaps the humidity and smells of a night hawker market in Singapore or the milky colour of the Waiho River that carries glacial rock flour from the Franz Joseph glacier. These all conjure and evoke different feelings and responses.

As landscape architects we often wrestle with the concepts of meaning and context in our design responses. It is about place making.

If we consider some of the recent architecture and landscape responses within our city we can see the ideas and materials associated with other cities and countries transplanted onto
our city.

I am not so sure what this tells us about our own identity. Do we really know who we are and what our landscapes represent? Is there anything wrong with our predilection for contrived English-style gardens, trimmed buxus, imported stone and subdivision entrance features?

A number of years ago a colleague and I worked on the upgrade of Kerikeri’s main street. It was time when imported clay paving, off-the-shelf street furniture and bollards were in vogue. The question we were confronted with was how we can provide the future users of this place with a different experience to others? We took our cues from the setting.

The old stone store, which is New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building, and the rolling slopes supporting citrus and avocado groves are synonymous with Kerikeri. Elements of our design response included small angled raised lawns within the main street, these were supported by walls of local stone and were tilted to face the sun.

To our delight these are well used, with people enjoying the sun and warmth just as the fruit does in the wider landscape. In our mind we have provided the users of the main street with an opportunity to understand and engage with local history, culture and environment. Landscapes designed with a series of layers that tell a story, which in turn can be interpreted to reveal meaning. The beauty is in the interpretation and it differs for each of us.

Context gives landscape 'meaning'.

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