Harnessing A Natural Flair
Friday June 27, 1997
IT COMES as something of a surprise to discover that, if you live in low-income housing on an estate or in elderly people's accommodation, you are more likely to benefit from the skills of landscape architect Roslyn Savio than if you have a house in Toorak.
This is not a reflection of any attitude to tall poppies on her part, but rather the way that landscape architecture is practised in the main.
As recently as 1979, when Ms Savio graduated, landscape architecture was only in its early stages in Australia, still in transition from an era when landscape contractors and designers held sway.
Her childhood interest in botony and wild flowers bloomed during her architectural course at the University of Melbourne. Her interest developed a new direction during time spent in Britain, where she completed her architectural year out, and in Asia and Russia, which fuelled her enthusiam for landscapes.
There was also an environmental thrust towards landscape in architecture courses in the 1970s, a time when Australian landscapes gave rise to widespread interest in low-maintenance native gardens.
Unfortunately, she says, there has been a backlash against native plants and people, swayed no doubt by fashion, now want exotic plants. Her own preference is for a variety of plant material that should be appropriate, she says, for the site and soil and easy to maintain.
There is a noticeable trend towards using indigenous plants, such as those that would have grown on a site before it was first cleared. This is increasingly used in municipal planting but less often in private gardens, she says.
A number of South African plants thrive in Victoria, being both hardy and drought resistant in many cases. Red Hot Pokers, for example, have the advantage of good form and presence. Mediterranean plants are also very suitable and there is a growing appreciation of tufted grasses, sedges and native grasses, many with flowers or seed pods.
A landscape architect would never scatter rocks or sleepers around a site, Ms Savio says, so the design structure has to come from the planting. This is a mixture of trees that provide a canopy, middle-storey planting and ground-level cover, with an interplay of leaf shapes and colors. She says plants with big leaves are placed in the foreground and those with smaller ones at the back to create visual depth.
However, although she has done some creek restoration work, she says restoring an indiginous landscape is extremely difficult and knowledge is still being accumulated in this area.
Since the late 1980s, Ms Savio has done work for Jennings, municipal councils, government residences for the elderly and family units, a wildlife sanctuary and Alan Barry Reserve as well as the Urban Land Authority, first at Hillsborough Estate in Croydon, and, since then, Copperfields Estate in Delahey and Timbarra Estate in Berwick.
She believes that a landscape architect should be involved very early in a development, deciding which trees should be retained, assessing the site, its topography and views, soils and micro-climate.
Ms Savio says she enjoys working for the Urban Land Authority, which she finds more sympathetic to her philosophy of long-term sustainability than some private developers.
"I like landscapes to grow out of an area rather than something very different being imposed on it," she says. "The design and planting should relate to what is there already." She cites Timbarra as an estate where planning has been sympathetic to the topography and where a range of different-sized and shaped building lots provide housing variety.
The Urban Land Authority is committed to landscaping throughout its estates, not just at the entrance. Consequently, Timbarra won an award for excellence from the Urban Development Institute of Australia's Victorian branch, for which Ms Savio was recognised.
While she has done garden plans for private clients, consisting usually of a concept with a plant list, she says people don't usually understand the time taken to measure a site, assess it, design a garden and cost it as well as implement the project, so they are often surprised at the fees. But people do come to her for ideas on how to use space, plants and garden structures such as walls, pergolas and furniture.