The lawn Unquestioned suburb design since federation

If Vienetta ice-cream on the table means your parents are having guests over for dinner, or a rainy Saturday means a trip to the local Westfield shopping centre, then chances are you were a child in the suburbs of Australia in the early 90s. Having lived in “The ‘burbs” all my life, I took all of what I did as a child for granted, as we often do when we’re kids. But as I now become the same age as my parents were when they had me, something has become clear – I’ve taken what makes the burbs the burbs for granted, the lawn.

If I look at the typical suburban lawn in Australia through the lens of a designer I see some pretty big functional flaws, the main one being location. Australia is a dry, drought-affected environment. Our native grasses grow in clumps, like a Troll doll buried to its forehead in the earth. Lush green rolling paddocks that we associate with a UK or European landscape simply do not exist here. This indicates to me that the lawn that I grew up with in the suburbs of Sydney – the soft, expansive, evenly-covered bright green play surface – took a lot of work to keep. My Dad must have religiously mowed, fed & weeded our lawn, all outside of my field of vision as an 8-year old. I was more interested in running through sprinklers and riding the neighbour’s dog up and down the street. The question I ask now, as a designer, is what drove my Dad to inadvertently make the lawn the centrepiece of my childhood memories.

My Dad has always had an interest in plants. He studied horticulture at night for a number of years outside of his job on the local council. Perhaps he maintained our lawn because he loved to do it, he enjoyed it? Or, perhaps it was his overwhelming need to feel as though his kids were looked after. The lawn was a way that he could provide a place for us to play in the safety of our local neighbourhood. But, I remember looking up the length of the nature strip of our street to see that all lawns were green and manicured, not just the lawns where had kids my age. So, if it wasn’t just for us, and it wasn’t just for him, the source of the reasons have to come from somewhere else. It comes down to something bigger.

Garden design in England and France (probably Australia’s two biggest influences in the early years of settlement) could be responsible for the lawn I grew up with. Throughout history, Western society has been pretty good at expressing control. Those who had control had the power, and those who had the power had the money. Beautifully manicured, symmetrical lawns with trimmed hedges, roses in rows and geometrically precise garden paths characterise English and French gardens, even today. The Palace of Versailles or the other palaces in France or any of the many stately homes across the UK landscape will demonstrate this common characteristic. The maintenance required to keep this type of garden looking ‘nice’ implies wealth; a wealth of money, time and resources. Owners pay staff to attend to a garden’s every need if they don’t have the time to do it themselves; watering, planting and putting each and every pebble or leaf back in its place. Without this constant attention these gardens fail to impress. The beauty of this type of design is found in the order, in the precision, it projects a statement that says “I am able to control my environment.”

Another possible influence for my childhood lawn could be from another continent. 1950s in the USA, a period of history where the stereotype of green-grassed suburban homes is a stereotype for a reason. In 1938, the Americans were endowed with a 40-hour working which meant they now didn’t have to work on Saturdays at all (as opposed to working just a half day on Saturday prior to 1938). The wealth of time had returned to them. Then, WWII came and went. After a period of uncertainty and a lack of resources, abundance returned and it was time to celebrate. What better way to celebrate and regain a sense of control in the world (and communicate it to the world) than to manicure a lawn? War veterans returned home, family-life was re-established, housing and the industrial economy boomed, the world regained a sense of order, predictability was available again. It didn’t matter anymore whether you were aristocracy or not, even Joe the plumber could mow and water his lawn every Saturday.

What affect did WWII and America’s reaction have in Australia? Australia’s response of course was to do what Australia does best, mimic the things that seem to lead to positive outcomes in other parts of the world. Having been settled by the English (who were influenced by the French), the seeds of controlled and geometric garden design were sewn long ago (pun definitely intended). Our first settlers cleared land and tried to plant the classic English plants around buildings that mimicked European architecture. After all, this was the model of success in their home country, but, these have proven to be unsustainable decisions in the long run. It’s no surprise to find Australians looking to America, with its “success” in industry and economics 100s of years later, to try and find a way to emulate that success here.

In a similar way but on a much smaller scale, by the time my parents had me they had both successfully built lives after emigrating from Europe. They settled in a new and strange country, they had jobs, they bought a house, and after about 15 years of uncertainty they finally had some control over their lives; what better way to feel aristocratic and express that control to the world and to themselves than keeping that lawn absolutely perfect. The pattern seems to repeat itself; when I am stable and in control, I shall have a healthy green lawn.

Recently, I’ve gone through similar motions to my parents when they were my age; moving interstate, finding a job and vocation I love, getting married and buying a house. I now find myself looking to the presentation of my home as a way of expressing my sense of control and ‘achievement’ because I’ve got more time to do it. I now understand the chain of events that lead me to feel guilty when I opt for a lawn-free landscape. With the lifestyle I lead I don’t have the ‘wealth’ of time or money to hire a staff to maintain my lawn (and yes neither did my parents) but more importantly, I’m one generation removed from the 50s-80s of which my parents were a part. I’ve seen different world events. The focus of the way we live our lives has been less about mass-consumerism and success through over-production and more about leaving a small footprint behind, not to command and conquer our environment but to live with it. Success isn’t measured by how much stuff you own and how nice it looks as it might have been in my parent’s time, it’s measured by ‘sustainability’; respect for the people and place in which you live. As our Australian aboriginals say – it’s about living with the land.

My inclination for my own home is to plant native Australian flora, a sprawling, undefined ‘bushland’ that thrives where it is because that’s where it should have always been.

It’s ironic really. It’s taken the Western view of society (in Australia at least) a couple of hundred years to realise that we’ve gone about this a little backwards. As I gaze out of my window and stare at a park that looks as though it’s made of hay because the grass is so dry, I can’t help but laugh. We’ve had this wrong for a long time. English and French aristocratic values expressed in garden design are quite literally the incorrect application of a design solution for a context that’s not the right fit. We use resources like water in a place where water is becoming increasingly precious in order to maintain an ‘ideal’ that we’ve been trained to believe is the ‘right’ way.

In my work, I spend day after day trying to positively influence behaviour but, I think a lack of control scares the western mind. Folklore or classic Australian writing paints a picture of a sunburnt country where serial killers roam free. The disorder of the natural Australian  landscape is used by writers and artist throughout Australian history to represent a disorderly mind. This leads us to believe that without explicit control over our landscape, we don’t have sufficient control over our emotions, our mind or our actions. If we cannot command and conquer this rugged outback, do we fail to progress the dominance of our species over everything else in the short time we have on Earth? This sort of question excites me.

I’m often astonished at the design sensibility of Eastern culture; it’s so far removed from my own perceptions of the way the world should be. One example is the concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ which comes from the Japanese. To be able to accept that change is inevitable, to find beauty in the constant evolution of the built and natural environment is a mindset that seems to have so many potential benefits, both in the way we use resources and also for our mental health. Another Japanese tradition, keeping flowers that have not yet blossomed by the front door to welcome guests seems strange to the Western mind at first. However, the view from the eastern eye is that they value the presentation of the potential for beauty more than presenting a short-term beauty where the only evolution of that beauty is its decline. This view is so juxtaposed to the ‘immediacy’ and ‘urgency’ of the western mindset; I find it equally fascinating and hopeful.

To find beauty in a sprawling, untamed landscape for someone who grew up on green grasses and western values is really difficult. I’m finding it much harder than I thought. I’m actively trying to reverse 30 years of social pre-conceptions about what beauty is, what is meant by order and control. For me, it’s not about control anymore and when you let go of this, an unexpected beauty emerges to present itself. Since I’ve planted native flora in and around my home, birds I’ve never seen before are regular visitors. Flowers bloom in Spring with very little attention from me but they seem happy. Sure, there’s still a symbiosis there, they still require water to become established and food on occasion, but the level of time, money and resources that are required are far more sustainable. It’s no longer a fight for survival for either of us, it’s an acceptance of living in an environment where we both belong. Less water, less cost, less time are required from both parties yet we both benefit. It’s probably my most successful design solution ever, one that I’m most proud of. I’m aware that it will never win a design award nor be internationally recognised but I’m OK with that. It’s created a story and a sense of comfort – just like the grass lawn of my childhood did for my Dad and I.

One comment to “The lawn Unquestioned suburb design since federation

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