Design and Life: Xanthe White, Miguel Urquijo and Phillip Johnson

There is no other design profession that is as intimately intertwined with the natural world than landscape design. The designer’s palette consists of plants, soil, timber, stone and water, and a design’s success depends not only on a well considered plan, but a deep understanding of the cycles, proclivities and variability of the the more-than-human world. The best garden designers, therefore, are humble and reverential creatures with a deep appreciation of the unknowability and unending beauty of nature; they know who the boss really is. Here, we’re celebrating three designers who, through their words and work, exemplify designing with nature.

Photo by Carme Aguayo

Xanthe White, Principal Designer at Xanthe White Design

“My life with plants is submissive. I think of them as my friends. Sometimes I need space, occasionally relationships move on, but mostly I just like them to be around me. I like to wonder at their amazingness and how they change in the different moods of weather and season. I’m not what you would call a disciplined gardener.

The New Zealand landscape has set my levels of aspiration so immensely high – if we could only package those moments in a natural landscape where you look upon it’s vastness and beauty and your heart lifts. That level of consciousness of just how incredible this planet is something I’m constantly chasing.

A garden requires action and to act in a garden you need to have a relationship with it. As designers, it’s not our job to impose ourselves upon a space but instead to draw the people that will occupy it into a love affair with the space that will out-live them.

Garden designers are like match makers. You can’t force a relationship with nature upon someone. Everyone has their limits. Some people need their gardens tamed and set back, while others are quite comfortable with a plant reaching across the path and brushing an ankle. Some are seduced by colour or the pleasure of food while others want something unruly and wild. We like to play to each individual’s boundaries to create gardens that are as constricted or flamboyant as the people they are designed to engage.

Creating gardens that affect us in that intimate way is something that takes a lifetime to master and then it’s just there for a moment in time, a season, or that point where the light hits a particular angle through the leaves of a tree that a camera will never capture. That’s what I aspire to. Aspiring to nature is probably foolish but irresistible. Nature helps by doing most of the work once you’ve set things in place.

If I were a plant I’d be a puriri (Vitex lucens). A puriri is a native tree that hosts a rich ecology, birds and insects and epiphytes. It’s not just a tree, it’s everything that lives around it too. It often looks a bit messy because of this but it’s never alone.”

Photo by Carme Aguayo
Landscape designer, Xanthe White.

Miguel Urquijo, Co-founder of Urquijo-Kastner

“A good garden cannot be made by someone who does not know and love growing things.

Gardens are not about plants. At least not in a country where plants are put to the limit of their possibilities with extreme temperatures and low humidity. Dumping all the responsibility of the appearance of a garden over 12 months on the plants is not sensible. The gardens in our country need to be made not only of plants, but of material elements (stone, water, ceramic, wood, etc.). Plants are very important, but don’t create the spaces by themselves.

There is something else, deeper and not so easy to perceive, requiring not only professionalism but also some sensitivity; to build a garden that seeks to instil peace, tranquillity and connection in its users we have to use, as far as possible, local materials and native plants. Both the cultural and natural elements of a place must be valued if we want to evoke a feeling of integration, of belonging.

Termites, using soil and grass, create impressive sand cathedrals just as beavers cut trees to build dams for their nests. Both are creating their homeness. For this, both use elements they have in their closest environment. We humans fundamentally do the same.

Although our scale of modification is not comparable, we modify space exercising our power with the aim of creating a sense of homeness. As a species, our idea of home is always difficult to define and varies according to culture. Nature can be enormously beautiful, even sublime, but we could not say that it is precisely friendly or welcoming; for that reason, it will never be home. For this we have to transform it.

In the end, our solution is to make a garden. For this we must inspire ourselves, extract the essences or abstract a model from the landscape we are working within. But NOT imitate it. We have to contribute to it with our vision, but not make a copy.”

Image by Claire Takacs
Image by Claire Takacs

Phillip Johnson, Principal Designer at Phillip Johnson Landscapes

“I like to educate our clients about how precious water is, and how clever we can be with it.

I get really excited by water. Every property I go to, I immediately do a SWAT analysis of every downpipe, finding out what happens when the rain falls, checking the altitude, slope, water flow, water storage etcetera… My ultimate goal is for my clients to call me and tell me the frogs have arrived. I want to create outcomes where we bring certain species back into urban environments.

The drains at my own property are harvested to capture water run-off. We’ve got a billabong up the top which we regulate by transferring certain downpipes at certain times of the year to replenish it. It’s not linked to driveway runoff because that’s a highly nutrient-rich water, which could potentially throw the whole system out.

In Australia, we have access to a diverse palette of plants that can create amazing effects and also create protection for local bird and animal life. It makes me really upset that we don’t utilise the diversity of our native plants. It’s such an amazing resource we’ve got – all these plants that can grow on next to no water, attract birds and insects, and are incredibly beautiful. It’s beyond belief. I want to create habitat to support biodiversity. This is really important to me.

Getting people connected – that’s what’s important. If we can become more connected to nature in our urban environment, maybe in housing estates out of Sydney or Melbourne, we can learn, we can respond, we can heal this planet one garden at a time.”

Phillip's home garden in Olinda, Victoria. Image by Claire Takacs
Phillip's home garden in Olinda, Victoria. Image by Claire Takacs
Landscape designer Phillip Johnson. Image by Claire Takacs