The Garden as Breath: A Sydney Garden Designed by Spirit Level

“What I want to achieve in our gardens is a sense of quietness”, says landscape designer Hugh Main of Spirit Level – a Sydney based landscape design, maintenance and construction firm. “I’m not into ‘look at me’ gardens, or people”, he laughs.

“I’m influenced by the word Arcadia – the sense of viewing nature from an idealised place. I think this describes quite well what I am trying to achieve in my work – to make a comfortable space for people to engage with the landscape beyond. A space that holds you.”

A great example of Hugh’s philosophy of garden making is this project in Sydney’s Northbridge. Designed by Spirit Level over 15 years ago, and still maintained by their team, it’s a garden of austerity and form, balancing with the gorgeous tangle of bushland beyond. “The tailored nature of this garden, it’s quietness, heightens how beautiful and wild the bush is behind it. It’s a gentle frame for the bush beyond.”

“It used to be quite a formal garden, with rows of box, murraya, conifer hedges”, hugh says. Instead of ripping out the existing planting, Hugh and his team began shaping the hedges into softer forms, and planting new shrubs to augment them.

Inspired by La louve, Nicole de Vesian’s garden in the south of France, Hugh eschewed straight lines for curves. “Straight lines make me feel all tense and rigid,” he says. And a garden, he tells me, should have a quality of dreaminess, “it should make a person float”.

“I think a lot about the idea of breath in garden design”, Hugh says. “You inhale, which is constriction, and so you tighten the spaces, and then you exhale and you open them out. That varied experience as you go through a garden is the thing that creates an emotional response.”

Hugh’s approach is as pragmatic as it is poetic. “This garden is a testament to planting things that thrive. You’ve got to plant things that really love their location. It’s a very simple approach. And also, it’s easier to clip mounds than keep everything straight in a row. It’s much gentler and more forgiving!”

“This garden is all about restraint and calmness. About trying to create an environment where you feel both full and empty. Emptiness and quietness are both underrated. There should be more quietness in the world.”

Photo: Jason Busch
Photo: Jason Busch
Photo: Jason Busch
Photo: Jason Busch
Photo: Jason Busch
Photo: Jason Busch