Cultivating Modernism

The idea of a garden is continually changing. The ability of gardens to adapt to rapid changes in society is evident in the erosion of the quality of greenspace in both public and private realms over the course of the 20th (and 21st) centuries. The evidence suggests our garden of ideas hasn’t kept pace with the revolutions in the nature of cities, transportation and building materials or the revolutionary changes to people’s lives. Such changes have accelerated since the industrial revolution; the information revolution and globalisation describe even more rapid changes to people’s lives in train.

While the built environment and its attendant infrastructure generally illustrate adaptive responses to change, the response in our city greenspace has been rather dismal. The reasons for this are likely complex: perhaps we’ve chosen to trade public good for private goods, perhaps the floral displays that characterised public and private landscapes have been lost to changes in fashion and a perception that while resources spent on buildings and roads, pipes and wires and telecommunications represent an essential investment, resources spent in greenspace provide little value. Indeed, greenspace in the public realm is largely viewed in terms of cost and risk with limited consideration of opportunity and benefit. The health and wellbeing, social, environmental and economic benefits for people’s lives and livelihoods are rarely taken beyond rhetoric to action (although exemplars such as Bogota, Paris and Singapore illustrate possibilities).

The turmoil of the loth century has driven a rich exploration of our ideas of gardens. While the conversion of these ideas into resilient, sustainable and enriching landscapes remains largely unrealised, the exploration of these responses remains a necessary journey in transforming city landscapes and transforming our lives.

In this context Richard Aitken’s Cultivating Modernism: reading the modern garden 1917 -1971 presented as in a recent book and in a current exhibition provide a wonderful introduction to the field. Aitken’s meticulous research and scholarship is presented in a beautifully designed book and complementary that integrates accessible and engaging prose with a curator’s eye for over a hundred representative and radical images. Aitken manages to explore the meaning of modernism while managing to avoid either making assumptions of, or perhaps worse, patronising readers and with a generosity and focus in analysis rather than opinionated critique. Perhaps most importantly, while Aitken acknowledges the significance of industrialisation, the fascination with new materials, increasing urbanisation and changes to lifestyles, his focus is clearly on reconciling design and this new environment for living. The period chosen by Aitken illustrates a rich vein of sources for contemporary endeavours to bring living, working and leisure into a space “… previously occupied by perhaps only one of these.” While Cultivating Modernism explores important territory, the prose, material and images include marvellous morsels that generally escape academic publications.

The potential opportunities and benefits to be derived from green infrastructure are given their context in the Modernist period – in 1948 Australian landscape architect Frank Heath observed the basis for planning “… whereby economic, social, physical and aesthetic values are simultaneously recognised and proportionately emphasised according to the requirements of the problem for the purpose of delivering maximum use and human enjoyment “. Contemporary preoccupations such as green walls and roof gardens are also given context in the Modernist period.

That most plants are reluctant to follow the specifications resident in built materials appears to have been unpalatable through much of Modernist design. Perhaps our failure is nowhere more evident than with Australian native plants. In 1930 “The wildflower garden … is steadily gaining favour “; in 1949 South Australian architects Andrew Benko & Rex Lloyd lamented `Native flowers, shrubs and trees have been ignored for too long’ and in 1956 Robin Boyd was still concerned that the native plant movement was asleep: “In an odd sort of way any move to waken interest in native plants has practical value for the protection and value of our native growth and the development of our contemporary houses are part of the same movement “.

Our inability to work effectively with plants continues to see the twin substitutions of functionalism and featurism. Aitken’s commentary on Robin Boyd’s 1963 The Australian Ugliness’ now half a century old remains relevant today: “Boyd saw an irritating skin-deep affliction with featurism that could only be ameliorated by a return to the beauty of form, truth to materials, and appropriateness of spaces to their uses “.

Our future will depend on the way we utilise plants to determine food, water and climate security and our own health and well-being. Cultivating Modernism provides an invaluable and engaging survey of our progress in this arena since the Industrial Revolution.

Richard Aitken, Cultivating Modernism: reading the modern garden 1917-71, The Miegunyah Press in association with The University of Melbourne Library, 2013. Two exhibitions at the University of South Australia will run until March 28. For further information see

Cultivating Modernism: reading the modern garden 1917-71
Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, Level 3, Hawke Building, City West Campus, University of South Australia. Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Cultivating Modernism: Rench garden style of the 1920s and 1930s
Architecture Museum, Room 2 -21, Level 2, Kauma Building, City West Campus, University of South Australia. Open 10am to 4pm, Monday to Wednesday.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 March 2014.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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