The Monash University Earth Sciences Garden was designed as a collage of Victoria’s geological formation, offering students of geology and other earth sciences a dynamic outdoor classroom.
The recently completed Monash University Earth Sciences Garden by Rush\Wright Associates, for the School of Earth, Atmos- phere and Environment at the university’s Clayton Campus, was inspired by the geology and geomorphology of Victoria. Developed in close collaboration with earth scientists, it provides a direct method for learning about geology, physical geography and atmospheric sciences. “The earth sciences textbook is brought to life by this dynamic outdoor classroom, which offers a practical approach to learning field measurement and mapping techniques, and rock and mineral recognition skills,” Professor Sandy Cruden says. It includes more than five hundred stone specimens in a 30-by-120-metre site that is tightly bounded by university buildings including Lyons’ Green Chemical Futures, which complements and literally reflects the garden with its angled glazing. (Hopefully a future renovation of the Earth Sciences building will enhance the setting of the garden, including the almost sectional views from the walk along the colonnade.)
That the Earth Sciences Garden is not called a courtyard is significant. This is no mere static museum-display stone collection, typically laid out with a geographical timescale approach. It is a mapped landscape of minerals, miniaturizing and literalizing the geology of Victoria, apparent when viewed from above in adjacent buildings. It is a collage of the geological formation of Victoria, arranged loosely in a vegetated setting. This is a well-worn design tactic for creating an organizing system as well as playfulness, using recognizable manipulation of scale and a dramatic stage setting for the mineral specimens. It is a garden.
The space is quite tight, the rocks quite crowded, yet there is a convivial congestion with the existing trees, allowing for shady spots and a sense of maturity at the garden’s inception. That the existing trees are not quite right is hardly the point. It’s a collage.
The Earth Sciences Garden is primarily a teaching garden for geology and other earth sciences. The didactic garden has a long history since the first botanic gardens, designed to educate monks in medicinal plant identification. At the University of Melbourne, the remnants of the botanic System Garden can still be seen and a small geology display is set among bamboo as part of the late 1970s McCoy Building for Earth Sciences. The courtyard at the Gordon Institute of TAFE, Geelong, is a contemporary version to aid in the teaching of landscape construction. Perhaps surprisingly for a didactic garden, the project limits signage to one general explanation of the garden layout. The garden is used instead by teaching staff to set rock identification tasks for students and in the future, this will be linked to online school resources. This reflects a more contemporary approach to learning through discovery and aids in preserving the garden-like qualities for the wider university community. While the courtyard may be intended for Earth Sciences students, there are also lessons for other disciplines, including landscape architecture. It is a didactic garden but one with mystery.
The conventions of geological drawing inform the layout, which is also reminiscent of the biomorphic forms of Isamu Noguchi or Lawrence Halprin and their employment of stone, although less self-consciously composed here for aesthetic effect. Earth Sciences academics at the university had a hand in particular arrangements that are intended not only to display individual specimens, but also to tell us about their formation and relationship to topography. Maybe it is this aspect that brings a less formal design approach.
While the use of Chinese granite paving is now ubiquitous in high-end public realm projects, using other forms of rock, especially locally sourced, is usually cost prohibitive. Stone is heavy and difficult to manipulate on site, and quality control requires special attention, meaning a commission to design using rocks is a special privilege. The designers worked with many specialist stone suppliers and quarries, both in Australia and overseas. The collection is both specific to Victoria and applicable to a global understanding of geologic eras and principles.
While the garden appears as a “natural” setting, much of this is an illusion. To achieve the desired angles, stones are counterbalanced with the aid of substantial footings. The rocks are not always in their natural forms but sliced, diced and crushed for use as p aving and informal furniture. Many of the stones have core marks – evidence of their extraction – on show. This tells of a larger narrative of the human manipulation of stone through mining and quarrying, as minerals and as building and landscape materials. Even the use of bricks speaks to the colours of their clay mineral composition. The layers of enjoyment felt when experiencing the space as a garden are the result of welcome artifice, a relief from the overly sanctimonious nature of much ecologically motivated design.
The use of artificial lawn is initially jarring. Arguably it provides casual sitting space. Plastic itself is now a problematic end product of fossilized fuel mining. The use of proprietary seating is also disappointing, perhaps the result of a reliance on design guidelines. Would it be so bad if on one part of the campus students sat on rocks? Perhaps more might have been made of the story of mining. Paradoxically the mining industry is where many geology graduates end up – paving the way for the destruction of the stuff they love!
The garden is currently dominated by the rock display, but the Rush\Wright Associates team worked closely with consultant Paul Thompson to match the stones with appropriate planting associations. This tells the story of the plants and their relationships to soil types, most visible with the use of matching gravel mulches. The design approach builds on some of the aims of the earlier campus masterplan to showcase Australian native plants. Andrew Saniga, in his book Making Landscape Architecture in Australia, discusses how the ideological tensions throughout Monash University’s establishment played out in choices between exotic, Australian native and locally indigenous plant material. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a campus of mixed styles, mainly in terms of the early courtyards, where the deans of faculties had the ultimate say over the kinds of plant materials the courtyards should receive. Generally, however, the Monash University courtyards sit within a vegetative framework that is predominantly Australian native.
The Earth Sciences Garden is reminiscent of the (now sadly altered) Monash University Science Courtyard by John Stevens and Grace Fraser and the delightful planting of the rainforest walk, with their use of non-endemic Australian natives in a more formal setting. Saniga argues that the courtyards traditionally were the place for experimentation and individuality (based on what the dean of that particular faculty wanted), whereas the more public spaces of the campus – that is, around buildings and towards the margins of the campus – were to be unified by Australian native plant material.
While we may lament a loss of diverse and dedicated campus gardeners to a streamlining of grounds maintenance, as a type the scholar garden is still cared for by institutions to lesser or greater extents. This is in contrast to the public realm beyond the campus, which increasingly resorts to the hardiest of plants and the most robust materials, with consequent numbing effect. Increasingly campus grounds, along with their architecture and facilities, are valued as marketing tools in the competition for international and local students. This paradoxically provides hope and incentive for their funded future.
Monash University has a long tradition of consulting with landscape architects. Saniga recounts the many conflicts experienced in the early decades of its establishment between a range of Monash academics as “the client” and the advice given by a host of landscape consultants in the establishment of the campus grounds. After a period of disengagement, it is significant that a new era of professional re-engagement is here, albeit not without its tensions, too. Maybe this is as it should be, as the campus itself is a laboratory of design approaches to both architecture and landscape.