An Australian garden in Berlin

At intervals generally of 10 years, the International Horticultural Exhibition (Internationale Gartenausstellung) takes place in Germany. In 2017 it was held in Berlin, on the theme ‘An Ocean of Colours’. The garden Cultivated by Fire by landscape architecture firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean was Australia’s contribution to the 2017 exhibition. An estimated 1.6 million visitors saw the exhibition between 13 April and 15 October 2017. Cultivated by Fire is now part of the permanent collection of Gardens of the World, Gärten der Welt, located in Marzhan-Hellersdorf in northeastern Berlin.

Kate Cullity, one of the directors of Taylor Cullity Lethlean, visited Berlin twice during the creation of the garden, once in 2015 to present the design and again for the opening in 2017. On both occasions she met with other landscape architects and government representatives to highlight the quality of Australian landscape architecture practice.

The 2017 project took several years to complete. In the beginning nine leading landscape architects and designers from around the world – Australia, the UK, Lebanon, Thailand, China, Germany, Brazil, Chile and South Africa – were invited to create gardens that showcased the cultural landscape of their home countries. Each was allocated a garden plot measuring 380 square metres that would become a garden room or garden cabinet when surrounded by a clipped hornbeam hedge.

The design for Cultivated by Fire continued Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s ongoing fascination, exploration and abstraction of the Australian culture and the creative power of fire. It considered the sophisticated Aboriginal land management practice of selective low-intensity burning known as firestick farming or fire mosaics. This method of land management serves many purposes for Aboriginal people. They include reducing the risk of larger and more unpredictable bushfires, creating open country ideal for hunting grazing marsupials, flushing out animals during burning, and increasing fertile new growth that provides an abundance of edible plants for both wildlife and humans.

Taylor Cullity Lethlean writes:

“The Cultivated by Fire garden distils and abstracts the fire-stick farming practice to create a mosaic garden composed of elements reminiscent of both the burnt and rejuvenated Australian landscape. These elements include actual fire, charred poles and clipped branches, Eucalyptus and Acacia seedlings, floriferous garden beds of Australian native plants and a walkable orange ground plane of crushed red brick that is reminiscent of the fiery sands of the central Australian desert.”

Taylor Cullity Lethlean also noted that creating a garden in Europe with a vastly different climate to Australia had its challenges. The firm resolved this dilemma by working closely through the planning, management and monitoring of construction works with the client, International Garden Exhibition Berlin, and the German landscape architecture consultants K-1. Unique solutions needed to be developed for working in this climate, such as designing an underground heating system for the garden’s eucalypts. Substitute plant species were considered, particularly grasses that were aesthetically similar to Australian grasses, and Taylor Cullity Lethlean provided advice and assistance in sourcing plants and seeds for propagation.

Within the visitor centre Taylor Cullity Lethlean has provided background information and a video that expands on Australian Aboriginal firestick culture and its inspiration for the creation of Cultivated by Fire. The garden is ideally located near the visitor centre with charred tree trunks standing visible above the neatly clipped surrounding hedge, inviting the curious visitor into a different realm of experience. Not only does Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s garden create an interesting and visually stimulating garden cabinet, it helps foster an understanding of Australia’s rich cultural and environmental history as interpreted through contemporary garden art. The project received wide publicity internationally. In the London Telegraph Tom Stuart-Smith (26 August 2017) wrote:

“It (the garden) is colourful, dense with all sorts of references to Australia’s Indigenous landscapes and traditions … With black charred poles, lots of red earth and eucalypt seedlings, it’s a great show garden and I came out the other end knowing more about aboriginal culture than I did from six months consorting with sheep and kangaroos in the outback aged 18.”

Garden exhibitions often have a short life and are dismantled afterwards. Not so in Berlin, where the opportunity was taken to use the tourist attraction of the 2017 exhibition to expand green spaces in the city in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Already one of the greenest cities in Europe, Berlin has a long tradition of park and garden design. Many of its parklands created by the nineteenth century landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné are recognised as part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

Now, under the state-owned Grün Berlin Group, Berlin is carrying forward this landscape legacy through the development, realisation and operation of complex open-space projects with a focus on social and environmental sustainability, as well as creating a large number of parks of major tourist interest in the capital. The 2017 International Horticultural Exhibition was not only an international garden exhibition with tourism interests, it has become one of the city’s most important urban development projects of the decade.

Before unification the district was part of the degraded Wuhletal Valley in East Germany and home to one of the largest housing estates in Europe. The area had been chosen to celebrate the city of Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987 with a horticultural exposition, the Berliner Gartenschau. This became the seed to help start the process of environmental repair for the district. Following German reunification the exposition site was developed as the Gardens of the World. In 2000 the Chinese garden was opened followed by other gardens, including Japanese (2003), Balinese (2003), Oriental (2005), Korean (2006), and Italian (2008), as well as gardens modelled after other European styles.

The 104 hectares of the 2017 exhibition site took the original 43 hectares of the Gardens of the World and developed new sections including an enlarged Gardens of the World, the Wuhletal Valley, and Kienberg Park incorporating Kienberg Hill and the Kienberg Promenade to link the surrounding Marzahn and Hellersdorf residential estates.

The vast complex can be appreciated by a ride on the cable way which stretches 1.5 km across the site. It provides access from a new railway station to the top of the 110 metre high hilltop of the Kienberg, then across the new 60 hectare Kienbergpark showcasing the restored unique nature of the Wuhletal Valley, to the entrance of the manicured Gardens of the World. The cable way and hilltop stop provide expansive views over the whole park system, the surrounding housing estates and to central Berlin in the distance.

Within this complex the Gardens of the World has become an international showcase for the diversity, beauty and transformative power of contemporary garden and landscape architecture. Cultivated by Fire sits as an iconic Australian garden within it.

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