The disastrous Canberra bushfires of 2003 created a wonderful opportunity for a major piece of landscape infrastructure. Taking inspiration from Griffin’s vision for the national capital, Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s competition-winning entry grabbed this opportunity with both hands, showing just what highly skilled landscape architects can achieve when given a virtually open canvas.
Strikingly, given the site’s rolling topography, the conceptual “100 Forests/100 Gardens” is based on a staggered orthogonal grid draped over the landscape rather than succumbing to the temptation to follow the contours. Within this grid, forests containing one hundred rare and endangered tree species are displayed not just for their scientific or cultural interest, but to redefine the meaning of a public garden in the twenty-first century. Interspersed within the forests are one hundred secret gardens, each with a different character and each adding another layer of complexity and delight for the visitor.
It is almost a given that landscape architects will rarely enjoy the experience of seeing their creations in a fully mature state and that is true of the National Arboretum. Indeed, as the designers state, “It has no completion date, its experiences and messages will continually evolve and adapt; creating experiences of true community within a sublime place that will grow with the people, the city and the nation.” However, the design is so successful that even in its early years it has an extraordinarily powerful presence, combining the visual and botanical interest of the trees with beautifully sculpted landforms that can be appreciated at a multitude of scales, and providing a diversity of experiences. The designers have succeeded magnificently in creating a legacy for the nation and one that is of genuine international significance. Taylor Cullity Lethlean is to be congratulated on its achievement.