In Western Australia, the Margaret River region is widely recognised as distinctive, a “place apart”. Internationally renowned for its wines of excellence, Margaret River is a comfortable three-hour drive from Perth. Tracking south along the coast, skirting the sprawl of “port” and “bay” residential canal “communities”, one soon encounters a different and comparatively ethereal place name cartography. About two hours into the drive, the everyday textual landscape of English and Aboriginal names is momentarily rewritten in French and Dutch. Now, locations and features bear labels such as “Naturaliste”, “Leeuwin”, “Geographe” and “Vasse” (earlier this year even the New York Times discerned the region’s curious “hint of Bordeaux”). These linguistic artefacts of maritime exploration are the first legible signals of passage into difference. Despite this resonance, however, it is nature, not culture, which more precisely fixes the boundaries.
The land’s physical attributes – climate, geology, soil type and aspect, for instance – determine the otherwise seemingly latent boundaries of viticultural regions.
Collectively, these features comprise the vine’s complete growing environment – what the French term terroir. Margaret River’s favourable potential for wine production was only identified in the 1960s. Within a few years, the region’s rolling topography was accentuated with a mantle of treillage and vines; cattle and sheep began giving way to grapes. Framed within a broader mosaic of forests and clearings, this landscape is deceptively bucolic and benign. Now, rather than pastoral, the region’s landscape is perhaps more accurately seen as industrial (and not without ecological consequence), carefully structured to meet the spatial requirements of vehicles and other machinery.
Today, it includes more than forty wineries.
At first, Margaret River wineries were small-scale enterprises oriented almost exclusively to production. The public face of these otherwise utilitarian building complexes was modest, usually limited to provision for tasting and cellar sales.
Aesthetic concern was expressed more visibly in bottle labels than in architecture and landscape design. Swelling visitor numbers and the rise of wine-related tourism over the next decades, however, led to new opportunities for architects and landscape architects. Leeuwin Estate was amongst the first to embrace tourism and the arts, opening its initial facility in 1978. Leeuwin has since expanded, adding an open-air theatre (venue of its celebrated concert series), an art gallery, a restaurant, and even a private airstrip. Vasse Felix – the region’s first commercial winery – similarly targeted arts and tourism, recently refitting its complex to include a cafe, a restaurant and a gallery and performance space. Accommodation is now also available at some of the region’s vineyards.
Terroir is said to effect, if not largely determine, the character of wine. The architecture of Margaret River wineries constructed in the 1990s, however, suggests that terroir’s influence is not limited to the vegetal. The region’s burgeoning tourism soon became a catalyst for local interest in defining and promoting nativist design. By the decade’s end, it had even spawned a book. Margaret River Style (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999), advocated, for example, reliance on the region’s “raw materials” (limestone, granite, rammed earth, straw bales, mud bricks and timber and so on).
Cullen Wines’ cellar door and restaurant building perhaps best expresses this approach. Along with its local stone construction, the building’s low profile and diminutive presence registers a conviction that wineries should be subordinate to the wider landscape. Perhaps owing to the greater value awarded landscape, only a handful of Margaret River wineries have elected to erect signature buildings.
Although few in number, some wineries have nonetheless inscribed their signature with architecture. An early example is owner-architect Bruce Tomlinson’s rammed-earth Lenton Brae (1990). Central to Lenton Brae’s local architectural success is that the building “nestles” into a hill, the gravel source for its rammed earth. Another remarkable example is Voyager Estate (1993), designed by Geoffrey Summerhayes. Rather than looking to the immediate local for its architectural reference, Voyager looks across the Indian Ocean to the Cape Dutch vernacular. This South African source also provided a template and botanical model for landscape architects Blackwell and Associates’ design of the winery’s gardens. Here, the extensive and lavish gardens function as a middle landscape, a moderating buffer between Voyager’s signature architecture and the broader countryside. Lenton Brae and Voyager both reproduce their building on the wine labels, an equally rare practice amongst the local wineries.
Although they remain exceptions to the rule, two of Margaret River’s newest winery facilities encompass signature buildings: Howard Park (1998) by Jones Coulter Young (JCY) and Palandri (1999) by Donaldson + Warn (D+W). Unlike the incremental expansion of the region’s earlier wineries, Howard Park and Palandri were, from the outset, immediate, large-scale propositions. Despite similar project profiles, their execution varied widely. Whilst Howard Park’s development proceeded without incident, Palandri’s was charged with controversy. This divergent circumstance stemmed not so much from a resistance to signature buildings, but more from concern for the way in which architecture responded to landscape.
Eschewing the “rustic” vernacular, JCY adopted an explicit “factory aesthetic” for the Howard Park winery, seeking to “celebrate”, not “disguise”, its industrial function.
Arguably, however, Howard Park’s alternative aesthetic is confined to the building itself.
Approached by a sinuous drive through a picturesque parkland, the winery is set well back from the road and situated amid, if not nestled within, a copse of mature trees.
Here, the bush becomes the winery’s palliative mask, effectively rendering the innovative architecture compatible with the region’s pervasive romantic landscape tradition.
Until recently, local concern for nestling architecture into the landscape was implicit and largely unarticulated. The quiet ceased in 1999. That year, almost coincident with the appearance of Margaret River Style, Palandri Wines began constructing its new facility on a spent sheep paddock adjoining the Bussell Highway. Not unlike JCY’s Howard Park strategy, D+W’s design overtly acknowledged the winery’s industrial reality.
This concern extended beyond the building, informing landscape architect Bill James’ site design. An axial planting of coral trees, for instance, was employed not to obscure, but to project and accentuate the building’s profile. Functionally, the treatment of industrial by-products was also aesthetically integrated into James’ rehabilitative design for water catchment and effluent disposal. Avoiding the comfortable familiarity of the picturesque, Palandri’s “factory” may actually prove to be one of the region’s most environmentally responsible.
Palandri’s prominent situation along the region’s gateway traffic artery – unlike Howard Park’s distant setback from a comparatively minor road – proved nothing short of a confrontation. The building’s “imposing” roadside appearance became one source of the “commotion” and “stir’ which quickly enveloped the project. Giving voice to the region’s previously unspoken landscape sensibility, Perth’s Sunday Times commented that “unlike other typical Margaret River wineries nestled among the picturesque countryside, Palandri Wines’ massive structure is close to the road”.
Through the building’s scale, materials and siting, Palandri challenged Margaret River’s landscape status quo – an ethos apparently no less monolithic than the building. To a degree, it lost. In an all too familiar design manoeuvre, the Busselton Shire Council mandated a compensatory attempt to veil the building behind a roadside planting of gum trees.
Palandri’s experience suggests that the potency of Margaret River’s preoccupation with the romantic imagery of a pastoral countryside should not be underestimated. Indeed it is a distinct possibility that its pervasiveness will increase in nostalgic reaction to the wine industry’s on-going expansion and the parallel development of a tourism infrastructure. It is not only architecture, however, that is being nestled, obscured and otherwise contained. This illusory landscape aesthetic proliferates visual ambiguity, camouflaging the region’s industrial reality. Are rustic and nestled developments any more “natural”, “authentic” or “beautiful” than more visually unconventional ones? Is sensitivity to landscape, if not “sustainability”, to be limited in conception and expression to notions of the picturesque – albeit here masquerading in a new guise? As with ecological circumstance, landscape monocultures – both vegetal and intellectual – diminish and erode healthful diversity. Certainly Margaret River’s terroir can nourish as many contrasting approaches to landscape and architecture as it does varieties of grapes, if not wineries.
Christopher Vernon is a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Western Australia. His students are currently designing a winery and vineyard complex in the nearby Geographe region