Review – Harry Turbott, New Zealand’s First Landscape Architect

By  Dr Matthew Bradbury

Associate Professor, School of Architecture – Unitec Institute of Technology

The prospect of large-scale infrastructure projects being built in New Zealand and what will be the role that landscape architects will play in this transformation of the NZ city is a critical issue for the profession. Probably the last time that this opportunity happened was in the golden years of the post-World War Two boom.  Auckland was especially enthralled by this American dream, the desire to build a completely new city, away from the stifling conformity of what was still a big Victorian town.

Garth Falconer latest book, Harry Turbott, New Zealand first Landscape Architect, tells the story of our hero. He starts his journey at the apogee of modernist city planning, Harvard enrolling in a Masters of Landscape Architecture, Taught by Hido Sasaki, the eponymous head of what is now a multinational multi-disciplinary design office, and attending lectures by the leading modernist architects, Turbott imbibed the purest functionalism, untrammelled by any of the doubts that Europeans modernists might be having at the time. He then worked for Dan Kiley, another Harvard alumni, who was both a lone genius, as well as being one of America’s leading landscape architects with an enviable client list.

So, when Turbott returned to NZ in 1961, then at the beginning of the great Americanisation of NZ society, he was perfectly positioned to answer the critical questions of the time, how do we design and organise a new city?

Just as Olmsted responded to the unprecedented demands of the American city in the 19th century by inventing landscape architecture, so Turbott responded to the question for a new city form by articulating how the practice of landscape architecture could help build the new Auckland.  Turbott’s subsequent practice in the 60s was deeply connected to the actual construction of this new Jerusalem, designed the landscape of the new motorways, designing new suburbs and the landscapes of the new shopping centres, and designing the landscape of the Freemans Bay housing, our own little piece of Corbusierian planning.

Falconer shows how Turbotts practice also ranged outside of Auckland. The attempt by one of our beer barons to turn a pristine northland beach, Mimiwhangata, into a mini Gold Coast led Turbott to use an ecological mapping methodology to demonstrate to the client the environmental richness of the site. In a strangely parallel universe to Ian McHarg, Turbott assembled a team of ecologists, archaeologist, and marine scientists to prepare an environmental audit of the site. After a protracted history, the site became the Mimiwhangata Marine park.

America also influenced the way that Turbott chose to practice. Following the example of many American landscape architects,  Turbott taught part-time.  He began at the School of Town Planning, the University of Auckland in 1966,  as well as practising in a charming cottage in nearby St Pauls Street.

The influence of America landscape practice in NZ was of course not limited to Turbotts work. Fred Tschopp articulated the practice of landscape architecture in New Zealand in the late 1920s with the design and construction of the first multi-functional park in Auckland. Frank Boffa; founder of the largest landscape practice in New Zealand, studied landscape architecture at the University of Georgia and worked in a landscape office in Atlanta in the late 60s. Returning to NZ, Boffa was instrumental in the establishment of the NZILA.  And our author, Garth Falconer, worked in America with Martha Schwartz and Peter Walker, leading lights in the post-modern reinvention of landscape architecture in the late 1980s.

Later in his career, Falconer shows how Turbott starts to focus on his practice on the ways he could acknowledge the particularity of site and time. His long involvement with the development of the Treaty House grounds at Waitangi, his construction of the Arataki visitors centre, his work in the restoration of Pare o Tane in the Cook Islands, are key projects that demonstrate Turbotts ability to see what were and still are, critical questions for the larger practice of landscape architecture in NZ.

The scope and inquiry of Turbotts work is unique and Falconer captures this diversity well in the organisation of the book which is both a convention biography while at the same time a critical history.

As we face an infrastructure construction boom, Falconers description of Turbotts practice offers landscape architects, not just an insight into the possibilities that this might bring but also the prospect of how we might critically engage with the future.

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