Unglued and undone

It’s too easy, as a designer, to find yourself delivering design solutions within a certain habitual or predictable range. In fact, I can’t help but think that it’s inevitable. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But one of the best antidotes is to visit something totally different from anything you’d do yourself.

In my experience this is most likely to happen by accident, as we also fall into the parallel habit of visiting stuff that tends to back up or validate our own design preferences or prejudices. That’s part of why we’re attracted to the visit.

So there’s nothing like being severely levered out of all this habit-forming and habit-validating behaviour by finding yourself leading a tour that visits gardens outside your normal style-range.

And into this category I put my visit to The Giant’s House in Akaroa, New Zealand. The pics I’d seen online made it look fun, and a bit goofy. And it’s both of those things, but it’s so, so much more.

Josie Martin, its creator – the one who has made every sculpture and laid every piece of tile in every mosaic – is an inspiration. Every single design opportunity or challenge was addressed in a way that undermined my presumptions, but did so with real coherence. It was like a language that initially baffled, but within which you started to recognise patterns, and syntax, and genuine articulation.

I came away feeling like an underachiever, and an underexplorer of creative opportunity – somewhat unglued, unstuck, and undone. That always hurts, but it’s the pain of an exercised muscle. Bring it on.


  1. i know it is obvious to draw a parallel, another comforting habit. I think of Margaret Knox’s garden in Rathmines Rd Hawthorn, her own beautiful retreat ;just as a garden should be. It takes habit to achieve, to create . I suspect for both creators it was the best sort of meditational habit,

    1. You’re right about the parallels. Both were/are clearly creatively and quite obsessively driven.

  2. You’re too right Michael. we do get stuck in our creative moulds too easily.
    Partly from laziness and partly from expectation.
    Clients don’t often like to be challenged or experimented on. They like to know what to expect from their consultants and what sort of result they’ll get from the often large amounts of money that are involved. Fair enough! But creatively starving sometimes.
    If you’re lucky enough to have the time and money to do your own thing, the results speak for themselves. I’d like to invite you down to Rick Eckersley’s place in Flinders to show you what we’ve achieved there – client free. Not to everyone’s taste but it stretches the boundaries a little and that’s what it’s all about yeah?

    1. Yeah, Myles. Painters can buy a few canvasses, paint what they like and see if anyone’s interested in buying what they create. We’ll never have such freedom. In our case someone else owns the canvas, and that person wants to (and fully has the right to) dictate to a large extent what goes on it. There’s little chance of total creative freedom, except in our own gardens. Having said that, I’m so used to working with these limitations, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with total creative freedom if I was given it!
      I’ll take you up on your offer some time. All reports I heard from the opening day of the new garden scheme were excellent…

  3. Thanks Michael, you’ve nailed it again! “that always hurts, but it’s the pain of an exercised muscle”. I love this! … and can really relate. It’s so important from time to time to really put a rocket up oneself and push the ol’ boundaries. At the recent Australian Landscape Conference in Melbourne, Martin Rein-Cano really inspired me with his talk “Avoiding the Predictable: migration of plants, objects and cultures” and his catchphrase “NO RULES!” It really made me question my design comfort zone and gave me the nudge to push the envelope a bit more. A very good thing, as you say. I really appreciate the honesty, humility and humour with the way you write. Keep ’em coming!

    1. Thanks Cherise. And I’m glad you referred to the ALC, for while I find aspects of this event irritating, I can’t deny that it invariably rattles my cage, dismantles a few of my creative habits, and builds some others.

  4. Absolutely!! It’s so important to not only step out of our comfort zones but to leap away and land somewhere so foreign we have no choice but to abandon our own ideas of how gardens “should” be and embrace someone else’s vision. The mosaics in this garden are incredible!!

    1. I really like that idea – landing in a place so foreign that we’re forced to abandon existing ideas. That’s exactly what happens. But I don’t know why it should happen so often to me… It seems as soon as I approach anything like a comfort zone, I’m ripped mercilessly away. I know it’s good for me, and that I wrote, quite sincerely, ‘bring it on’, but it feels like it’d be nice to loll around for a while in a nice cushiony comfort zone!

  5. Well said. So I do wonder why, in the UK, it seems that garden designers don’t visit gardens… For example, we’re quite a well known garden (Veddw) and have two professional garden designers of note living within half an hour of us. They have never visited. Always wonder why. What would it cost them? (apart from the entrance fee!) I don’t think this lack of interest is unusual.

    1. Yes, humility and teachability seem to be about as hard to find in garden designers as plant knowledge. And I include myself in the criticism. Perhaps it due to the fact that we have to exude a (mostly false) sense of certainty in order to get work. It’s confidence, after all, that most clients are buying from us. The trouble begins when we start to believe our own spin.

  6. This looks very like the Tarots Garden in Italy. However I couldn’t help but get distracted from your words by your first photo – those poppies! What an inspired combination of the fragility of those flowers (and their colour echo) with the heaviness of the mosaic figures above them. Could it have looked as good without them?
    The choice and placement of sculpture in gardens is usually one of the worst-done things in garden design, perhaps because it’s usually the element most out of the designer’s control. Ah yes, I remember the small, unassuming pond I once designed that later sprang a massive tower of writhing and spurting turquoise dolphins. The line between brave, bold and original, and crass and awful is very fine. Could the mosaics have gone either way?
    Re designers visiting designed gardens, I think many do; I’d say at least 20% of those on the ALC garden visits tour were designers. They come away inspired by difference, only to be beaten down by the same-old, same-old expectations of their clients.

    1. I’ve taken days to reply to this, Catherine, as it has taken me that long to admit that I hadn’t even noticed the poppies before you pointed them out! I totally agree with your comment about their fragility as perfect complement to the heaviness of the built stuff. Poppies must be the flower par excellence for adding this sense of fragile moment to an otherwise static view.

  7. I love the designs, very creative! We have worked with a lot of backyard sheds installing them their gardens and 80-90% of the time, the gardens are very common and predictable. I would love to see a client with any of these designs on their garden!

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