Terragram, a landscape architecture firm set up by award-winning landscape architect, Vladimir Sitta, designed a beautiful space in Eastern Sydney, using unusual construction techniques to merge the old and the new.
Landscape architect Vladimir Sitta aptly titled this particular project ‘Between the Predictable and the Unexpected’, as at first glance it’s easy to see that the space floats somewhere in between expected realism and unexpected whimsy.
“Winning a competition to design a memorial for the Battle of Vinegar Hill in the mid-eighties gave me the motivation to start my own design firm,” reminisces Vladimir. Hailing from erstwhile Czechoslovakia, he has been based in Australia since 1981.
Terragram, his company, founded in 1986, has built its international reputation on a solid foundation of successfully merging urbanism and nature. The unique expertise Sitta and his team bring to their projects at Terragram and the co-founded Room 4.1.3 (with Richard Weller in 1998, who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania) is a design sensibility that is always on the lookout for unusual, offbeat solutions, for the most complex of design problems. This out-of-the-box kind of approach sets them apart from their competitors and has created a unique personality for the company as a whole.
Explaining the project, Vladimir says, “The title refers to a process. The site contained fixed elements like the existing house to which a new section has been attached. The transition from the old to new is provided by two small atriums on the second floor. Visitors using the staircase are treated to mysterious green mounds shrouded in a veil of mist.” This space is constantly changing, responding to light conditions and even tiny air movements.
The atriums also help separate the different functions of the house; the office and study from the more private bathrooms and bedrooms. “Another unexpected experience is the toilet that acquired an almost ritualistic atmosphere.” There is a tiny garden to look outside through a transparent window. It almost feels like being outside whilst attending to the needs of daily grooming. The toilet is separated from the library by the sliding door, whilst the library continues inside. There is also another very narrow space at the ground floor establishing the reference to the Australian landscape that is often charred by devastating fires, and is yet able to sprout out shortly afterwards,” summarises Vladimir.
This area is very dramatic; almost theatrical owing to the carefully chosen charred and sliced dead tree trunks that were transported to the site and installed in a tiny space that faces the living room. This was a traditional house in a rich suburb. And the brief was simple. “We were just told to rework the existing swimming pool and reconstruct outdoor spaces. Other than that the client had no more specific wishes. But we knew that as avid art collectors a run-of-the-mill landscape wouldn’t do,” adds Vladimir.
Being an artist, the client was happy with their approach of looking for sculptural design opportunities in his landscape property. This is where that special brand of whimsy comes in and lends itself to the design process; techniques like landscape papier mâché to construct green mounds were resorted to, in order to make the courtyard look like it was overlooking green hills and mist was added for more dramatic effect.
Explaining the technique used for the green mounds he says, “The mounds consisted of layering rigid (drain cells and polystyrene) and soft materials (growing medium) to maintain the shape and also retain moisture. Long strips of shredded newspaper were mixed with growing medium to provide extra stabilisation. Over the mixture a layer of the hessian was applied and this was then planted with baby tears.”
Moving toward the outdoor garden, Sitta and his team kept the surroundings lush and all the existing trees surrounding the enlarged pool were left undisturbed. Sandstone outcrops were also added to bring in a sense of strength in the space and to help tie up all the outdoor elements together.
Sitta’s firms are known for their innovative – even iconoclastic – designs, often introducing extensive planting into urban projects – a form of landscape urbanism. Their landscaping schemes have won many design competitions and prizes worldwide. Terragram won the state of Berlin’s Peter Joseph Lenné Prize in 1981 and 1986, and the President’s Award of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects in 2002.Sitta is a big believer in being present on the site at all times when tackling a landscape project.
He says, “I wouldn’t say important, it is actually essential to be there on site! The design of the garden can’t rely on a hopelessly two dimensional medium like paper. It only leads to pattern making that characterises so much of the contemporary landscape architecture. I was present on the site for all the critical moments like the arrangement of the mounds (here the relative lightness of the individual mounds has definitely been beneficial) and I have personally manufactured the burned and charred trunks. Those too I have selected personally in the bush.” And looking around at the result, it dawns on you, the benefits of being as committed to your craft as him.
Text By Alisha Fernandes
Photographs Courtesy Terragram