Designer Profile: Bush Projects

Bonnie Charles and Sarah Hicks are the passionate duo behind Bush Projects, a Melbourne based landscape architecture studio creating outdoor spaces that investigate the way people experience, occupy and interact with their natural surroundings. As a self described ‘young punk practice’ the talented pair aren’t interested in designing controlled and contrived spaces; instead they focus on embracing the spontaneity and dynamism involved in working with a living palette – plants!

Please tell us a little about your landscape architecture studio, Bush Projects? We are a relatively young studio. For 5 years we’ve been experimenting in gardens and play spaces, creating sculptures, public art, exhibiting, as well as writing and teaching. The studio trajectory veers off in all sorts of directions as the opportunity pulls us. We improvise and make it work. Officially we say our main concern is investigating the way people experience, occupy and interact with landscape which gives us heaps of scope.

Do you have a design philosophy? We design towards a process rather than a final outcome, we allow for the indefinite where plants knit together, occasionally self-sow and sometimes move themselves to where they would rather be. There is always an overall structure and theme in place but it is always very specific to the site and brief and operates as a framework within which the process takes place.

We value the complexity of working with living materials, of the inevitable lack of control and the unexpected moments that occur as a landscape grows, changes and assumes a life of its own.

Increasingly our work is a reaction to the way many landscapes (both domestic and public) are viewed as static objects – the approach is towards maintaining a consistent order and control and we prefer the idea of negotiation.”

When did your love of plants and the landscape begin? Sarah: Growing up on a farm was very influential. A farmer is something of a gardener / landscape architect, and my father has been strongly involved in Landcare and large-scale revegetation projects. Unfortunately, within agriculture there is often a focus on profit over custodianship. My grandmother was quite the gardener and a know-it-all – you can learn a lot from know-it-alls as they will tell you regardless of whether you asked.

Bonnie: I grew up on a farm too so being outdoors in the landscape, noticing and interacting is something very natural to me and essential to my understanding of the world.

What’s it like designing as a duo? Who brings what to the table? When developing a response to a new project, the dialogue between us is fluid. Ideas are turned over and either laid on the table or tossed easily over the shoulder – it’s a dynamic process of refinement and distillation. We try to make the major decisions together and then let each other go off and do what needs to get done. You can’t make every single decision as a duo but it’s so enjoyable being able to throw ideas at each other and drag the concepts further than they would otherwise go, although after 5 years of this we are spookily in sync.

Can you talk us through a typical day at Bush Projects? We are a strange combination right now being a young punk practice crossed with mothers/impending mothers so we fit our work around our life & vice versa. An ‘office’ day where we are both working together is a luxury. We’ll have a meeting and then we both get stuck into whatever needs to get done for the day – drawing plans, meeting clients, emails, plant research and sourcing. We generally fit in a short walk where we point out whatever we notice and talk non-stop all the way!

Flexibility and spontaneity within the practice is essential. It’s one of the perks of working for yourself so we’re protecting it.”

What role does sustainability play throughout your design process? Sustainability is a tricky word these days, it’s original intended meaning has been confused & co-opted to the point where it’s just a buzzword, still the core idea behind it is as relevant as ever.

Sustainability can be approached from different angles, but an obvious starting point is that of petrol and chemicals. There are many gardens that would emit more carbon than what they negate/store. The petrol hedgers and edgers, the incessant mowing, the chemicals required…

Climate appropriate planting that does not depend on constant irrigation is important and is something we discuss with our clients.

Biodiversity or habitat can be increased through targeted species selection, but most urban plots are small and there is a range of non-human locals with widely varying requirements. To this end there are many exotic species as well as local indigenous plants that have a broader value in the urban landscape. We have to keep our minds open to what performs best in a given situation where options may be limited.

Your aesthetic is beautiful – there is a warm harmony between the urban environment and the Australian landscape. How do you decide what natural elements will best connect with the building site? We try to adopt a site-specific approach to varying degrees. We usually incorporate local stone and a range of indigenous species appropriate to the soil and micro/climates within the site. The domestic architecture also influences the outcome and often provides a starting point.

I also love the sun-kissed, 70’s-polaroid vibe of your Instagram feed. How do you feel social media contributes to your work? For us as a practice instagram is a bit like note taking, it’s recording what we notice and compiling an archive for future reference. It can also help to give clients a sense of our approach and aesthetic which can be hard to communicate purely through project work mainly because gardens take a while to mature and we get the opportunity to photograph and revisit them so rarely.

How much of your role involves interacting with other people outside of the Bush Projects studio? It’s a huge part of our role. Within a project we are constantly in dialogue with a range of stakeholders including clients, architects, council, contractors, and suppliers.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a graduate landscape architect about to start their career? It’s an industry that’s driven more by passion than status so it’s important to find your interest within the field.

What are some of your favourite plants to design with? We generally work with a set of forms that become a matrix – drifts of tufted grasses, low mounding ground covers and interspersed perennials. The specific species depends on site conditions such as soil and climate.

Our adaptable essentials are the Dianella Goddess, the living green mat of Myroporum parvifolium, the delicate blue stars of Wahlenbergia, Correas in different guises and an outlier species who always changes but could be a giant Agave, a Prickly Pear, a Rose or perhaps a Wigandia.

What’s your ideal colour palette? Greens that are dark emerald. Orange reds that vibrate against blues. Coppers and bronzes. A touch of dryness.

As Christopher Lloyd observed, over time foliage can become more interesting to the gardener than the flowers.”

What are three things all gardens should have? Plants, people, animals.

Can you please tell us about one project you really enjoyed? That would be a bit like choosing a favourite child.

What is one lesson you have learnt from the natural world? There’s nothing quite like a tree that has fallen over and is reshooting from its side. Commonly adopted in nature, yet to be approved by a client.

What other landscape architects/artists/creatives do you admire? Giles Clement, Catherine Mosbach, Teresa Moller, Terremoto, muf, Phyllidia Barlow, Pippiloti Rist, Paula Hayes, Fiona Brockhoff, Monty Don, Sunday Reid and Malcolm Douglas, Edna Walling, Christopher Lloyd, Burle Marx. The improvised vegetable gardens of the Italian and Greek community that exist in Melbourne Suburbs. Also our local landscape cohort.

Books such as Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris, The Greatest Estate by Bill Gammage, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, The Place for a Village by Gary Presland and Yarra by Kristin Otto

Where do you go to when you’re looking for inspiration for a project? All of the above plus walking around the surrounds of the project site. We find our local reserve, the Merri Creek, provides endless inspiration in general.

What is your dream project? A public, natural pool where people could once again swim in the waters of the Yarra.

Would you describe yourselves as gardeners in your personal lives? Yes, it’s essential to our practice. Our patches of dirt are our garden labs. The lessons to be learnt through the interaction and direct observation of even a small plot are almost endless. When living in an inner city suburb, we planted a few indigenous grasses into the tiny front garden, amongst a rose and a rosemary bush. That Summer, the sound of insects was like no other year, in the evenings it transported you to a different place – the point is, just three different plants can bring so much to everyday life.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Sarah: a rugged, thorny species rose, hopefully a Rosa moyesii.

Bonnie: Some sort of cactus, although at the moment I’m definitely a bottle tree.

To see more of Bonnie & Sarah’s work at Bush Projects visit their gorgeous INSTAGRAM / WEBSITE.

All images by Bush Projects & supplied by Bonnie & Sarah.