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Today’s guest on Landscape Conversations is the Sydney based Landscape Architect, Philip Coxall from the firm McGregor Coxall. Philip has more than 20 years experience working on projects in England, Asia and Australia. These range from broad scale master planning to new parks and gardens. The work has been widely published and received numerous awards. Examples of Philip’s work include BP Waverton Park, Ballast Point Park and Lizard Log at Wester Sydney Parklands.
Anton: Were you outdoors much as a kid?
Philip: No I wasn’t outdoors much, I was a city kid. And I remember that one plant that made an impression was at Auburn school was this Jacaranda tree that was in flower and it interested me that it flowered every now and then. But other than that Auburn at that time was very bitumen and concrete. I think I said at Barcelona at 16 my dad and I concreted the backyard, that’s what we did.
Anton: A spatial experience.
Philip: Yeah it is a spatial, but we did it for a pragmatic reason because we didn’t want to mow the lawn and it made a great cricket pitch.
Anton: That’s what interests me, these different conceptions of what landscape could be. You hear people talk about beauty in the landscape and that it's a given but then you see someone like -
Anton: The artist who represented Australia at the Venice Biennale a few years ago, Shaun Gladwell.
Anton: His thing is all about bicycles and cars and motorbikes, he did that series in the outback riding a motorbike.
Philip: Oh yes I know that one.
Anton: He also did a movie or video where he's riding a bicycle or someone is riding a bicycle across the headland at Clovelly beach on all the sandstone boulders. So he sees that sandstone headland as an opportunity to do some skillful riding whereas somebody else would see it as a romantic Sydney landscape and a whole bunch of architects would see it as touching the earth lightly and this amazing thing.
Philip: It's an interesting point isn't it.
Anton: So that’s what interests me is how different people who work in the landscape have formed their ideas about what a landscape should be and to what extent our education - if you didn’t have a huge conception of landscape early, well obviously everybody does but the idea of landscape as something out there with some agency is formed at some point. Whether you understand it as something that’s about property or whether you understand it as something about conservation or about ecology or a space you need to have flat to play cricket, everybody has got a landscape in their head.
Philip: It's a really interesting thing isn't it. I don’t even know how I got into it, in a lot of ways - when I first finished school I went and studied industrial design and worked for a local firm called Malleys. Malleys Whirlpool were manufacturing fridges and washing machines and stuff like that. I was wanting to design the washing machines and I thought there was something there. But then after I came back after a year, I was doing an apprenticeship at TAFE to study this and I came back from being on the beach because that’s the Christmas holiday we had, and there were these guys across the road, that we had a window looking out over, and this is in Auburn, and they'd built an apartment complex and these guys were building a garden. You know the old rocks and they put Nandina, Nana, with the Cordyline popping out of it and all that. And I just looked at it and I went - and they're in their shorts and suntanned, they're out there doing something and they're building gardens, that can't be half bad. And I went home and I asked mum that night, I said I saw these guys doing this I wouldn’t mind doing that actually. And we had a friend who was doing landscape garden building and so she put me in contact with him and I had a chat and he told me about Ryde school and horticulture. And I didn’t know a bloody plant and all of a sudden two weeks later I'm sitting in a class with the blokes in the boots and the shorts and the t-shirts you know dirty as all shit because they'd come from a day at work doing TAFE. Then one day I'm flipping through the library at Ryde and I came across the sand gardens of Ryoan-ji in Japan. The Japanese landscape book I was looking at had all the beautiful little gardens of Japan and then all of a sudden that sand garden came up. And I looked and I thought what a load of shit, what is this crap. But I loved all the other gardens. And then after I’d finished three years, probably right at the very end of my course I was in the same library looking for the same book for some strange reason, turned over and saw this garden and it was like somebody had hit me in the heart.
Anton: The same one again?
Philip: The same one again, but I just went oh my God that is just stunning.
Anton: It's amazing isn't it?
Philip: What happened!
Anton: I wonder.
Philip: What happened! Is it all that Australian thing that you're brought up in the suburbs you don’t appreciate beauty or you don't have that physical understanding of beauty or whatever and then at some process it matured and I was ready to appreciate it the next time after that. I just had to go to Japan, I had to travel there to see this. But how does that happen! How about for you?
Anton: So that’s still a long way from landscape design isn't it?
Philip: It is.
Anton: In a way garden design is part of it.
Philip: It's the starting point to understand space. And I suppose in a way to understand Ryoan-ji is to understand the wider spatial arrangement of landscape and using the imagination to take you places and those kinds of things.
Anton: The Spanish sculptor Chillida he talks about learning three dimensionality through being a goalkeeper in a football team at quite a high level, that’s where he developed this sense of the 3D of the space because he had to guard the goal.
Philip: Anton, that is gorgeous, I can use that can't I?
Anton: You can use that it's not mine.
Anton: So on that how was Canberra did that nurture the - what did they see landscape as being at that time?
Philip: I can tell you that when I went to Canberra I had been working building gardens and working in nurseries but I was desperate to get out. I had my own business and I did my back in like just did my back in. I was married and there was no future there so I had to take it to the next level. The first time I ever came across landscape architecture was when I was at Warriewood sewerage treatment plant doing planting with tube stock, you know the old bore hole machines, augers, but this is a bloody big machine blasting out in 40 degree heat and we’re just up and down putting the plants in the ground. And then up drives this guy in a Celica car, I still remember it, gets out, it's air-conditioned, he's got a shirt and shorts and looks the bit. We’re all dirty, filthy, sweating like pigs. He gets out the plan, points a bit, checks and walks and gets back in the car. I said landscape architect okay. Went in and that was -
Anton: That's me.
Philip: But it took me probably seven, eight years before I actually decided to do it but it was always sitting in there. And when I get to Canberra I had read Glen Wilson’s designing with Australian native plants, I don’t know if you know that book. And Glen was one of the first people to actually focus on using Australian natives. And he came up with these great ideas about putting three tube stocks in a hole so they get this twist - just all this kind of crap, I never even thought like this. So I was interested in that kind of thing already. And then of course - you didn’t study in Canberra?
Philip: But Canberra really they do take you out to the bush and it's part of the environment that you grow up in terms of education and so I responded to that. But did it have focus in terms of that, I don’t think so.
Anton: It strikes me that there's the educational spectrum that ranges across agricultural forestry ecology to one end and then much more architecture and visual arts to the other. I remember Craig Burton said in an essay, he denies this now but I'm sure he did, the essay was ‘Is landscape architecture?’
Philip: There's two great ones right there; the goalkeeper and that one that’s excellent.
Anton: It just interests me to what extent - and do you think you've retained much of that formation from Canberra or do you think you’ve -
Philip: If I got anything out of Canberra, there was two things; one that we studied with the architects and the interior designers and you know they set that system up that they were all kind of integrated. And that understanding of architecture I think was really important in the sense of design across those realms being not isolated but potentially part of the whole. And the other thing of course was we had James Weirick and James - did you get tutored by James?
Anton: No I didn’t, he came after I'd left at UNSW.
Philip: You know, sometimes people can respond to people like him and sometimes you can't. But one of his greatest crits to me, you know how you're waiting around for the crit and you’ve got your stuff drawn and you're waiting as the guy floats around and you get five minutes. And James finally came up to me right at the very end, I’d been dragging over it, and his summation was - one of the best things I ever got out of him, I was doing a design of a kind of national park type walkway with carpark type strategy but there was an information centre. And I’d drawn the information centre like ye olde worlde, verandah, Australia vernacular. He walks up and he goes, “If I see another building like that I'm going to puke.” And he walked off. And it was like - it was a really crystal moment because it made me realise that we’re not only looking at beautiful little curvy paths in the carpark but looking at everything and that we have to challenge everything. I went away from that, I got so much out of just that one little thing. But maybe I respond to that kind of criticism. But James was a great influence.
Anton: And then you went to Hong Kong after that didn’t you?
Anton: So that must have changed things, what was the agenda for landscape in Hong Kong?
Philip: Well before I went to Hong Kong I went to England and I was there for four years. In England it was just dead, basically they were doing visual assessments and any design that would come in the door they'd run a million miles. And I was like “I'll take it, I'll take it.” I remember I was working at one of the big practices, and I forget his name, anyway they walked down Friday afternoon saying we just got this new design project does anybody want to work it over the weekend. And they all buried their heads and I'm like, “Me, me, me”. I'd just arrived two days ago, I just wanted to do it. So England was just a grounding in nuts and bolts. And then to go to Hong Kong was another world all together. Have you spent time in Hong Kong?
Anton: No, but passed through.
Philip: Hong Kong at the time that I was there was an incredible period because it was just before the handover so they were doing all that work to spend all the coffers that the British had acquired before they handed it over to the Chinese so they didn’t have to give them any money. So they built the airport, they built the rail and they built all the new towns. So basically here I am tossed in to doing all that.
Anton: Was it mainly that urban scale?
Philip: Yeah, huge. And I remember the first time I sat down after joining them and we’re sitting at a long table and the guy’s briefing everybody on this monster housing development project that we've got to do and all the rest of it. And I went to the guys, “Wow!”. The guys they were like this one must be pretty bloody good, they all stopped and looked at me. So I had to learn pretty bloody quickly. And then I worked on the airport, I mean huge scale stuff. But the beauty of Hong Kong, there was no real design philosophy but what it did represent was an opportunity to explore design, get it built, see how you fucked up and do it again and again and again and again. Well you know what it's like, you learn from building. But I was drawing, they were taking it off the drawing board and physically building it the next day kind of thing, just incredible and I learnt so much. But at that time it's weird I don’t know how I got to but egotistical I wanted to be a look at me designer, I wanted to do stuff that people went wow check it out, and there was Martha Schwartz at the time, Peter Walker and that was kind of like -
Anton: That was the stuff?
Philip: Yeah. And then I thought I want to be a punk landscape architect, I want to walk into where they kind of go this is not a garden but it's something and I don’t know what it is, and it was crazy shit. And because it was engineering run, Hong Kong, they had to have a layer of landscape but essentially it's engineering run. So they didn’t give a shit and all the money was in engineering and it was all about - so they didn’t challenge me anything.
Anton: Did you challenge them, were you able to get into the engineering?
Philip: A little bit on the roadways, a little bit on the underpasses and the connectivity. When we worked on the airport like I wanted to do red runways, red and pink and blue runways.
Anton: You’ve arrived in Hong Kong.
Philip: But the beauty was that I saw the work, I would go out after thinking this is going to blow peoples’ minds and look at it see it and just go “this is shit”. And then I started to realise that simplicity, maybe classical elegance maybe that’s not how I work now but a sense of strong form, shapes and those kind of things that are not timeless necessarily but they're not a vogue or that kind of thing; that’s what I see in my head anyway.
Anton: How did it work there, the culture, the office culture and the attitude towards the landscape?
Philip: Yeah. But it was great because nobody really interrogated it, the big game was the piece of infrastructure. I worked on the whole airport right and seriously nobody challenged me except for the pink and red runways. I’d just go for it, imagine whatever you want to I had a go at it. And then all the train stations all the way along, all the new towns all the way along, you're out there just - and then of course work would come across from China because China was opening up. So Friday afternoon they wanted a marina designed for Zhangzhou or wherever, and they needed it by Tuesday, so you'd have to work fast.
Anton: Given that you're so involved now or you seem to be heavily involved in construction - did that work like that there or there just wasn’t time you had to - it would be built before you could wake up the next day.
Philip: I did go out and do a little bit of construction but I wasn’t particularly good at it I must admit but I did learn it, as I went through the paces. But I don't do the construction so much anymore but when I have a precious project you take it from start to finish, everything relies on that end product for me.
Anton: How was that then bringing that experience back to Australia?
Philip: When I left Hong Kong after the seven years I decided I was going to give up and get a mowing run.
Anton: Say that?
Anton: With a bad back?
Philip: Oh no mowing was okay. And I thought I don’t want to do the thinking anymore, I don’t want to do any of that; I just lost it all, that old belief. And so I did, I set up a mowing business and just got the ute, drove around and mowed the lawns for two years. And then Adrian called me up one day and said - funnily enough the competition I went in was the one that you won for Mount Penang Gardens. And he called me up and he said do you want to have a go at this design competition and after two years it was kind of the right thing to do.
Anton: Did you think you brought that Hong Kong landscape mindset or had you always had the different view in the back pocket?
Philip: What I brought was all the fuck ups that I’d made I’d learnt from I think. Others could argue with me on that. But also because of my European connection through my wife, like for example, BP I was always fascinated when I was around Germany, where they’d used raw gal material and it was simple and raw, and with the elements that they had it seemed to work. And so that kind of understanding of material definitely. And I was always fascinated with materials, like for example in Hong Kong you get the material wrong and it will be destroyed so quickly because of usage, because of the weather and the climate there.
Anton: Looking at Ballast Point that level of detail, that’s quite beautiful, obviously could be traced back to your industrial design past couldn't it?
Philip: It could be. You don't know the little bits and pieces but I do know that I've always been fascinated with the idea of something can be used for something else - like for example, I took a train out to a site visit out past Green Square one day, and I got off at the wrong train station. When I got off, there was nothing there, they were starting the development, but they had gabion walls that the builder had built as a temporary measure, and they'd trucked in all the broken concrete from a wall that they'd demolished. And I got off that train station and I looked at that and I just went wow that’s actually quite interesting, I put that in my head. And then when Ballast came around it was always about the graffiti and trying to minimise graffiti on the walls and then the idea of those buildings being knocked down and then being chucked away how could that all - so bits and pieces coming together and then all of a sudden it kind of goes maybe that’s the idea. What's the brain doing, how does it put bits and pieces together, I have no idea?
Anton: Do you think the practice has a particular ethos about what landscape is?
Philip: I have a belief that - it started at university, it was a lovely little thing on one of the columns at university and it said ‘man is part of nature too’ and I thought about that quite a lot what it meant. And I came from Auburn, Silverwater you know the oil refinery plant and all the stink and the lights, which I lived right next to so I knew it all the time. And I was kind of fascinated with the idea that if we are part of nature, we can look at a beaver build a dam or we can look at a mole or we can look at insects, termite nests whatever, amazed at what they’ve done there. So I think the same about us, I can't look at anything that we've built and say it's not natural. And that challenge of it has to be natural because we’re part of it and we built it. We mightn’t like it, we mightn’t think it's beautiful and it's a change in what we perceive as nature. So for me that whole concept Adrian and I have been talking about kind of generated from this idea of the city being an organism. How much does that inform our thinking I think in the sense of things in things out, it's an organism so how do you respond to those things. So if you talk about reusing material, reusing water, reusing whatever; it's a system and how can you work that into the system that you're dealing with, so maybe to that level it is.
Anton: Just on that industrial, you say that and you mention growing up there but to what extent that’s also - you're known for Ballast Point and BP to industrial sites it's interesting that there is that recurring.
Philip: I think for sure, I think that - I was thinking about it the other day, you know like at BP the chain link fence. Story telling, I like story telling and there's little things in everything that I do that’s trying to tell a story about who you are in the process. So the chain link fence was when I was a little kid went down to the cricket nets in the park that was the most barren landscape that I've ever been to, you know those kind of parks. And I wanted to take that experience, that chain link fence that represented so much of my early life, and I know it's kind of industrial and all this and kind of replay it and try to find - I don’t think we achieved it but try to find another way of representing it and saying ooh actually it doesn’t look too bad, you know that kind of twisty connotation. And I think the same with Ballast, all the workers had put pieces in the wall, my whole family has got pieces in the wall.
Anton: Do you think landscaping is about telling a story?
Anton: Not that’s it about one thing only...
Philip: No, but I think it is. For me my method of understanding it and working it is I have to have a story in my head that I'm trying to communicate. And once I've got that story I can then roll with it, I can answer everything for that storyline. That’s fundamental, and if I can't get my hook into that story I get a bit lost. Because what's the decision making process that we go through. When you start your process you're trying to evoke a feeling or an emotion when people go out there aren't you?
Anton: Yeah, we all try and understand it, in a way it's possibly the opposite trying to understand what's going on, trying to make sense of the place.
Philip: Interesting, what do you mean by that?
Anton: A whole series of questions about how the place works and what's the best way to be in it maybe rather than - I like to think that I'm not trying to change the world. You hear landscape architects saying I'm doing this because I want to change the world, I don’t want to change the world I just want to celebrate what's there and understand it rather than change it.
Philip: I hear what you're saying, I may be a little bit more self-indulgent.
Anton: I don’t have that, the angelical streak.
Philip: No I certainly do not have an evangelical streak, I do not believe in that at all. I think we’re basically little nothings doing absolutely pathetic little nothings.
Anton: ‘We’re the custodians of the landscape’, I always find that pretty pointless.
Philip: I have no time for any of that shit, absolutely no time.
Anton: We’re one amongst many.
Philip: Yeah. I get an opportunity to express myself and I think wow. It's like somebody being given a canvas to work on and saying well you can do something here. And surely as a designer - you can't go and ask your mum or your dad or the next door neighbour what you think you should do it has to come back to you what should be done. So it's selfish in that way because -
Anton: But it is playing against the social notions isn't it?
Anton: I mean landscape really is going through a phase now of being a vehicle for health and fitness and I guess landscape is being valued because it's instrumental in public health, ideas of public health and ecology. It would have been instrumental in demonstrating power in the times of the European kings.
Anton: So it’s interesting how that obviously changes and how we then respond to that and carve our own way through it.
Philip: I don’t know if this is relating to it but if - like I took my wife out to both BP and Ballast Point and she just said to me, “That’s not a park what are you talking about.” And I would imagine a lot of people would go out there and say come on, you know, that’s an affront.
Anton: Mr Keating.
Philip: Yeah well Mr Keating exactly. And you say to yourself okay why do you did it like that. And maybe it unravels because of my background and all the rest of it and on a challenge, but it's selfish it’s self-indulgent to the utmost. If I’d done something that was what people would want then it would have all been just lovely rolling hills and plant like he did at Barangaroo perhaps.
Anton: So it is propositional then, that’s always the question that what you're doing is putting forward a certain proposition about what landscape could or should be. And trying to articulate that is probably the hard thing.
Philip: Or is it taking the lead, like the story I did taking the lead, from where it is and then challenging how that might be interpreted in a way that you respond to it. I like the idea that you come to a site with a preconceived idea. It's a park therefore you’ve got this concept but when you go through it you're possibly challenging their thoughts as they're going through it. And I quite like that idea. I remember once I read about landscape is the stage set on which we live out our life. And so to build the stage set you can play with people and make them experience slightly different things in different ways. And maybe that’s important that we offer different experiences. And that has a valid design outcome.
Anton: But it does come back to what you were saying about Hong Kong in a way, the self-consciously controlling all this stuff whether it's in a delicate way or a punk way. It's a question of where do you stop, where do you need to.
Philip: Yeah, I totally agree.
Anton: What's your method for getting at that point, do you just have this sort of blinding instant realisation?
Philip: I can tell you -
Anton: You said you didn’t draw much.
Philip: No it's all in the head.
Anton: Do you write?
Philip: No, no writing.
Anton: Talk about it?
Philip: No. I pretty much walk around and put it in - I understand the issues, it goes in. And I'll go for walks before I go to sleep at night, when I'm in the shower, and I pretty much put it together in my head before I start drawing. And that’s truth. And sure then you'll explore it a bit further and a bit further but in essence the core issues that I'm trying to understand and resolve I kind of lined up in my head. I said so many times about - it was a great challenge to work over the top of your work at Ballast, I did not take that on lightly let me assure you, it sat in my head for a long time. The day that I went out and I walked, I remember I walked up the lighthouse at Palm Beach and it was there in my head the whole walk up. And it just came to me at one point it was about telling the story about the change in philosophy about how we respond, the fact that we’re going to build - we’re now going to build a park in a land that previously we just diced and dissected and put an oil well, storage facilities and shat all over the place. So how do we talk about that change in landscape and appreciation of it. And then of course the logical thing well I can't go out and destroy another landscape to tell that story I had to try and work with the basics that I've got there. Of course it didn’t work out purely like that but the idea, the genesis and the idea and from that everything kind of unfolded.
Anton: And then what happens, it’s translated in some way to whoever is going to draw it?
Philip: Well I then draw, I do all the drawing and the detailing. I have to nail it at all the levels down, the walls, the way the precast sits over the top, that little delicate piece on the top that talks about the layers of delicateness. I've said it many times that the very fine handrail that the fact when you hold it it's not brutal. And all those things they're just all part of that story then aren't they.
Anton: I thought you were going to say you get on site and direct a lot on site given your background in construction.
Philip: When I was on site, I was on site twice a week for that one. We were changing stuff all the time because of the nature of that site as you well know but it was pretty clear where we were going. It was getting quality and working through the issues that building these things we’d never done before. And I wanted to be there to make all the calls. I mean how often do you get projects like that?
Anton: I know, exactly.
Philip: You get one beautiful shot at doing it.
Anton: Can you wait for another one?
Philip: Well I said to Adrian the other day that’s it I don’t know if I'll ever get anything like that again.
Anton: So that makes me think of the greenfield sites, well not the greenfield but if you like these sites with much context such as Ballast and BP versus the new town or the apartment development where you tend to be working with constraints that are not leftovers from context but are constraints that come from architecture, engineering planning. Do you find you gravitate towards particular type of project?
Philip: Well I gravitate to certain kind of projects because of the market at the time for example. You know as well there's a lot of residential development court yard spaces and we were both doing a lot of those kind of things.
Anton: Do you still do those?
Philip: Yeah a couple but I mean they were just funny shapes and things and a bit of whimsy really. You know to kind of fill in the space and maybe make it look a bit interesting. But they don’t have the heart and soul. We explore a little bit in some of them about first flush water and bits and pieces.
Anton: So system is important do you think?
Philip: Yeah I think so. I think it has a bit more than just a little bit of whimsy, it has that something where you kind of say and it does this. And it doesn't always work, they say great buildings leak. You’ve got to try, you've got to try and push things a little bit and so much of the stuff we've done, you know.
Anton: Do you think you pursue particular types of projects or where does your interest lie now?
Philip: Oh yeah, yeah.
Anton: Urban, natural or what?
Anton: And at what scale in terms of -
Philip: As big as I could get it, the city. I think that for me I hate the fact that as a landscape architect I get brought in after certain bigger picture stuff has been done and here’s that nice little piece for you to do, off you go. The city, I love the city and the bigger the thing. Of course I've had that experience in Hong Kong and working with rather large scale stuff so I'm comfortable in that area. But I love the idea of actually guiding the overall - imagine like Parramatta I know we did the thing, and then taking it and then starting to document and build it and work with the architects to get the form right and all the rest of it, that kind of stuff. We’re working on the very controversial WestConnex at the moment, which is really challenging. And you think well how do we make the city better, you either walk away from projects of complexity and nastiness or whatever it is or you get involved and see how you can move it towards something a bit better. And I am quite interested in challenge by that kind of stuff as well.
Anton: Do you have a particular way of working in those contexts with the multidisciplinary team, how do you set things up?
Philip: I don’t know how you see it but when you enter into those kind of environments and you know who you're working with, essentially it's an engineer driven project where the outcomes are to really move vehicles, masses of them, from point A to point B you're a little pest that’s flying around to possibly beautify it so it doesn't look so bad when they go and just flog it to the community. But I treat it like going into war and I know what battles I want to win and I'm the only one who knows what battles I want to win. And I'm prepared to lose a few battles but I've got this war and I want to win the war. So I'm very conniving. There's a lot of psychology working with the various people, understand what they want to get out of it so that you can use that when you want to. I do like that challenge of working through those situations and hopefully getting something out of it.
Anton: Do you find you're still designing then or you're taking up most of your time by -
Philip: I think the designing - how much is design that we all do.
Anton: Well there's an argument it's all design.
Philip: Exactly. One of my directors in a past life he was a really brilliant designer but he was in there one day in the boardroom and he was writing all over the place and I said what are you doing and he said I'm putting together a program for - this was the Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong. And I said, “You shouldn't be doing that, I mean somebody can do that you're the designer.” And he said to me, “Phil, where do you think design starts?” And it is, design is everything. If we have an idea and we want to move it from the idea to the built outcome every bit in between is surely part of that design process isn't it. We might not perceive it as that. But the actual drawing and the actual ideas as we get older they come quicker and faster and a lot easier, I think.
Anton: How do you work in the practice then, how does that work do you tend to split projects?
Philip: Yeah, Adrian and I used to work together but you know Adrian.
Philip: Actually I'm a bit combative too, we’re very egotistic.
Anton: Healthy tension.
Philip: That’s it.
Anton: Productive tension.
Philip: It is. Actually a lot of our good projects have come about when Adrian and I worked together but it tends to be me leading and Adrian kind of sniffing at the edges, chucking bombs to say that’s crap and all this and I've got to rework a little bit here and there. But we found it was best off that we each ran our own projects and then crossed over now and then just to see how it's going. And I'm very much I'll sit down and say mate come on, come on you can’t be serious, come on. And he'll defend it. But then he'll go away like I do and you'll see it next time and it might be tweaked a little bit in that direction that you've talked about. So there is that feedback loop.
Anton: Do you consciously set up the projects to make that as productive as possible?
Philip: No we can't because it's too confrontational, like I sit down "okay Adrian now show me your design" [laughs] that doesn't work. So it's done a lot more loosely like it's sitting there and I'll say that looks interesting what's that. And he'll kind of talk a little bit about and I say have you thought about doing this and this and this. And he'll do the same to me.
Anton: What about the office culture, are you conscious of that, do you create that?
Philip: It's very, very important, don’t you think?
Philip: I think the office culture is -
Anton: And how do you do that, do you have - what is it? How do you do that and what is it?
Philip: As we’re getting bigger we’re finding different ways to address it. But when we were a lot smaller it was very much me going around sitting with all the guys, working through trying to teach, understand where they're at, listening to them. But fundamentally making them realise that we want to be the best design firm we can be and that what you're doing has to be the best. We’re not talking about good enough we’re talking about the best. So every time you pick up any piece of what you're doing with us it's an important role, I want to see it come back better because you picked it up. Everybody picks it up, polishes it, hands it on to the next person. It is fundamental. And if you don’t want to be part of that I'm sorry then you're not part of the team that we need you to be part of. And that is absolutely - and you know you're award winning practices, it reverberates back to the team. They know that we’re not here to do average work we’re here to do the best work and to push it. And then it comes down to employment of the right people obviously that are a part of that and understand it and want to build on it and enjoy working in those environments. And then as we’re getting bigger we’re setting up a leadership group that will make sure that the culture is passed on down to the younger team as they come through. And then of course design competitions are important I think and obviously getting away as a group and going and looking up projects together, which I'm sure you do, and all that kind of stuff.
Anton: Do you have a sense of the size practice that you want to be or want to stay at or become, is that something you -?
Philip: Of course we talk about it. For me Adrian and I are risk takers right, I have - you know I've done lots of things, travelled, blah blah blah. For me it's just interesting to experience life at all its different levels. I've never set up other practices in other countries so that’s what we’re doing at the moment to see what we can do.
Anton: Where's that?
Philip: We’ve got an office now in Shanghai with Jack, I don’t know if you know Jack our guy, and also Bristol which is with Mike who used to work with us as well. Why, because we figure we want to work in the best projects around the world and why can't we. You and I are good enough to work anywhere around the world, I would put our practices out there with anybody else. I'm looking at others and going wow we’re nowhere near as good as them - of course we are as good. We might come at different solutions but we’re as good as anybody so why haven't we got the opportunity to go and work on the big projects around the world, why not. If we can great, it if works great but if we don’t boo hoo we had a go at it. And I like the idea of having a go. And I learn.
Anton: What does that mean, you're involved in China and Brisbane and Melbourne and -
Philip: Not Brisbane but China, Melbourne, Sydney obviously and Bristol.
Anton: Oh Bristol, I thought you said Brisbane.
Philip: No Bristol just outside of London. Yeah it's just the challenge of life, have a go. Seriously mate if it fell on its face so what. I'm learning so much in the process of setting this stuff up that I didn’t know about, I find that really interesting.
Anton: Are you finding different attitudes, in a way part of this podcast is highlighting or talking about the different conceptions of what landscape means. You think you have a particular - the east coast, there's an east coast sort of take on what landscape is and how does that sit with China and England?
Philip: My personal belief, I'm not that into tastes or whatever, maybe I should be. But I just think good space, good design, intelligent thinking, good urban design is fundamental. Sure it changes according to the location maybe like for example in China and space and all that are different in their scale because of mass and all the rest of it. But understanding space and working with it, getting a composition right. If you get that right you’ve fundamentally got - you can think green or whatever but get that right and you've got the fundamentals.
Anton: You made that comment earlier about freeway projects which is really the landscape is there to sell it to the recalcitrant community. Is there a sense of what landscape does in China, why is there landscape in China on those Chinese projects?
Philip: One of the interests that we have and I don’t know if you know we've got Dave Knight who's working with us now, used to work with Aquatica. But anyway he's a water sensitive urban designer and a really great lateral thinker. Our interest in China is that how do we bring landscape and the ecology water, you know water in China is just screwed their groundwater is all polluted. They need real help in this area and so the idea of working over there with water and landscape and bringing the two together and showing how they can both benefit one another is an interest that we've got and we'll see if we can get some projects to do there. And of course they’ve got some bloody big projects that will challenge us as well and how do we respond to that.
Anton: Because obviously there's huge cultural difference and engaging with that is interesting.
Philip: I've got seven years of working over in Asia, I have a certain understanding of it.
Anton: That raises that vexed question of context and sense of place doesn't it, we've been through a few variations on that.
Philip: And then you get the greatest designer supposedly or urban designers and they built fucking Canberra, the most people devoid experience you'd ever want to go to. So do we really know what we’re doing, do we? We think we do, we think we’re getting better but I don’t know? You just have a punt and hopefully it works out.
Anton: You negotiate the terrain as you find it.
Philip: [laughs] Yeah. I don't know, I've never really figured it out, never. And to teach it I don’t think you can even teach it. I think you can kind of nudge people but if they haven't got it basically embedded in their brain I think it's extremely difficult.
Anton: Well I suppose you made me think about an article I read last night by a painting professor from the US who was saying that critical theory, she teaches it in art history but in the painting studio she thinks it's totally destructive because it sort of comes before the fact of actually finding what you might discover in doing. And that possibly raises that complex question what is landscape architecture for you as a thinking, is that what - where’s the nub of it, engineers do technical drawings.
Philip: But that’s where it comes down to, I mean it's not a science it hasn’t got a formulaic approach to it, there is no right or wrong. Like an engineer you can argue the arch is going to fall down if you do it at that thickness. The landscape architecture, you can't. We can crit it and we can say I don’t think that because of this but there's no mathematics behind it.
Anton: No but it's that interesting question of what makes landscape architecture, at what point - why is your back garden not landscape architecture and something else is?
Philip: That opens up the Pandora’s box doesn't it?
Anton: Yep. And the comment I heard in Melbourne, somebody from ARM saying architecture is not about buildings, architecture is about drawing. That’s what architects do they make two-dimensional and I suppose now digital but two- dimensional work, that’s their work making two dimensional things. The builders make the buildings.
Philip: Yeah we do the drawings.
Philip: So where does landscape sit if you take that view?
Philip: Mate I love esoteric questions, I love the esoteric question yeah and I think you could - I know a lot of designers, and I'm sure you do too, who've probably never written a spec in their life. But for me so much of the design, the nuance the delicacy, is in the specification isn't it. That moment when you're out on site and you're flipping over and you wanted that Phillips head countersunk recessed screw that had a male and female joint that knocked one another out and sealed the joint perfectly. And when they go through the spec it's not in there and the guy’s brought along this coach-head bolt and this thing and he's going to shove the two together. And you go mate sorry where is it. It's a lovely question.
Anton: Well that says a lot I think, that’s interesting. It comes back to the industrial design and your love of detail.
Philip: But the talk of what is landscape architecture, I think we've been going on about this for years and years and years and years and we'll never define it. Because the beauty is it has no edges, it has no squares or circles, it is exactly all those things that you said isn't it, and it's beautiful in that way.
Anton: It is, yeah.
Philip: And luckily we can't capture it because we'll always be chasing it.
Anton: Yeah I suppose the question was really about where the work lies - and I agree the work life is throughout but to use that term what's specificity, what is it. Specificity in painting is the materiality of the paint, that’s what they deal with, they have to learn the materiality of the paint because you're dealing with it in a very tactile manner. And what is it in landscape; it's a vague question, it's a vague concept.
Philip: I like vague questions and vague concepts because it allows you to just imagine, float away in it. All I know is that I can do it.
Anton: Well, is it context, does it come back to responding to context? And I don’t mean slavishly genus loci sense of place some sort of authentic context but just is it about responding to what's out there, which may be others like architects maybe don’t do or engineers in that it's a mathematical technical sphere they're in, their context.
Philip: When you respond to context it's responding at the age that you're at with the experience you have, with the state of your mental inner being and whether you're happy or sad, whether you just saw something, a movie, an art piece, a bit of music that just absolutely - and somehow or other it wells up. I don’t know about you but I quite often hear music and there's a kind of quality to the whole -
Anton: Because you go into battle.
Philip: Yeah there's the music.
Anton: Into war.
Philip: There is. And it's not pop, this one’s not pop this one is classical and it's got this wonderful quality about it and then there's moments where it rolls on. And all those things come into it. I haven't got a fucking clue where this design is going when you sit down with that blank piece of paper, not a clue. And I wonder whether at the end of it somebody put it up on the wall and they can say ‘that’s Anton’s work’. And if you’ve been brought in as a young graduate and they'd shown you your work when you were mature whether you'd recognise your own work, and how did it get from there to there.
Anton: Who's that boring old fart.
Philip: I did that, or wow or I did that, shit! How did we get there? And why are we talking, why are we talking out of all the professionals that are out there. Because you got drawn into doing the masters to explore and to think about it. That I'm perceived to be a certain level perhaps within the profession. And so we’re having this game, circumstance all comes together. I love life, I think it's a fascinating process, continually mystifies me and I wake up every day going wow what's the next one going to be.
Anton: Will Alsop I heard him say something very funny, he said, “When I was 20 I was full of ideology and total convictions. When I was 40 I had some strong ideas. When I was 50 I had some notions. I'm 60 and I don’t have a clue anymore." [laughs]
Philip: Yeah I think that’s a lovely thing, which honestly I don’t feel like anything. I still think someone is going to call me out and say he's a fake, a fraud. You know that kind of - I was lucky once or twice, [laughs] circumstance happened and I was okay once or twice but couldn't do it again. And the guy’s all over himself haven't got a bloody clue what he's doing.
Conversation: Philip Coxall + Anton James
Audio recording: Anton James
Audio editing: Angela Grant
Website content: Matthew Kneale
Funding: RMIT University School of Architecture and Design SRC Grant