Volcanic Activity

A Tāmaki Makaurau garden inspired by lava fields.

Volcanic Activity

A Tāmaki Makaurau garden inspired by lava fields.

Associate professor of architecture at the University of Auckland Michael Davis and his partner Vanessa had lived in their Californian bungalow in Remuera, Tāmaki Makaurau since 2006, shielded from the street by a falling-down brick fence and a familiar suburban garden: lawn, trees, driveway, Cape honeysuckle hedge, garage tacked on to the side of the house. “It was a lean-to shed with a side on it,” says Davis. “The water drained off the neighbours’ into it, and anything you put in there went rusty.”

After years of mulling, Davis finally decided to pull down the lean-to and rework the garden in 2020. Key in his thinking was to ditch both garage and driveway: the house has both of those via a right of way on the other side anyway. In place of the lawn, a concrete courtyard with built-in benches and a firepit. In place of the driveway, concrete steps leading up to a pivoting gate built from steel and timber battens. Everywhere else: rocks.

Possibly the most radical move is the fence, which consists of steel stanchions and reinforcing mesh – a barely there fence through which planting is slowly growing. There will always be an element of openness to it, and neighbours passing often stop to chat and comment on the garden. “Which was actually great during lockdown,” says Davis. “People would lean over the fence. We had some great chats.”

When he called on Philip Smith of O2 Landscapes to devise the planting, Davis referenced the rock gardens of Isamu Noguchi and of Mexican architect Luis Barragán. So Smith took him to Withiel Thomas Reserve, a lava forest in Epsom, just off the motorway and Gillies Ave, where trees and ferns and plants grow over a broken, fractured lava field. “The whole thing was to introduce a landscape logic,” says Smith, “so I said, ‘Let’s go to the mountain and look at a lava field.’” 

It’s widely known that large parts of Tāmaki Makaurau were lava fields; what’s often forgotten is that the landscape was littered with volcanic rocks which Māori later incorporated into gardens that stretched across vast swathes of what we now consider suburban Auckland. 

Smith’s planting scheme is a direct response to those rocky environments. He planted Corokia cotoneaster, which grew on lava formations in the Manukau Harbour, along with other plants known to inhabit rocky environments. The star, though, is a rare Bartlett’s rātā, a critically endangered tree which grows out of other trees before eventually taking them over. Here, it’s being trained so its roots will splay out over a wooden apron made by Davis. “Like an octopus,” as Smith describes it, delighted.

The surprising bit was spontaneous, as ferns started sprouting of their own accord, their spores carried in on the rocks. “We had this ascetic rockfield format and nature has filled it with green,” says Smith. “Which is so great! Now it’s become something better. Sometimes all you have to do is listen.” 

O2 Landscapes


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