We revisited Arkadia Apartments on Gadigal Land in Sydney’s Alexandria, two years after the gardens were planted, and were thrilled to find a well-tended landscape teeming with life – even the recycled bricks play host to a patina of moss and lichen. The buzz of pollinators filled the air as we wandered through terraces bursting with a wild array of plants, each competing for their place in this exuberant ecology. Even though it was only the beginning of spring there was an abundance of species blooming, filling spaces and cascading over walls. In the communal veggie garden, a family of ducks had made a home, and we watched delightedly as ducklings weaved between the raised garden beds.
The word ‘Arcadia’ raises romantic notions of a utopian landscape – simple pleasure and quiet. Often the subject of classical and renaissance mythology; Arcadian landscapes have been painted and written about for centuries by artists and poets attempting to describe an idyllic vision of unspoilt wilderness, where people lived with nature. The driving idea behind our design for Arkadia was a garden that engulfed the architecture. The word ‘rambunctious’ was thrown around early on with architects DKO and Breathe, as we dreamt of a new paradigm in apartment living where residents are immersed in an abundant landscape. Where kitchen waste is collected to feed chickens on the rooftop and create compost for flowering meadows that provide food for local bees and visiting pollinators, and human residents are rewarded with eggs and honey. Where herbs are foraged on the way home to cook dinner, and kitchen gardens filled with perennial flowers, fruit trees and fragrant plants are communal places to spend time, as well as grow food.
On the roof, we sought to create a plantscape that evoked that profound feeling of elation we have experienced on mountain hikes, sitting on cliff edges looking out at endless ocean and sky; or visiting the desert during a super bloom. The ‘New Perennial’ movement in northern Europe captures this sensation well, albeit for a short period in late summer when seasonal planting reaches its zenith before declining into winter hibernation. In Sydney, where we are afforded warmer weather year-round, our challenge was to stretch this feeling across all the seasons; knowing that the residents are just as likely to be entertaining friends outside in mid-winter as they are to be hosting a rooftop barbeque in the height of summer.
We wanted the planting to be as diverse as possible, beginning with plants native to the varying ecologies around Sydney – mountain escarpments and coastal clifftops for the rooftop, rainforest gullies for shaded spaces – we then expanded our selection to plants from compatible environments around Australia and the world. With high rainfall, reasonably high humidity, and no frost, Sydney’s climate allows for a huge range of plants to thrive. By harvesting rainwater, and providing good drainage, we can create the right conditions for unique combinations to sit happily alongside each other. The result is a lush mishmash that adheres to no particular style, but it’s a place where unusual textural combinations provide year-round interest, and there is always something in flower.
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