John Bedford, a design provocateur who left his mark on Adelaide

Some people change the cities we live in through sheer force of will. They encourage us to act. They become champions for the public spaces of our city. Often they work with a single purpose and leave behind things that are amazing.

On Good Friday 2017 at age 69, John Bedford unexpectedly passed away in Hoi An, Vietnam, a place he called home for over a year. Bedford was a renowned landscape architect and a principal at HASSELL between 1991 and 2002. Bedford was an extraordinary individual and left a lasting legacy on the urban fabric of Adelaide long before place making, urban design and cultural activation were accepted lexicons for the way we plan and design our cities.

Bedford’s career stretched over many decades and across numerous diverse disciplines. His early years in hospitality took him across Australia and eventually around the world managing some of the globe’s finest five-star hotels. His time delivering quality experiences and creating a state of excellence for his guests influenced and inspired his thinking in all things connected with design, particularly the practice of landscape architecture. After completing his degree in Landscape Architecture in Melbourne and after a short stint working in Melbourne as a landscape architect, Bedford joined HASSELL and returned to Adelaide after many years interstate and abroad.

Working in the HASSELL Adelaide studio, he was instrumental in the delivery of some of the most significant urban design projects that occurred in Adelaide during the mid-90s to early 2000s. Some of his high-profile projects included the masterplan for the Riverbank which spawned the Riverbank Promenade project which now links most of the entertainment precincts from the Convention Centre to the Adelaide Festival Centre, the masterplan for the eventual redevelopment of the North Terrace Boulevard, and a variety of boutique street scapes and activation precincts including the pocket park within the north-west corner of Victoria Square, which has matured into a small piazza scene nestled into a grove of Plane trees akin to a European city.

Regardless of the challenge, Bedford always wanted the best and strove to achieve this. He was relentless in demanding excellence and stretched the minds of all around him, including the clients he worked with, invariably resulting in exceeded expectations. He was a true ‘agent provocateur’. However, rather than just provoking, Bedford took on the role of instigator, planner, lobbyist, designer, supervisor, all in an effort to ensure that excellence was always achieved.

Today, Adelaide is a dynamic and vibrant city with an elegant cultural boulevard and a riverbank precinct that is now beginning to reach its full potential. Twenty years ago, Bedford stood on North Terrace and contemplated, as he put it, “how had it become so shit?”. How could one of the grandest Victorian boulevards of the southern hemisphere be so sadly neglected?

Bedford’s drive for excellence and quality compelled him to act. With the support of HASSELL, he began a campaign of debate, coercion and action that led to the North Terrace Masterplan in 1999. He sought support from Adelaide City Council, the Capital Cities Committee and State Government and put all the pieces together. Ultimately, he secured a commitment to redevelop the boulevard along with the associated funding.

North Terrace is now recognised as the jewel in the urban crown of the city. The final design executed by TCL and completed in 2011 delivered the excellence that Bedford so vocally demanded a decade before.

Within the same period, Bedford also set his sights on the Riverbank stretching from the King Wiilam Street to Morphett street bridge along the Torrens lake running through the heart of Adelaide. In 2000, a design competition called for the transformation of the festival plaza and the reconnection of the city to the River Torrens. HASSELL, under Bedford’s influence, collaborated with Norman Foster and Partners. Together HASSELL and Foster reinforced the Riverbank as the arts and cultural heart of the city.

The disjointed nature of the Riverbank was remade into a masterplanned unique urban garden, the Australian landscape brought into the city. Theatres, galleries and convention halls all located within grand landscaped terraces that allowed people to flow from the city to the river.

Adelaide Riverbank promenade (Photo: Steve Rendoulis)

This was Bedford’s vision and it went beyond landscape architecture and would become his mantra of holistic design appreciation and awareness of the human condition. His influence and constant agitation through the design process ensured that the built form and landscape architecture of the Riverbank Precinct became a perfect balance of art, design, landscape and architecture. His passion, persuasive nature and charismatic personality enabled everyone to realise his vision.

Although Bedford was a driving force on the projects he worked on he was also a keen collaborator, bringing his trademark demand for excellence to every project at HASSELL including architectural built form. He was a champion for the arts and, through his work as a landscape architect, he sought every opportunity to work with local artists such as Hossein Valamanesh, Greg Johns, George Popperwell and dear friend Khai Liew, who through Bedford’s advocacy went on to design the internationally recognised ‘Jenny Bench’.

Bedford worked in every aspect of the landscape and urban design profession. It was while working on a small community project in Blinman, in the Flinders Ranges, that his love of the wider Australian landscape was reignited.

In 2002 Bedford resigned his position as landscape architect and Principal at HASSELL and started (as he always stated) his next chapter and adventure by audaciously acquiring Oratunga Station, 10 kilometres out of Blinman. Combining his passion for the outback and his skills in hospitality, Oratunga became a recognised destination for international guests, artists, politicians and other VIPs from across the state. Visitors came as much for the landscape setting as to seek Bedford’s counsel. His new remote location did nothing to dampen his abilities as a provocateur.

He spent close to seven years living in the far north with the aspiration to transform the homestead and the station into an eco-tourist destination. While living remotely he nonetheless gained notoriety and became the voice for the community to increase the popularity of and prosperity within the outback town. However, living remotely had its moments and a car rollover while travelling by himself on a remote Flinders gravel road saw him trapped for two days without food or water. Only the good fortune of being found by a group of Korean tourists saved him from a bleak end. Bedford recovered and recounted the harrowing experience but saw the irony of being found by a group of people from a distant land. He lost none of his thirst for adventure, and after long consideration, decided that he was ready for his next chapter.

He moved to Stanley in north-west Tasmania, a return to the location of his early childhood. As with Blinman before, Bedford was infatuated by the Tasmanian landscape and scenery — a stark contrast to the dry South Australian outback. Again, Bedford quickly became embedded in the community and was an Urban Design Officer within the Smithton Council.

Adelaide’s Commonwealth Law Courts (Photo: John Gollings)

Again, his persuasive and larger-than-life persona gained a reputation as an advocate for the community, striving for excellence in the built environment and looking at ways to increase tourism within the region through good design initiatives. He spent another seven years in the remote township before realising that the seven year itch would return and his lifelong dream of living in a South-East Asian culture, by his own admission, needed to be realised. At age 68, Bedford relocated to live in Hoi An, Vietnam, a place he had visited on holiday many times.

An early email revealed he had started the final chapter of his life and gave a vivid glimpse of exuberance. He was loving life and he was safe in An Bang Beach, Hoi An; Baby steps into Village life – 5 May 2016:

Dear mates

Certainly on a steep learning curve now as I try to adjust with reasonable grace to genuine village life in Vietnam. I am pretending I am a child again because in some respects it is almost like starting from scratch!! But with a degree of apprehension, I am really enjoying the experience! My fourth day in my new house today. The owners, a young couple (downstairs) are wonderful! Mr. Dung and Ms. Tanh. I find myself in a relatively prosperous village (not of course that I’m comparing it with Point Piper!!!) The day starts promptly at 5am with the area’s roosters informing each other they are still around, led by the one with his 3 hens who live in the banana grove below my windows!! This then followed by kids and people and dogs as the place springs to life and the day begins. I have, unbelievably, adjusted to this already and am LIKING it, even more unbelievably!! I have begun to use the little cafes frequented by the locals and much to my own surprise, now turn up my nose a bit when confronted with young backpackers and other tourist’s en mass! With Dung’s advice I am seeking out the ones with good food and one, run by another Mr. Dung, with the BEST Vietnamese coffee (it’s a hangout for local taxi drivers)…

Judging by the tone of his enthusiastic email he was never to look back. Over the year it seemed he was living life to the fullest, experiencing an authentic existence and having no trouble forging friendships.

He was supremely independent and the solitude that he pursued, whether in the Flinders Rangers, north-west Tasmania or Hoi An, was the very tonic that Bedford yearned for. He never accepted mediocrity or apathetic attitudes and detested people who had a sense of entitlement. His democratic beliefs and his empathy for maligned minorities and embracing of genuine characters within diverse communities speak volumes of Bedford’s character. Of course, Bedford was worldly and confident and we will miss him recounting his many life exploits which were always filled with humour — some were outright hilarious episodes which we cherish in our memories.

Bedford was always involved. He was passionate and committed not only to the art of landscape architecture but design in every sense of the term and how it can influence our lives. Bedford was a mentor to many and a champion of others.

Next time you are enjoying the beautiful urban architecture of Adelaide, its magnificent parks, plazas and places, perhaps take a moment to think about the people whose ideas and commitment are needed to realise the potential of our city. Think about leaders like Bedford who drive change, who continue to pressure for action and who ultimately leave a lasting legacy for everyone.

With his charismatic smile, impeccable taste, enormous personality and propensity for the occasional profane word, Bedford was a real design provocateur. Today his legacy continues to influence Adelaide, setting a benchmark for landscape architects and encouraging us to speak up for what we are passionate about.

Mariano De Duonni is principal at HASSELL and Warwick Keates is director at WAX Design

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