Boutique landscape firm WAX Design enjoyed much success at the AILA Awards, with two wins. Directors Warwick Keates and Amanda Balmer explain what makes Adelaide such a great place to practice and the importance of storytelling.
Stepping into WAX’s quirky warehouse on Pirie Street, it’s easy to feel that a sense of play and discovery is important to the firm. Operating since 2006, the multi-disciplinary practice has worked across many aspects of the landscape and design sector, and have won a suite of awards from nearly every design institute including AILA, DIA and PIA.
“The only award category left for us to enter is graphic design,” Keates jokes.
There is, however, a more serious side to Keates and Balmer, who, when asked about the importance and enduring responsibility of landscape architecture and public space say: “The starting point is always a conversation with the users and with the clients, really trying to understand everybody who is going to use it, rather than making a series of design assumptions because we think that is what we should do.”
This approach is the driver for every project. “We refer to ourselves as facilitators — we take the community’s vision and turn that into something that they didn’t know, but always wanted,” Keates says. “We delight in the collaboration to complete a project.”
WAX Design won the 2017 Play Spaces Award of Excellence for the Adelaide Zoo’s Nature Playground (photo: Dan Schultz)
There is a level of sophistication and layered experience that becomes evident in WAX’s projects. “We try to create places and spaces which are relished by those who are going to use it, so that they are willing to return and unpack the layers of investigation or intrigue,” Balmer says. ‘It becomes something that they want to return to.”
WAX won the Award in Landscape Architecture for the Victor Harbor Mainstreet Precinct Project and the Award for Excellence in the Play Spaces category for Adelaide Zoo Nature’s Playground, a project that has not only contributed to the ongoing success of the zoo, but has opened up a whole new world for those with accessibility concerns. “When the zoo partnered with Variety, it gave us the opportunity to provide, as we try to with all projects, an experience for everyone to enjoy, including those who may not be as able-bodied. It’s really important,” Balmer says.
The idea of holding conversations with stakeholders is a big part of WAX’s modus operandi, which Keates stresses “always starts by listening to what people are saying, and also sometimes to what is not being said, so that we can address that. In the end, we are storytellers.”
There is an inherent legacy that landscape design has, which can sometimes be overlooked, as community planting and public spaces need to consider a lifespan and succession plan, which takes into account anywhere up to 100 years into the future. Which leads me to ask: how do you plan spaces for a changing city like Adelaide?
For Keates and Balmer it’s about changing the conversation around the concept of green infrastructure, the importance of which is only just now beginning to be understood. “Green infrastructure needs to be embedded in the design of all spaces, rather than something that is just added on at the end,” Balmer says.
“We like to think of green infrastructure as critical infrastructure – it’s essential,” Keates adds.
The Victor Harbor Mainstreet Precinct Project snagged WAX the 2017 Urban Design Landscape Architecture Award (photo: Simon Vaughan)
The future of landscape is about understanding the critical importance within cities and to recognise these values are not simply economic but that those of social and environment need to be accepted equally. For WAX, there is an imperative for landscape architecture to be embedded in this discussion. “Focussing on the inherent wellbeing that landscape can provide by spending time outside is so important,” Balmer says.
“We need to understand the assets that landscape can provide, rather than something that is changed out every 10 years,” Keates says. “The question for city planners is: if we’re going to let a tree grow in the city for the next 100 years, what do you have to do to let it grow?”
What advantages does Adelaide provide for design, particularly with public spaces?
“I think that the adaptive, agility of scale of the city which allows us to prototype ideas, and perhaps more importantly, to see the effect of those ideas on the community is unique, which is something that we don’t always celebrate,” Keates says. “I think scale is Adelaide’s greatest advantage.”
“That’s also why we decided to deliberately keep to our boutique size as a practice,” Balmer says. “It allows us to remain agile, so that we can learn from the city, be responsive and test our own ideas.”
Header image: Victor Harbor Mainstreet Precinct Project (photo: Simon Vaughan)