Meet the woman running Lincoln's School of Landscape Architecture

Aussie Gill Lawson first worked in New Zealand as a horticulturist. It was 1987 and a boom period for our horticultural exports to Japan.  Gill had crossed the ditch after becoming disenchanted with working in Sydney.  She settled easily here and loved her new job. Then in October the sharemarket crashed, having a huge impact on her new employers. “I went home to Australia for Christmas and while I was there I was told ‘sorry we’re closing the company’” she says. “So that was kind of sad, I didn’t get to work here for long.”

But 30 years on she’s back, this time as head of Lincoln’s School of Landscape Architecture. In the mid 90s she changed careers and seriously considered returning to New Zealand then to study at Lincoln. Instead she fell for Brisbane’s subtropical climate, completing her degree at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She took a lecturing position there and stayed at QUT for the next 20 years before the lure of returning to New Zealand to finish her OE became too tempting.

 Gill Lawson looking across Charteris Bay towards Lyttelton.

Gill Lawson looking across Charteris Bay towards Lyttelton.

“The big advantage of coming to Lincoln is that you have one of the very very few stand alone schools of landscape architecture in the world that I know of,” Lawson says. “Nearly all of the other programmes that I’ve come across come under the umbrella of architecture or planning.  So for me it’s a dream come true to be part of this.”

Lawson says Australian universities are undergoing reform in terms of how they deliver courses, operating a more demand-driven system. “What that means is if your courses don’t have high enrolments then universities start to ask ‘should we actually be cross-subsidising these courses or should we get rid of them altogether’. The system can be very tough on disciplines that aren’t very popular.”

 School of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln UNiversity

School of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln UNiversity

She says at QUT landscape architecture struggles because people don’t know what it is “so we were always having to worry about our course enrolments. I hope that (a demand driven system) doesn’t happen here but I have a feeling that’s what’s coming across the Tasman.”

Since the 60s landscape architects have been working to establish credibility with developers, councils and governments by emphasizing they’re not just garden designers - even though residential design is part of what they can do, Lawson says. “We think contextually all the time from global right down to the detailed site design level. So it’s been 40 to 50 years of working to differentiate our field of expertise from architects or urban designers or whatever. We’ve had to grow a profession from a discipline in competition with those other more established professions.

 Gill Lawson says the apparently crystal clear conditions of waterways like the Avon River pictured here in Christchurch can mask the hazards of quality and liquefaction in New Zealand.

Gill Lawson says the apparently crystal clear conditions of waterways like the Avon River pictured here in Christchurch can mask the hazards of quality and liquefaction in New Zealand.

 

“When a huge building goes up people can point and go that was Frank Geary’s building. You can’t point to a Richard Weller landscape, and that also works against us. A landscape architect thinks they have done a really good job if nature can take over after they have made some sort of intervention."

Lawson hasn’t gone to Lincoln with the intention of making big changes in her first year.  She’s concentrating on understanding how things are done in New Zealand and meeting people from the profession. She says Lincoln has more international students (mainly Chinese) than Queensland which can be challenging because of different languages and cultural backgrounds. She thinks one of the most important things universities can do in preparing students for the workforce is to give them a clear picture of what “they have got to put on the table” in terms of their first job. “There’s a lot of emphasis on design in most LA programmes and I think the students get a view that that’s what they are going to be doing as soon as they get out into the world of work. It’s about trying to prepare them to have realistic expectations of what they are going to be doing in their first few years.”

 Lawson, a keen photographer, had no idea Christchurch had a beach so close.

Lawson, a keen photographer, had no idea Christchurch had a beach so close.

 

Teaching can be a tough profession, often without much recognition or thanks. But a recent email from a former pupil reminded Lawson why she sticks it out. It read: “I didn’t get to say this before you left, thanks for the times you sat down with me, talked about the things I wanted to do and showed me, pushed me into things I didn’t think I would do. You inspire a lot of confidence in the people that you teach and it would be great to meet up again."

 

 Gill Lawson says she is learning to see the colours and textures in the Canterbury wetlands.

Gill Lawson says she is learning to see the colours and textures in the Canterbury wetlands.

Lawson says, “that is why you teach, to see people transform from young people who are under confident, not sure about what they are doing and they just blossom into people who are amazing out there in the world, who really want to do some incredible things. And I have been lucky over the last 20 years to see that happen.”

 Another of Gill's shots - this one taken from Mount Pleasant looking across Christchurch.

Another of Gill's shots - this one taken from Mount Pleasant looking across Christchurch.