While the planning moves at Government House provide clarity to the formal approach, this project is about much more than simply reasserting the approach. It is about reconnecting a landmark with the city while simplifying, retaining and restoring existing features – reinterpreting the spirit of a heritage landscape – for contemporary use.
Government House, the formal residence of the Governor-General, sits on a 12-hectare stretch of land that reaches down from the hills of Mount Victoria to the city’s Newtown flats. In the early 2000s, the house and its grounds were suffering from general fatigue – not a cosmetic issue that would have a quick fix – and so began an ambitious programme of restoration and refurbishment led by Athfield Architects with Isthmus as landscape architect.
Government House’s grounds comprise a variety of landscapes: there are flat areas of lawn, and rose gardens that recall the formal landscape traditions of England and gardens and steep hillsides that were once the grounds of the Mount View Lunatic Asylum, with artefacts from that era still in existence. Remnants include a ‘convicts’ wall’ and an ‘airing court’, where inmates once took walks, and the numerous plaques that mark commemorative trees planted by dignitaries.
Isthmus’s landscape masterplan maps all of the contextual elements: significant views, buildings, cultural heritage elements, physical features and microclimates, existing vegetation patterns, maintenance priority areas, public access, security and circulation, events and ceremonial access. The broader design moves address the visitor’s introduction to the house, with circulation and processional spaces improved and a clear hierarchy between ceremonial and working movements between grounds and house established. Areas of paving, lawn and planting have been reconfigured on the South Lawn and North Terrace to emphasise sight lines and ensure clear cues for visitors that support both security requirements and enjoyment of events.
As expected of a nationally significant project, carefully specified enduring materials enhance the experience of the house and to complement the functional requirements. On the South Lawn, granite kerbs and paving enclose the sweeping gravel drive, complementing and contrasting with an elegant reflective pool, bold groups of nīkau and a rich and varied underplanting of indigenous and exotic species. In the car park, a clear and crisp aesthetic is achieved with asphalt, stone walls, grass, specimen trees and a simple palette of flax and renga renga lilies. The combinations of exotic planting with a diverse range of native trees and shrubs are an able metaphor for the more indigenous modern role undertaken by the Governor-General.