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Smyth, Edmund Owen

1937–2019

Landscape architect

This biography, written by Jacqueline Margetts and Rod Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.

Ted Smyth was a landscape architect of international repute. His contribution to New Zealand’s late twentieth-century landscape design is exemplified in a series of Auckland gardens he designed and implemented. He sprang into the city’s garden culture in the 1980s, seemingly from nowhere, with a handful of gardens that tightly shaped residential space with contemporary materials and unusual subtropical plants. At a time when New Zealand garden design was flourishing but highly derivative, Smyth’s work appeared utterly contemporary and international, but also local and specific. His designs were featured in world surveys of new residential landscape architecture as compelling examples of contemporary space and place. Ted Smyth raised the importance of New Zealand garden design to the same level as architecture.

Early life

Edmund Owen (Ted) Smyth was born in Kohimarama, Auckland, on 13 May 1937, the first of four children of butter merchant Leslie Stephen Smyth and his wife, Myrtle Gloria (Glory) Hill. Raised in various state houses, Smyth lived almost his entire life in Auckland’s western suburbs and developed a strong attachment to the bush-clad hilly landscape of the Waitākere Ranges. He rarely travelled far, and then only late in life.

Smyth attended Avondale College where he was taught by artist Robert Nettleton Field, who encouraged him to see the world in a painterly way: as a composition of striking colour and form, clean lines and great depth of field. He left school at 15, undistinguished in any subject other than art, to work as an errand boy for a commercial artist. At 18 he completed the government-mandated three months of military training, then travelled around the South Island engaged in casual work and playing guitar in a Nelson dance band. He returned to Auckland at 21 and tried to earn a living as an artist, supporting himself with casual labouring. On 11 December 1960, aged 23, he married Shirley Ann Smith, who had a daughter from a previous marriage. The couple had three children together, two sons and a daughter, and adopted a son and fostered a daughter. Ted and Shirley separated in the early 1970s, and Smyth formed a relationship with Raewyn Ann (Ana) van der Pol in about 1974. Ana had four young children of her own. Ted and Ana married on 30 April 2007 after living together for many years and remained together until his death.

Smyth grew up in 1940s New Zealand, and his love of landscape was deeply rooted in the communitas forged in wartime garden production, when New Zealanders were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ and productive vegetable gardens given priority over other types of horticulture. Around 1962 Smyth worked briefly as a labourer for the German émigré landscape designer Odo Strewe, raking lawns, weeding and picking up building debris. Landscape architecture was not yet a profession in New Zealand; the first university programme started at Lincoln University in 1969 and the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects (NZILA) was formed in 1973. Gardens, parks and urban open spaces were designed mainly by horticulturalists and building architects who ventured into the empty areas between buildings, basing their work on European models.

When Strewe, a pioneer in New Zealand landscape design, discovered that Smyth could draw, he transferred him to the office to generate plans. This short tenure in a landscape design firm changed Smyth’s life. Before long he set up his own landscape business, reportedly taking a few of Strewe’s clients with him, including well-known architects Roland (Rolly) Adams and Alan Warwick, with whom he worked for many years. Adams and Warwick were modernist architects; the free or open plan was prevalent in their house designs, with space flowing from zone to zone and minimal separation of functions. Smyth saw their plans and learned. In 1964 his first built project was featured in New Zealand Modern Home and Garden: a Japanese-style entrance courtyard at Point Chevalier for a house designed by Warwick. Smyth went on to develop a successful landscape design-build business, teaching himself the skills he needed to build the gardens he designed. His work was regularly featured in magazines during the late 1960s.

Painting

For many years Smyth worked on landscape projects during the day and spent his nights painting, often until early morning. During the 1960s he considered himself primarily a painter, exploring colour and form in ways that would serve him well as a garden designer in later years. He built up a body of work and periodically exhibited at the New Vision Gallery. He had the distinction of having 16 paintings purchased for the New Zealand embassy in Washington DC, and in 1968 he participated in a group show with contemporaries Pat Hanly, Stanley Palmer and Colin McCahon. With a growing family, Smyth was torn between the need to earn money and the desire not to have his art contaminated by commercialism. He abandoned painting after his 1972 ‘Rainbow Series’ exhibition and devoted himself entirely to his landscape practice. From this point, he presented himself as an artist whose medium was the landscape itself, with an intent to ‘explore art outside of painting and within landscape’.1

Designing gardens

Preoccupied with being purposefully original in his work, Smyth abhorred the thought of being influenced by other landscape designers; he refused to read about the subject or look at the work of other practitioners. For many years a photographic book on Japanese gardens was his only guide and it heavily influenced his 1960s designs. His domestic landscapes, as documented in contemporary magazines and photographs, were characterised by the dramatic intersection of horizontal and vertical planes and juxtaposition of rough and smooth textures. Native plants were well-represented in his palette in the 1960s, before he began to explore the use of exotic subtropical species.

From 1968 to 1986 Smyth underwent an extended period of transition and experimentation. As a solo design-build practitioner, responsible for both designing and implementing gardens, his production was necessarily small-scale, but he had complete control over every aspect. He built several atrium gardens, and in these sheltered spaces developed his expertise with tropical and subtropical plants. His search for interesting specimens led him into contact with a number of specialist growers, and he quickly learnt from these aficionados and expanded his palette accordingly. Attracted by the dramatic plant forms of monocotyledons, especially the arboreal or tree-like species, he developed an approach to plant composition that emphasised their capacity to make unique spaces. He also commenced tentative experimentation with the light-reflecting qualities of stainless steel and neon light.

Smyth’s interest in landscape was not confined to the private realm. Throughout the 1970s he designed adventure playgrounds, mainly for schools associated with his partner Ana, an early childhood educator. These playgrounds, for which he did not charge a fee, used structure and landscape topography to encourage movement, exploration, imagination and risk-taking in natural settings.

From about 1985, Smyth began relinquishing aspects of landscape construction to contractors and focused on design. As well as designing gardens for his own private clients, he developed close working relationships with several architects, notably Ron Sang, who he worked with for many years. Smyth sketched out dozens of design ideas to be developed and implemented by Sang’s office, though he did not consider them his own as he had no control over their execution.

After a long period of relative obscurity, Smyth suddenly attracted widespread attention in 1987 with the McMillan garden in Howick, Auckland. This garden was radically different from any seen before in New Zealand. Large stainless steel portals were washed in coloured neon light and sculptural plants such as sago palms (Cycas revoluta) and dragon trees (Dracaena draco) projected from beds of moss-like Scleranthus biflorus. These elements were unique in New Zealand gardens and caused a sensation. Smyth went on to design a series of gardens in this idiom around the Auckland region. With his innovative use of newly available materials and embrace of crisp geometries, Smyth’s classic work has been referred to as late modernist. A denial of historical styles (which were influencing other New Zealand garden designers at the time), the employment of the free plan and rejection of the axis, the concern for space rather than pattern, and the focus on plants as botanical sculpture, were all hallmarks of American modernist garden design from the 1940s and 1950s.

Smyth worked with what he considered anonymous materials, with no strong personality of their own: stainless steel, crystal clear water, ceramic tiles, granite paving, and hardwood decking. He developed his own design vocabulary through gardens that were elegant and simple, deploying materials with a determined clarity of purpose. Water was gathered into geometric pools and lifted into arcs of light; swimming pools were outlined with jets of water bubbling out of tiny stainless-steel tubes; carefully selected boulders were juxtaposed with smooth ceramic tiles in colours reminiscent of his rainbow paintings; and rare exotic specimen plants created intricate spatial effects. Light was reflected from stainless steel and water, and at night concealed neon light created visually arresting chromatic vignettes. Infinity pools and large portals visually linked planes of water within the garden to seascapes and countryside prospects.

Smyth’s work influenced a generation of garden designers and New Zealand garden-making, especially in the subtropical north. His innovative choice of plants popularised tropical and subtropical flora with garden designers and home gardeners, and the nursery industry expanded their offerings to fulfil the new demand. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the designs of most landscape architects referred in some way to Smyth’s work. His importance to the landscape industry was recognised in 1998 when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the NZILA and in 2000 when he was awarded an Honorary Bachelor of Landscape Architecture by Auckland’s Unitec Institute of Technology.

Public landscapes

Between 1987 and 2006 Smyth completed three major public commissions that changed the way he made landscapes. Māhuhu ki te Rangi Reserve in downtown Auckland (1987), Basque Park in Newton Gully, Auckland (2002), and the Strand redevelopment in Tauranga (2006) all displayed a developing interest in Māori culture and art. From 2000 to 2010, during the design and construction of Auckland’s Aotea Square, he sought to invoke a strong Ngāti Whātua presence. It was through these projects that Smyth deepened his interest in Māori imagery and symbolism. His technique for trying to achieve an acceptable reformulation of Māori design motifs as landscape elements was, as he put it, to abstract from the original in a way that was not ‘hokey, superficial or…kitsch’.2 He did not directly address the problem of appropriation, considering instead that Māori cultural production is available for deployment in landscape architecture if it is used ‘to inform the structure of the design’ rather than as ‘merely an appliqué’.3 Importantly, the incorporation of Māori design elements enabled him to see land as spiritual, as whenua wairua.

Smyth’s experience with these public space commissions influenced his private garden designs. The Sanders garden, the last of his enclosed modernist landscapes, was completed in 1994. After this project, probably his best-known, he set stainless steel and neon aside. His use of dramatic space was extended in several gardens where the plant choice started to include sweeps of native plants such as carex, flax and astelia. Smyth describes these gardens as being more spiritual. He regarded the ‘landscape as poetry’ and perceived a ‘spirit element in a landscape’.4 Examples from this period include the Kelland Garden (2001) and Pie Melon Bay Farm (2000), both on Waiheke Island and both winners of NZILA awards for residential landscape design.

Smyth continued designing gardens into his mid-seventies. In his last built work, the Johnstone Garden, Remuera, Auckland (2010), he returned to earlier themes. A wave of blue neon light bathes the striking form of three Australian grass trees emerging from stainless steel capsules.

Smyth started to develop dementia in his late seventies and his ability to design for clients diminished – though he still spent long periods chasing ideas on his drawing board. He died on 22 November 2019 at Mercy Hospice, Ponsonby, Auckland, aged 82.

Smyth’s influence on New Zealand garden design cannot be overestimated. Designing award winning gardens for nearly 50 years, he evolved a unique body of work that has been recognised in numerous international books and publications. In 2017 he was the subject of a monograph, the first book solely dedicated to a New Zealand landscape architect.

Footnotes:
  1. Ted Smyth, quoted in Obit. Garden Design Society of New Zealand, November 2019. Back
  2. Ted Smyth, quoted in R.J. Barnett, & J.A Margetts. ‘Cross-cultural place: Māori influence in the landscapes of Ted Smyth’. In Cultural crossroads: proceedings of the 26th International SAHANZ Conference. Ed. J. Gatley. Auckland, 2009: 5. Back
  3. Ibid. Back
  4. Ted Smyth, quoted in S. Clement. ‘Poetry in motion’. Next. April 2001: 48. Back
How to cite this page:

Jacqueline Margetts and Rod Barnett. 'Smyth, Edmund Owen - Biography', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6s10/smyth-edmund-owen (accessed 18 January 2022)