Architect and landscape architect Harry Turbott pioneered an environmentally focused design practice in New Zealand in the latter half of the twentieth century. His work continually emphasised the designer’s role in protecting, restoring and enhancing the environment. As well as running a busy practise, Turbott taught an introductory course in landscape architecture at the University of Auckland’s Schools of Architecture and Town Planning for over 35 years. His work embraced and collaborated with Pacific and Māori cultures, including the restoration of Para O Tane Palace in Rarotonga and the design of the impressive Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitākere Ranges, which actively celebrated both traditional and contemporary cultural concerns.
Harold Arthur Turbott was born in Gisborne on 16 December 1930, the second child of Eveline Lillian Arthur and her husband, Dr Harold Bertram Turbott, a medical officer with the Department of Health and later Director General of Health. Turbott’s parents divorced when he was young and he was estranged from his father. He spent the rest of his childhood with his mother and sister in Auckland. He attended Brixton Road Primary School in Balmoral, then Kowhai Intermediate School and Mount Albert Grammar School, where he was noted for his drawing ability. He won entry to the Auckland University College School of Architecture, but delayed his studies for a year to work as a trainee draughtsmen for Gummer and Ford, the leading Auckland architectural practice. In 1949 he began his four-year architecture degree.
After graduating in 1954, Turbott was offered the School of Architecture’s travelling scholarship to undertake post-graduate study. Rather than go to an English university to study architecture – as graduates usually did at that time – he decided to pursue his interest in the environment in the United States. In 1957, after two years of working as an architect, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study landscape architecture at Harvard University. He married Gwyneth Nan Manchester, a teacher and artist, in Hamilton on 17 August 1957, and soon afterwards they travelled to Boston to begin his studies. West Auckland architect Maurice Smith, who had studied at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had encouraged Turbott to study at Harvard and provided an introduction to the head of the Graduate School of Design, Josep Luis Sert.
Enjoying the stimulating environment at Graduate School of Design, Turbott completed a Masters in Landscape Architecture under the influential teaching of the head of department, Hideo Sasaki, who taught a collaborative approach based on an ecological understanding of how the natural and manmade worlds were intrinsically linked. Restricted by his visa conditions, Turbott crammed two years of coursework into one year, graduating in 1958, and was one of the first New Zealanders to gain a tertiary degree in landscape architecture.
Turbott secured a position working for landscape architect Dan Kiley, an influential, if unconventional, character who worked with some of the best architects of the time. Kiley generally worked on large-scale public projects. Over a period of 16 months Turbott worked closely with Kiley on several large projects, such as the Independence Mall in Philadelphia and the Air Force Academy grounds in Colorado. Kiley included Turbott’s sophisticated drawings of the Mall in a retrospective book 40 years later.
After leaving the United States at the end of 1959, Nan and Turbott travelled to England and lived in Oxford for six months where he started researching a book about the need for landscape design in modern society. He put the book on hold so that he and Nan could travel extensively in a Combi van across Europe and India, visiting key landscapes such as Blenheim Palace, the palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Taj Mahal. After reuniting with his father, who was in New Delhi to be elected as the president of the World Health Organisation, the couple returned to New Zealand in 1961.
On their return, the couple lived at Karekare, a remote beachside community west of Auckland, where Turbott built a family home out of recycled timber and they raised their two children, a son and a daughter. Nan died of cancer in 1978, while the children were still teenagers, which was a huge setback for Harry.
Turbott was determined to introduce landscape architecture to New Zealand and began teaching two days a week at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture in 1965, where he taught for twenty years. He found few people were interested in the potential of landscape design, so he decided to lead by example and began a dedicated career as a landscape architect at a time when the profession was largely unknown in New Zealand.
Turbott’s design career was ground-breaking, introducing many new landscape architecture concepts to local audiences and practitioners, and he actively worked to change New Zealanders’ approach to developing landscapes. He worked as both an architect and landscape architect on many of his projects, designing many private homes, churches and schools. These buildings demonstrated his aversion to sterile modernism and his love of natural materials, especially timber and brick. His sensitivity to the building’s relationship with its site and with those who would inhabit it resulted in carefully crafted, liveable spaces with many nooks and crannies. The Becroft House on the shore of Lake Pupuke in Takapuna, begun in 1962 in association with architecture lecturer Peter Middleton, proved pivotal. The house won a New Zealand Institute of Architects award for domestic architecture in 1966 and a 25-year Award in 1994.
In the late 1960s Turbott formed a landscape architecture practice with his former student Brian Halstead, based in an old timber villa close to the university. Turbott and Halstead Associates was one of the first professional multi-person landscape consultancies in New Zealand. The practice was prolific, with its notable commissions including converting a large Northland farm at Mimiwhangata into a coastal park and developing a resort in Fiji. The practice lasted until the mid-1970s. Mostly, however, Turbott preferred to work in a small practice, with only one or two assistants.
Turbott completed more than 800 projects over his 50-year career. He often designed buildings and landscapes for the Department of Lands and Survey and Department of Conservation, eventually working on most of the North Island national parks and the Tūroa ski area, and designing information centres for Rangitoto Island and Russell. He also designed the visitor centre and grounds adjoining the Waitangi Treaty House (1983) with architect John Scott. His curiosity and lifelong appetite for learning drew him to a broad range of projects, particularly where he could design alongside those who would build them. He was so busy working around the country that he never completed his book on landscape design. His disdain for professional institutes kept him largely isolated from the growth of the landscape architecture school at Lincoln College and the formation of the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects in the late 1960s.
In the late 1980s, while on holiday in Rarotonga, Turbott stumbled across the ruins of Para O Tane, once the residence of Makea Nui Ariki. For four years he donated his time and took teams of student volunteers from New Zealand to rebuild the chiefly palace and restore a nearby church. He worked alongside the local people, Ngati Makea, to ensure the project met their needs.
Turbott also pioneered what would now be called an ecological approach to landscape design. He commissioned scientific studies of the archaeology, marine biology and terrestrial ecology of the coastal property at Mimiwhangata prior to the property’s development. These studies convinced the owners of the richness and value of its natural landscape and interconnected ecological processes; in 1967 they turned from their initial idea of creating a tourist resort to embracing a conservation ethic. In 1986, the land passed to the Department of Conservation to maintain as a coastal park.
The Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park (1992), commissioned by the Auckland Regional Council and developed in collaboration with mana whenua Te Kawerau-a-Maki, was one of Turbott’s most important works. Emerging out of the forest on a ridge between two harbours, the unconventional building features walkways spiralling through kauri trees and is wrapped around a central kauri pou.
Turbott also contributed to the establishment of the landscape architecture course at Auckland’s Unitec Institute of Technology in 1996. This fulfilled a lifetime dream to have a landscape architecture course based in Auckland. He continued working until ill health forced his retirement in 2008, although he maintained an active interest in design matters. He died in Auckland on 4 March 2016, aged 85.
Turbott was a generous, down-to-earth and compassionate man who dedicated his life to improving people’s lives and the state of the environment; he believed that, with care, it was possible to foster a positive relationship between the two through design. Throughout his life he hated hierarchy and puffery and courageously bucked convention; these decisions made his life tougher, but they also defined him. Although he did not receive the recognition he deserved in his lifetime, he made a huge contribution to the development of professional landscape architecture in New Zealand.