26 Nov


Story by Anne Schauffer

Bernice laughs when describing the role of a landscape architect. “It’s an interesting question really, because after years of working in the field, my answer has changed. I see it differently from when I started out.”

For her, it’s essentially about creating spaces within which people can engage: “Those spaces are often the transition from indoors to out. People are so destination orientated, they often don’t notice what’s happening as they move from point A to B – they rush from a car into a building, focused on that end point. What we aim to do as landscape architects is make that space between the two points, extra-ordinary.”

But Bernice doesn’t mean “extra-ordinary” in a flashy or look-at-me way. It’s often very quiet, simple, unobtrusive, but somehow effects a change on those who pass through or spend time in it.

As a landscape architect on a project, there’s a great deal of collaboration between disciplines, in particular, with engineers and architects. It’s that collaboration which excites Bernice: “Those are always the best projects. When it’s not about an individual.” She grins, “Honestly, that’s what you learn as you get older. Put your ego away, and that becomes transforming in the way you interact with people. That’s how I morphed from being employed, to working on my own. I made a conscious shift in the way I wanted to do things.”

Bernice had spent 13 years with landscape architects Uys & White, working alongside them, absorbing information, and in 2008 she wrote the professional exam in landscape architecture. Four years later, she formed Land Art Studio: “It wasn’t about me or even Land Art Studio anymore, it was about how to create spaces for people to enjoy. As you delve more into a life philosophy, it may seem a little esoteric, but through research and understanding of what makes people happy, you realise two things: life needs to be simple, and you need to engage with nature – we get to encourage this through our designs.”

For her, a key aspect of her role is “remembering” how it feels to be in a space. Designing a good-looking space isn’t the challenge, it’s creating one which impacts in one way or another on the users: “No need to over-design. If you can capture what someone will feel in a space, it becomes a successful space. Sometimes users aren’t even conscious of how they felt, but they’ll return there. Sometimes it’s a tangible element, sometimes intangible, but something there will foster an interaction.”

Bernice loves projects that push boundaries: “It’s so exciting to explore new ground, and if we can persuade clients to push them with us, it’s a real journey of discovery,” she laughs. Of course, some clients actively want innovation.

One of Land Art Studio’s first projects was as lead designer for iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The scope was diverse with multi-projects, from master planning, “bush architecture” and sensitive engagement with nature. The 8m high Kwasheleni Tower was the result of a trusting client and a great collaboration with the engineers. The end result is a circular form, with a sense of discovery, which sits almost undiscovered in the park.

Lifestyle Centre in Ballito allowed some wonderful out-of-the box thinking, and her client didn’t flinch at the idea of installing a contemporary wishing well: “It’s something many people had no experience of – I loved the idea of creating something playful, fun and literal, where people could pause, throw in a few coins, make a wish, interact at some level. The project enabled us to facilitate a certain street quality, create a heartbeat, something most shopping centres lack.”

Land Art Studio’s work varies from commercial and industrial to mixed-use and residential design. Their scope of work is broad, from pure landscape architecture, master planning and detail design to unique architectural and interior projects.

For a landscape architect, planting is important, but equally, the hard landscaping. Bernice keeps abreast of technology, constantly aware of the hardware available, and the technologies being reviewed and refined. Whether it’s permeable paving options, working with metal, creating roof gardens or green walls, or playing with building forms in unexpected ways: “We try to start with our imagination rather than our knowledge,” she says, “and encourage our clients to think likewise. As much as I love the nature side, I really enjoy the contemporary, edgy side, where we can create something different. It’s exciting to juxtapose soft with hard, and commercial projects really allow for that. Contemporary buildings allow us to push some of the very sharp architecture into a forest, or say, in the ABSA building, put planters into a very urban staircase. Then you get urban nature happening.”

For Bernice, landscape architecture as a career not only allows her to combine two passions, but also, to scratch below the surface of those who’re using the spaces. In simple terms, examine what makes them happy, and help them connect with others: “Loneliness is a modern world scourge. I’m a strong believer that connecting people happens outdoors.”

And that’s how she sees her role. Creating spaces where people can engage with each other, and with the environment. Each day is different, each project has fresh demands, but for Bernice, in a nutshell, “What could be more satisfying than making little bits of the world – yours, mine and ours – nicer places in which to be, places where we feel happy?”


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