Challenging the Landscape

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The completed landscape design of the vast piece of land known as Nick's Head Station.

The completed landscape design of the vast piece of land known as Nick’s Head Station. Image: Marion Brenner

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At the historic homestead, beautiful, sculpted gardens intertwine the cultural and ecological narratives that have been distributed across the wider realm.

At the historic homestead, beautiful, sculpted gardens intertwine the cultural and ecological narratives that have been distributed across the wider realm. Image: Marion Brenner

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Nick's Head Station, situated at the southern end of Poverty Bay, near Gisborne.

Nick’s Head Station, situated at the southern end of Poverty Bay, near Gisborne. Image: Marion Brenner

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View of the Orongo Wetland.

View of the Orongo Wetland. Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz

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Beautifully sculptured gardens surrounding the homestead.

Beautifully sculptured gardens surrounding the homestead. Image: Marion Brenner

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The bridge across the Maraetaha River.

The bridge across the Maraetaha River. Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz

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An example of reforestation on the station.

An example of reforestation on the station. Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz

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It’s a powerful place of memory, Young Nick’s Head, at the southern end of Poverty Bay, near Gisborne. The area is cited as the landing place of the Horouta and Te Ikaroa-a-Rauru waka on which Maori settlers sailed in sometime around 1350. The headland was the first land sighted by the crew of the Endeavour. With people came the start of the decline.

Nick’s Head Station, situated at the southern end of Poverty Bay, near Gisborne. Image:  Marion Brenner

In 2002, New York financier John Griffin acquired Nick’s Head Station, which comprises the promontory, and coastal, wetland and farming areas. Griffin asked college friend Thomas Woltz, of American landscape architecture practice Nelson Byrd Woltz, to inspect the land, which he duly did. Woltz’s description of Nick’s Head as “an ecological disaster zone” may not have been exactly what Griffin was expecting to hear. Issues worth noting: denuded hills and cliffs following gravity’s inevitable call; a ratand- stoat infestation that had long since tolled the bell for migratory bird life; and a significant wetland, drained by previous owners for stock grazing. 

About now this becomes a good-news story: Griffin chose very well when he chose Woltz to repair his land. And, a decade on, the Nick’s Head Station Stewardship Master Plan project has been awarded New Zealand’s highest landscape architecture prize – the NZILA George Malcolm Supreme Award. (Other winners this year include Victoria University’s School of Landscape Architecture for its research into the role of landscape in earthquake planning and recovery and Reset Urban for its revitalisation of Parnell’s Judge’s Bay.)

In accepting the award in Auckland, Woltz revealed himself as a charming and gracious speaker with an aptitude for dispensing credit where credit is due. This award, he said, was due to very close collaboration between an army of specialists and locals: biologists, ecologists, iwi, farmers, landscape architects, architects and conservationists.

Beautifully sculptured gardens surrounding the homestead. Image:  Marion Brenner

Nick’s Head Station is a long-term project, complex and layered, but with many grace notes. One is the Xcluder fence that protects the headland from those aforementioned vermin. In the face of local criticism that it blighted the landscape, Woltz likened it to an ecological version of Christo’s Running Fence. Tuataras now live safely behind this ecological artwork and migratory birds have returned. Shearwaters, petrels and gannets are recalled to the land by what is, apparently, an unholy cacophony issued from a cunningly conceived, solar-powered audio device. Adjacent to the promontory, a wetland has been reconstructed; it’s based in part on a pattern devised by Brazilian landscape maestro Roberto Burle Marx and “designed to look constructed, as a reminder that we can destroy”, says Woltz. There has been revegetation, 600,000 native plants, and a low-slung steel bridge clad with recycled timber to span the flood plains of the Maraetaha River. There are artfully organised citrus orchards and sweeping shelter belts. Farmland has been converted from what Department of Conservation once described as a “marginal economic proposition” into a productive, bestpractice example of what modern farming could be like.

At the historic homestead, beautiful, sculpted gardens intertwine the cultural and ecological narratives that have been distributed across the wider realm. Like the rest of the project, it proves that landscape restoration can be both artful and highly functional – and is something that this country needs more of. As Woltz says, “Agriculture is a place where you can really get your design on, do a lot of good and really transform cultural landscapes.”


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