Looking purely at the historical evolution of the Australia’s residential outside spaces, things have changed mightily in a just a few decades.

In the school playground context, the same cultural and environmental issues are not the only driving forces behind briefs. Contemporary landscape design for institutions of an educational persuasion must respond to the clientele brief, as well as contending with frequently being the lowest priority when it comes to space and funds. 

Anthony Russo of Melbourne-based firm Orchard Design has successfully broached and dissolved these concerns on several occasions, with one main thought throughout.

“It has to be an exciting place, where children want to be,” he says. “It has to be for young people.” 

“It has to link to the natural world – be tactile, be real.” All to relieve kids of what is often perceived as an almost unbeatable screen addiction. 

In his latest design for the striking works at St Francis Xavier College, Officer campus, Russo took inspiration from the environment, a concept of rich, rammed earth walls, matched with solid timber benches, in a sea of compacted gravel.

There is no evidence of the schoolyard mainstays of chip bark and rows of bench seats. The whole scene is one of a natural, hard wearing yet welcoming environment. Social space here also has a deeper need.

Part of the brief was to create a ‘sacred’ space. Within the campus there is an allocation for a yet-to-be-built chapel. What Russo has included at this stage is a bell tower and the cross tower, elements that enhance the peace into the already calm communal space.

Orchard Design’s other challenge was a quite dramatic level change. It was here he created a dramatic sweep of amphitheatre tiers.

“The spaces in a school have to serve many purposes, quiet space, social space, event and performance space. It has to be functional.”

But it doesn’t have to be dull. In fact, Orchard Designs finds reward in creating function in the creative abstract because, as he says, “the kids get it. They are discerning, articulate and have an astute sense of design.”

A thought echoed by Mark Tyrell, of Tyrell Studio in Sydney. Functionality is one thing, but you need a pleasing aesthetic. “Kids do pick up on that,” he says.

His work on the Beverly Hills Girls School is an example of exterior rooms, defined by white precast concrete with white oxide formed benches around black trunked trees, this low maintenance space is designed is clearly social.

“Yeah, exactly,” says Tyrell. But the truly eye-catching feature here is a retaining wall that is anything but utilitarian. It is quite beautiful, faced in glazed bricks in shades of mauve, pink and white. 

“There are Jacaranda trees on the sight, and I remember that Jacaranda trees, when they bloom, means its summer, and the school year is about over. So, I took that idea, matched the colours, scanned them in and had the bricks glazed.” 

The background to this is an unusual ground cover product is both rugged and attractive. A bonded aggregate that is porous, allowing it to be laid right up to the living bark of the trees, creating a seamless canvas.

A more graphic Tyrell Studio design is found in Moorebank High School. This school is situated on the Cumberland Plains, and cues from the landscape were too strong to ignore – though who would want to?

Beyond the greys and muted greens found in the mortar and cement works, (softened by indigenous planting), is the mural of a giant black magpie on a massive, flat yellow wall.

“They are so present in the environment,” says Tyrell. “They are part of the scene.”

It is lively, energetic and entirely counterintuitive to traditional school layout. It’s brilliant. 
It’s futuristic in a world where space is becoming an issue across the board, and designers must think outside the box – or above it.

“We built this on the roof,” says Tyrell of his latest playground, found on top of the Anzac Public School building in the Sydney suburb of Cammeray. 

“We had to think about outdoor space in a completely new way.”  

Outlines of various game courts and are embedded in the synthetic grass surface, as is a running track. “The kids run on that all the time, just round and around and around,” says Tyrell.  

A further shock in this high-as-the-sky playground are four bright yellow slippery dips, accessed via the amphitheatre steps. One cannot imagine this passing a parents’ committee even ten years ago, but this is how design and designers have changed the school landscape. They are willing, indeed keen, to be bold and brave.

 “As kids use them in very energetic ways, we surface the concrete with shock pads, which is essentially a bit like a gym matt. The synthetic turf is then stitched together over the top of that.” 

A matrix of fun – albeit several storeys in the air – that will stand the test of time (and thousands of handstands) from the future home owners of Australia.