Soon after the devastation of 2003 Canberra bushfires, the federal government quickly pledged to rebuild the ravaged outskirts of the city and looked at ways to reinvigorate the nation’s political and cultural centre.

The fires had charred some 70 per cent of the ACT’s pastures, forests (pine plantations) and nature parks, and prompted the conception of The National Arboretum Canberra, a 250ha landscaped conservation, scientific, research and educational centre that highlighted the vulnerability of nature.

The design of the arboretum was put to a national design competition in 2004 and attracted Australia’s best landscape architects and urban planners. The winning concept, 100 Forests by Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG), has since reached completion and been busy winning international awards .

100 Forests is located above the shores of Lake Burley Griffin on rolling, elevated topography with panoramic city views. It comprises 104 mini-forests on 2-3ha plots that contain the world’s most endangered tree species. The single-species forest lots contain between 300 and 2000 trees and are arranged via a grid across the undulating topography, which are orientated to align with a civic axis created by the Burley-Griffins.

The Arboretum is host to a series of large sculptures that will, over time, be discovered within the forest landscape. Photograph by John Gollings.

Above: The Arboretum is host to a series of large sculptures that will, over time, be discovered within the forest landscape.
Below: Over time, each forest will host a diverse array of visitor facilities such as picnic areas, art installations and secret gardens, nestled amongst the forest canopies. Photographs by John Gollings.

The TCL and TZG design offers a contemporary reinterpretation of arboreta by including botanically threatened or ethnobotanically significant tree species from around the world into a repository of biodiversity for the future.

Its spatial concept can be explained sequentially through the specially choreographed visitors experience as the move from the outside of the forests into the core. Right from the entrance the visitor is immediately immersed in a portal of forests. The entrance road then twists and turns through the forest before breaking out into the central valley clearing with 12ha of sculpted and terraced landform that reaches up towards the ‘canopy’ form of the Visitor’s Centre building.

The immersion continues as a short walk takes the visitor towards the crest of the hill where a rock-walled ravine has been carved through the earth, enclosing and directing them to the Visitor’s Centre building and toward the heart of the arboretum.

Above: The layout of the trees are distinct for each forest and are designed based on their botanical or cultural qualities for each species. Each TCL designer provided ideas for the 100 forests, with the result of a patchwork of ideas.
Below: Large terraced earth sculptures form the major arrival sequence into the Arboretum. At the base, a carefully designed irrigation system directs water to the dam to redistribute back into the Arboretum. Photographs by John Gollings.

Above: The central valley clearing provides a contrast to the enclosure of the surrounding forests…ceremonial planting down the spine of the central valley and icon planting on the terraces.
Below: ‘Wide Brown Land’ Sculpture. Located near recently planted Washingtonia SP. Photographs by John Gollings.

The Visitor’s Centre orientates visitors to the 100 forest experiences and links the adjacent ‘Pod Playspace’ which creatively engages children with the beauty of trees and fosters a life-long connection to this remarkable environment.

Using the idea of seeds as the beginning life amongst the forest, children and their families can enter a fantasy world of exaggerated scales. A play space with giant acorns float in the sky, and enormous Banksia cones nestle on the forest floor.

100 forests is an important civic and community venue that provides education, interpretation and experiences within some of the world’s most beautiful trees. Beautiful architectural and event spaces engage the visitor to connect with the setting, creating a ‘heart’ to the project which can grow over time, expanding as the Arboretum and city expand. It is a living project and has no completion date. 

The Pod Playground consists of a toddler play area (Banksias), swing set area, older children area (Acorns) and net play to the left of the Acorns. The Acorn area consists of six Acorn
cubby houses varying in height from 2.5 metres to 5 metres above ground. Photograph by Brett Boardman.

Rope tunnels connect four of the Acorns together, creating a clambering play element for children to explore the Acorns. The enclosed rope tunnels also allow heights to exceed 2.5 metres from the ground. Photograph by Gemma Fennell.