Oh, Green World

Ann Sutton Landscape Architecture Project

Ann Sutton was a path-finding South African landscape architect whose deafness added to the sensate details of her extraordinary designs.

She was born hearing-impaired, studied horticulture in London during WWII with German bomber planes flying overhead, had a passion for noble Lipizzaner horses and Dressage, sang loudly in church (despite being deaf), and never allowed the amputation of her lower leg in her later years to get in the way of her extraordinary creativity and working life. Instead, she named her prosthetic leg ‘Marmaduke’, threw ‘wonderful parties’ and poured her energy into doing voluntary work for the broader Franschhoek community.

Her funeral in 2011 was attended by well over 100 friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours who expressed their gratitude for her exceptionally nuanced contributions to both their public and private worlds.

‘Her life is the stuff of screenplays. She was a complete overachiever’

Ann Sutton is responsible for having designed some of the most quietly awe-inspiring landscaped gardens in this country. ‘Her life is the stuff of screenplays. She was a complete overachiever,’ says David Gibbs, who teaches within the urban design, landscape architecture, city and regional planning programmes at UCT and championed the digitisation of her personal archive.

Shortly before her death at the age of 87, Sutton was celebrated by the Institute of Landscape Architecture in South Africa as an ‘Icon of Landscape Architecture’ who ‘pioneered the discipline’ in South Africa.

She was honoured for her inspirational career, her tireless advancement of the profession, for her role in founding the Institute (1963) and establishing the University of Pretoria degree programme (1970), for her social responsibility initiatives – and not least for her personal triumph over disability.

Although much of their work goes unnoticed, subtly passing for ‘nature’, landscape architects are responsible for the design and planning of internal and external open spaces, such as streets, squares, public parks and outdoor and indoor landscaped gardens. Sutton designed for a wide range of private and public clients, working in both natural and urban environments. She began her career in Johannesburg in the 1950s and moved to the Western Cape in the 1980s, where she spent the last three decades of her working life.

Sutton left her collection of professional hand-drawn design and construction plans to the Institute and it is this comprehensive and intimate insider’s view of her thinking and planning that has been digitized as part of the Humanitec project. Each drawing has been carefully unrolled, scanned, and documented.

Numerous projects are represented with series of drawings in successive phases, tracking the chronological development of her work. The online repository features original landscape architectural presentation and technical detail drawings – pages of various sizes (A3, A2, A1, A0) – which were produced by the offices of Sutton and her partners, over an extensive career spanning more than 50 years, and include plans, sections, elevations, and details of many historic and landmark projects.

‘The gardens of The Vineyard hotel are perhaps her most renowned work’

The gardens of The Vineyard hotel are perhaps her most renowned work. Other projects include the Bellingham Winery (with its sculptural landforms); the Schoenstatt Retreat and Conference Centre in Constantia; private projects for South African family dynasties, like the Becks and Ackermans; a private home in Soweto; the boma and braai area at Oudekraal Beach, part of the Table Mountain National Park area; and a project in Turkey.

‘Sadly, a lot of the projects documented in the archive are no longer in existence, having been developed or sold. So they are quite historic in that sense,’ says Gibbs. In addition to some ‘before and after’ photographs of some of her projects, the archive also includes extracts of her personal collection of magazine articles and clippings – things which captured her imagination and give an idea of the pop cultural atmosphere of the times in which she lived.

The digitisation project has been coordinated by Gibbs and Thozama Mputa, A Masters student in Landscape Architecture and recipient of a bursary in honour of Sutton’s legacy. ‘It’s unfortunate that we’re not taught about her in our curriculum,’ she says. ‘We tend to focus on landscape architects from America and Europe or gardens from Asia… Meanwhile here in South Africa there’s so much to draw on. So this project has been very interesting for me.’

Ann Sutton with her younger brother, the preeminent architect Michael Kidd Sutton

Gibbs agrees: ‘There’s not a lot written about her locally at all, which is why this is such an important project. She only died fairly recently and nobody has yet consolidated her biography. But there’s a fascinating story to be told here of a woman who overcame disability.’ Initiated by an idea that her brother and some of her friends had to commemorate her, a biographical publication drawing on the riches of this archive is currently under way (a collaboration between Liana Jansen, Clare Burgess and Gibbs).

Her younger brother, Michael Kidd Sutton, who lives in Greece, is a preeminent architect in his own right. They were always very close. In a blog entry about his early life, he recalls: ‘Unlucky to be born stone deaf but lucky to have loving parents, Bill and Dolly, had the determination and means to give my sister Ann (also deaf) and myself the best possible education; which meant the family moving from South Africa to England just before the outbreak of the Second World War because that was where the best schools for the deaf were.

‘And then there was Monica Martin, who came as I turned two to be governess, teacher, surrogate mother, whose guiding hand was there for us till her death at 90. Ann went to Dene Hollow School, Sussex and then on to Swanley College to graduate in horticulture and landscaping. Our father re-joined the RAF and our mother drove an ambulance during the London Blitz. We all came together on school holidays and in spite of food rationing and bombers overhead, we had a wonderful time wherever my father was stationed with his squadron – Kent, Surrey, Newcastle, Scotland, Devonshire.’

‘She doesn’t just need to be recognized in South Africa; the whole world needs to be told her story’

Later in life, Ann planned and detailed the landscape architecture for many of the buildings that Michael designed, and he designed her home in Franschhoek – an interpretation of the Cape vernacular with long skylights along the ridge of the roof, which was featured in several leading architectural magazines.

‘She doesn’t just need to be recognized in South Africa; the whole world needs to be told her story,’ says Mputa. ‘Cape Town is a global city known and loved by many people around the world and she is part of this city’s history.’

Sutton innovated contextual landscape architecture and planning, prioritizing indigenous plant species and locally sourced construction materials long before these became ‘standard’ sustainable practice. ‘Water wise, indigenous, sustainable – today these are the buzzwords and the most popular things to do. All the ideas that we take as modern and contemporary – she was applying them intuitively right from the beginning,’ says Gibbs.`

‘She introduced indigenous plants into her projects at a time in history when planting was roses was much more popular’

‘Although she did make use of exotics, she introduced indigenous plants into her projects at a time in history when planting with roses was much more popular,’ Mputa adds. ‘She was very forward thinking.’

She was innovative and ahead of her time throughout her life. Although she continued working well into her 80s, she was never left behind. The roof garden at The Vineyard Hotel is just one example of a very contemporary design that she did four or five years before she died.

‘Although her background was strongly horticultural, she didn’t limit herself to plants,’ says Gibbs. ‘She also designed architectural elements within the landscape – from concrete benches to play structures. She would look at her projects holistically, designing the parking lots, entrance structures – anything that tied into how the feel and design of the project at large. Up to 50 years ago, she was innovating the kinds of design elements, which now we take for granted.’

Sutton is also widely acknowledged for her astute business skills, having achieved success as a woman entrepreneur long before women received the recognition they deserve in South Africa. She stood her ground alongside architectural giants (including Revel Fox) on many significant projects and historic sites, transforming their interpretation.

In May 1962, ILASA (the Institute of Landscape Architects of South Africa) was founded by Joane Pim, Ann Sutton, Peter Leutscher and Roelf Botha. This mobilized the next phase of the development of the profession: establishing a university degree course to provide for Landscape Architectural education within South Africa. Prior to this, all Landscape Architects practicing in South Africa had obtained their training abroad – at American or British Universities.

‘She lived a life that was the flipside of the whole ‘family life with the picket fence’ scenario’

‘When she started her practice, there was only one other female landscape architect in the country, and the kind of work that is being done by city planners today was being done by women landscape architects 40, 50, 60 years ago. They were designing whole environments that ranged from huge projects, like the national Botanical Gardens, down to a courtyard or a roof terrace, so they had had to be very bold and confident in what they were doing -- and absolutely competent.’

‘She was very career focused – didn’t have any children, never married. She lived a life that was the flipside of the whole ‘family life with the picket fence’ scenario,’ says Mputa. ‘She did what she wanted to do.

‘Landscape architecture tends to be a male dominated profession, so its great to have a female role model. It also inspires me that she worked on projects nationally in all communities – both in Cape Town and Johannesburg – and even in Soweto. And that she worked on such a broad range of projects for different clients – public and private – parks, botanical gardens, wine farms, townhouses. So the scale varies. I always thought I had to focus on one area – community or corporate – but she’s given me the feeling that I that I can delve into any project at any stage.’

‘Sutton’s deafness gave her the unique ability to tune out all the noise and distraction of the world and spend four or five hours at a time resolving a single drawing’

When Sutton first started her business, her mother would accompany her to meetings and interpret for her. But when the fax machine became popular and then later emails, her life was transformed and she would communicate in writing through those media. ‘She had a lot of friends who assisted her with practical things, but she was always her own person,’ says Gibbs.

Sutton had rare powers of focus and attention. Landscape architect Clare Burgess, a landscape architect who worked in partnership with Ann for while, reflects that Sutton’s deafness gave her the unique ability to tune out all the noise and distraction of the world and spend four or five hours at a time resolving a single drawing.

‘She never allowed her disabilities to hold her back at all. Legend has it that she used to drive at tremendous speed to meet with her clients… Sometimes her prosthetic leg would get in the way, so she would unhitch it, throw it on the back seat and continue driving,’ says Gibbs. ‘I met her a couple of times at year-end meetings of the Institute. I remember one year she got bored so she decided to play noughts and crosses with the person sitting next to her.’ This illustrates her playful sense of humour.

Included in the archive is an address she gave at a school for deaf children, in which she narrated her own life story as a way of offering encouragement to her young audience.

Her design ability in capturing the essence of place was remarkable. Gibbs describes her drawing technique as ‘bold, confident and graphic’. Most importantly, the style of each of her projects was always appropriate to its site. ‘She never applied a single formula,’ he says. ‘She worked in a very site-responsive way. Capable of great complexity, she was able to do geometries that were irregular and to do them very successfully.’ There is also clear development in her work, with innovation at every stage.

Says Mputa: ‘Her drawings are like works of art in themselves. They communicate so much – they are very detailed and richly annotated. She would overlap drawings with words. Every single plant is described. Normally you’d have the plan and the section, but she delved in further with many different views or perspectives of the site.

‘Computer generated designs tend to be modular, whereas her designs are more organic,’ observes Mputa. ‘There is one project in which she talks about the “spiral theme” – she was more adventurous with shapes.

Gibbs is in full agreement. ‘Looking at her drawings, one is struck by a great level of detail, which we seem to have lost a little along the way,’ he says. ‘These days you’ll find that an architectural or landscape project has to be computer rendered from 12 different angles of the same area with fly- through CGI features, which are very impressive, but they don’t necessarily mean that the design is resolved in the way that it has to be when you’ve drawn every single plant and flagstone and every bench.

‘There is so much more that we have to draw, but people have become less literate in the way that they read and produce drawings. I find her approach far more efficient and strategic. It’s comprehensively detailed, but in fewer drawings – and there’s a clarity and simplicity about them. I think we rely too heavily on the technology to design for us. The talent is not in the tool, it’s in the mind. The ability is in you.’

It is envisaged that this repository of heritage information will serve as a research, teaching and learning resource, spurring academic and creative projects now and in the future. The archive provides valuable material for comparative analysis, and as well as raw material for potential PhD research. Sutton was a research-based landscape architect who liked to delve into the archives of the sites she was working on, so it is apt that her life’s work has been formally archived to fuel the same kind of research-based practice in the present and the future.

Alongside the Ian Ford archive, which has also been digitized as part of the Humanitec initiative, Sutton’s archive expands UCT Libraries’ online repository of pioneering South African landscape architectural work.

‘Her drawings are like works of art in themselves… Computer generated designs tend to be modular, whereas her designs are more organic’

About the Curators

David Gibbs is a professional landscape architect, environmental planner and heritage practitioner, with a particular interest in cultural landscape. He holds Bachelor and Architectural Studies and Master of Landscape Architecture degrees from UCT, and has 15 years’ experience across a diverse range of public and private sector built environment interventions. He co-founded the NPO, City People Cape Town, to enable the regeneration and redeployment of underused public spaces. Having co-authored the Mapping Cultural Landscape Syllabus and Toolkit for the Association of African Planning Schools; he also continues to teach within the post-graduate planning programmes at UCT and the graduate technology programmes at CPUT (Cape Peninsula University of Technology).

Thozama Mputa was a Masters student in Landscape Architecture at UCT, having completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Pretoria. ‘I applied for the Ann Sutton bursary and was lucky enough to receive it. When I found out that I was going to be working on this archive project, I was very excited at the prospect,’ she says. ‘I am so moved by her story and her beautiful hand-drawn plans and colour-rendered tracings. Reviewing her work gives us a sense of the methodology she used – starting with photographic documentation of the site and rough concept sketches and developing from there – which is not far from what we’ve been taught.’