Form vs Function in a Modernist Garden

(aka Our Summer MCM Garden Project)

Our front garden has always looked great.

I realise that is a very biased view, but I believe the rustic elements and its bush garden style really complement our 1950s Beaumaris home.  A beautiful Coastal Tea-tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) falls gracefully across the garden and forms an arch through which the front door of the home can be viewed from the street.  Without a front fence, but with a brick retaining wall and deep setback, our home sits proudly (but sympathetically) in view.

Front Yard

I love my home and how it presents itself to the street.  I admit too that I enjoy it when neighbours or passers-by have complemented us on it and the garden it sits in.  We have worked hard on it, so why not enjoy the accolades?!

But recently we have been faced with a challenge.

While looking great and providing a beautiful aesthetic for our MCM home, our front garden was becoming impractical.  Our growing family has struggled to deal with our wonderfully rustic timber sleeper steps.  Pram wheels would rumble and catch on the lovingly laid, random slate pavement.  The gravel driveway with its natural rock walls became too narrow, and getting shopping plus new family members (and a dog) out of the car and upstairs from our quaint little garage was an adventure.

Garden Steps
Our beautifully rustic but treacherous steps!

So plans were made to improve the situation, while raising an age old debate of which Modernism is usually firmly to one side.

Should Form follow Function?

When the modern movement grew after WWI, this idea of functionalism was a key component.  Richard Aitken (in his excellent book on the evolution of Australian landscaping – The Garden of Ideas) describes functionalism as:

“The idea that form might follow function, devoid of ornament and eschewing historical styles” (2010, p.159)

But what is a garden if not an ornamentation of the home?

How can I claim to have a Mid-century modern landscape for my MCM home if it is purely aesthetic?

Our front garden looked great and formed a beautiful mid-century modern frame for our house, but it was impractical.  It is a large space, however it does not offer privacy and is not easily accessed from the living rooms of our home.  We have a lovely paved terrace above our garage which is occupied by an outdoor table setting.  We have never been out there to relax with a cool drink.

Therefore one could argue that the Modernist theory that Form follows Function did not apply to our “modernist” landscape.  Maybe I’m not a modernist after all!

Rethinking our ‘Modernist’ Garden

Something had to be done for us to achieve better use out of our front garden, so over the Christmas break we got stuck in and did it.  As landscape architects, we drew up a plan.

Yes, I actually used the scale ruler!

Then, surprisingly for us, we managed to stick to our original design (often we have differing interpretations of our ideas)!

First we cleaned up the slope to our driveway and built a low wall of bluestone to provide easier pedestrian (ie. pram / pet dog / visitors) access.

Digging into the existing driveway mound to gain some valuable width!
The new driveway edge with recycled bluestone and relaid granite rock wall
The new driveway edge with recycled bluestone and relaid granite rock wall

Then the crushed gravel (Lilydale toppings) that formed the areas around our old mound was dug out (as much as we could) and used to top dress our driveway.


Our bush garden mound was slowly excavated by shovel and the soil pushed forward towards our front boundary to level off the garden.

Digging through the Beumaris sand to excavate our mound.
Digging through the Beaumaris sand to excavate our mound.
Along the way we discovered a pile of volcanic rock we 'hid' beneath our mound!
Along the way we discovered a pile of volcanic rock we ‘hid’ beneath our mound!

We sourced some recycled bluestone blocks (270 of them were dumped in our drive and then carried up our lovely stairs) for garden borders.


Then once it was all level our main expense was the supply of 60 metres of Sir Walter Buffalo turf which took a day to lay.

Just like laying pavers! Sort of.
Just like laying pavers! Sort of.
Turf in and now to clean up the paving!
Turf in and now to water it!

We reused some old bricks and slate pavers we had lying around (ie. in the way down the side of the house) to clean up the pavement and borders of our terrace areas and we were done!

We are pretty happy with the results.  There is now a large open garden that we can use for family activities and a much cleaner terrace that we will start to use on warm Summer evenings!



Our home still looks great from the street (*bias) and rather than blocking views to the features of the home, the garden now frames it.



We had perfectly planned our laying of the turf one week before Melbourne’s extreme heatwave of 40+ degrees (C), but with some diligent watering it has survived really well.  Now all that’s left to do is plant out the garden beds, so it’s off to the nursery this weekend to source some amazing native plants!

Form follows Function

Our garden now indeed follows the ideals of functionalism and I can once again call myself a modernist.  The main spaces of the garden are dedicated to activity and family use, with natural materials providing borders and structure and plants will provide screening, softening and shade.  Once again I can see why I love mid-century style, as by creating a clean and functional garden we have also improved the look of our home and allowed ourselves to fall in love with it once again!

So can be learnt from this project?

  1. Functionalism does not always apply to a MCM garden.
  2. You can find enough bluestone if you look hard enough (thank you to
  3. Recycling of existing materials saves you money and is very rewarding.
  4. It is important to have a good plan and stick to it.  Contact your landscape architect (ie. me)!
  5. Growing families often require a rethink of garden spaces.
  6. Cleaning up and creating a new garden space lets you again fall in love with your MCM home!


Aitken, Richard, 2010, The Garden of Ideas – Four Centuries of Australian Style, Melbourne


11 thoughts on “Form vs Function in a Modernist Garden

  1. Your hard work has come up a treat. I am curious to know, where you will be purchasing your natives from? Having returned to the Bayside area after some years away, I was fairly disappointed to find out that Tree Planters in Springvale Rd is now closed. Apart from our wonderful indig nursery in Reserve Rd, where does one go for natives and the like?

    Keep up the great work with Grasstrees, always a pleasure to dip into.


    1. Thanks Jennie! We got stuck into the planting over the long weekend and went to a couple of places for our native plants. We like Din San (in Dingley) and Plantmark (they have a couple of outlets) however both of those are wholesale nurseries so you would need a trade card. The people at Treeplanters are friends of ours and it was a shame that they closed. I think it just got too expensive to operate the nursery and they felt it was time to move on. It was a great place for natives though!

      If you like I can email you a list of local nurseries. Just send me an email with your details and I’ll get back to you!


      1. Hi Jason

        Thanks for your reply. You should get my email address from this, so, I’ll be keen to get a nursery list from you. Surprisingly, the Mentone Bunnings seems to have a reasonable selection of natives, but to get indig plants is another matter.

        Hope your new plantings survived today’s heat.



        Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2014 22:11:51 +0000 To:


Comments are closed.