Translating plantscapes: Xanthe White Design

There’s a certain “softness” about Xanthe White’s landscapes. They're lush yet ethereal; dense yet comfortable and calming. That’s exactly why her studio, Xanthe White Design, was chosen for a project at the Shenzhen Botanical Gardens.

Jumping on a plane to China on the 8th of January 2020, White had no idea the world was about to change and the country she had flown to would, within weeks, be all over the news as a hotspot for a mysterious infectious virus. White was in China to source materials and plants for the botanical gardens project she had just been commissioned. “When I selected these pieces of stone in a quarry in the hills outside Shanghai, Covid had already begun to change the world, although we didn't know it,” says White.

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Concept drawings for the Shenzhen Botanical Gardens project | Photo: Supplied

“I hadn’t been to China before 2020, although I’d worked all over the world in places like Paris, Singapore, and Japan,” she adds, speaking of the international landscape design “circuit” she was a part of and hence was scouted by Hongyue Flower Co., a horticultural company that specialises in researching, importing, and production of gardens. “Hongyue were sort of like our agent; they contacted us and asked us if we would do a project with them,” White says. “We were to do the design, and they took care of the translation, timelines, contractors, etc.” It was an honour to be chosen, she adds, which can partially be credited to the soft plantscapes in Xanthe White Design’s portfolio which mesh well with the Chinese ideal of calm, natural, non-intrusive and quiet green spaces.

Less than three months later, New Zealand had been plunged into its Level 4 lockdown, whilst China was just coming out of one. “This project was a lockdown lifesaver,” explains White, “it was a big piece of work, working for a client in China, in a time where running a business in New Zealand was a very financially precarious and scary situation to be in.” It enriched the studio’s working dynamic, too. “It showed us that yes, actually, we can work successfully remotely. Sometimes all you need it 20 quality minutes with someone, sometimes just five quality minutes.”

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Tranquility in the gardens | Photo: Supplied

Technology, of course, made it all possible. But it wasn’t Zoom and e-mail that facilitated this project between Auckland and China: it was WeChat. “And what an incredible privilege, at a time when the world was being pulled apart,” White muses, “to come together and make friends with people we’d never met, be partners on a creative project, and make a beautiful piece of work together.”

The merging of formal and informal communications via the channel of WeChat, however, took White and her team some time to get used to. “Sending professional documents like contracts and 3D files over WeChat took me a while to get comfortable with,” White says. “But we’d been using Slack, which made it a lot easier to work with informal systems. We’re always keen to adopt new technical tools.”

It was through WeChat White was able to wake up every morning to her drawings and models coming to life. “The degree of ‘live’ communication (with drone videos and such) made us feel very present and involved. I would send photos of a model I'd done from my house at home - from my couch in Auckland during lockdown - using playdough. The next day, it would be made.”

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The softness of a plantscape, revealed | Photo: Supplied

However, the level of communication with those on the ground in China wasn’t as simple as that. “There was a level of respect: it was really important to understand that just because it was your idea, they are designing and making it. They’re as much a part of it as you are,” says White. This is where the concept of storytelling came in most valuable. Construction of a landscape is a partnership, White believes, and you need to find a balance and harmony between concept and realisation.

“You need to tell them [your contractors] the idea behind what you’re doing, not just tell them to do the work,” she says. “I would write little narratives on WeChat saying, ‘imagine this or that in Springtime…’, or I’d send abstract photos of water or fire moving… it’s presenting a concept, sharing and swapping stories, and having respect for the design process.”

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One Thousand Pictures from above | Photo: Supplied

Naturally, there are many horticultural differences when it comes to species available in New Zealand and China, so a collaborative approach to choosing plants was needed. “I would send over a list of New Zealand natives, and they would have never heard of them,” White laughs. “But it’s a fusion: they would come back to you, with an understanding of what is available locally, and pull out the ‘essence’ of your idea by translating their plant knowledge.”

The Shenzhen Botanical Gardens project (named  "One Thousand Pictures") is now complete, and while in normal times White would have been able to see it in real life multiple times, the current realities mean all she has only seen the finished project virtually. The studio is already working on another project with Hongyue in China, called "Metamorphosis". It is currently being built. “Being given the opportunity to work freely, with someone [Hongyue] giving you the freedom to think, is a real privilege,” says White. “You don’t get that until someone trusts you and backs you 100 percent. This opportunity has been priceless for future opportunities in all contexts.”


Work begins on "Metamorphosis", Xanthe White Design's next project | Photo: Supplied

-        Asia Media Centre

Banner photo: Xanthe White in her natural habitat.