1998 Daniel Firns

With over 25 years’ experience in landscape architectural and urban design practice throughout Australia and overseas, Daniel Firns is a design innovator who combines clear-headed strategic thinking with an instinct for bold ideas.  Daniel is a Design Director at UDLA, providing leadership on design consortium projects of all types and scales.  His approach is driven by an expansive ideas-driven process that is grounded in strong fundamentals.

Daniel graduated from the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture at UWA in 1996 and the Master of Landscape Architecture at UWA in 1998. He was interviewed by Vinoth Kumar, as part of the UWA Master of Landscape Architecture unit LACH4421: Australian Landscapes.

Vinoth Kumar – Why did you choose to study landscape architecture?
Daniel Firns – I was always interested in architecture, planning and geography when I was studying at school. Landscape architecture seemed like something that might address all three. 

VK – What was your most memorable class from your time at UWA?
DF – Each of the design studios were memorable. Specifically, there was a combined studio with fifth-year architecture students, second and third-year landscape architecture students and first-year fine arts students. Our site was Esperance, a coastal town in the state’s south-west. We spent a week there with several lecturers across all three disciplines, did a series of readings and case studies, with an exhibition and a catalogue produced at the end of the semester. That was a fairly memorable studio.

VK – What did you learn at UWA that has been most influential during your career?

DF – The importance of clear, simple and bold ideas, and the ability to communicate and persuade others of those ideas.

VK – What’s one moment that stands out from your time studying landscape architecture at UWA?
DF – While I was working on my Masters, there was a design think-tank set up at the School that was led by Richard Weller – Room 4.13. It became a functioning business, but early on it was very much design-focused; we did lots of design competitions and lobbying. I was privileged to be part of that virtually from day one. That was an exciting time at UWA.

VK – How has your definition and understanding of landscape architecture changed throughout your career?
DF – I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and a fair bit happened in that time. The profession has changed a lot. Initially, we were interested in [identifying an] Australian style of landscape architecture. During this time  we were quite focused the ‘isms - deconstructivism, landscape urbanism, postmodernism. There was a lot of passion from different people in terms of design investigations; the problem, in hindsight, was that our investigations were very much rooted in the idea of landscape as singular or standalone activity; we accepted the metaphysical construct of the garden, we used the visual and spatial language [of the garden] as the building blocks of design.

Now, we're trying to get away from the idea of the garden. At UDLA, we focus on the broader idea of improving people's lives – we look at projects that can help the community. There's been a lot of projects that I've been involved in have involved working intensively with traditional owners from the outset. Most of our projects have relevance in that way.
To sum it up, initially, we were interested in the things that made up gardens; we werebuilding walls around ourselves without realising it. Whereas now, we're outside the garden and more connected to the environment as a natural process, a human process. 

VK – What is one issue that you feel landscape architects have a role in addressing? 
DF – Landscape architects are at our best where we are collaborative, in  interdisciplinary environments. We can help in where we can fill the gaps between technical specialists, between decision-makers. We see things differently – that's largely through the spaces that exist between professions. We tease out hidden connections and synergies [that exist] between the built environment and the intrinsic qualities of a place.

VK – What is one of the challenges you’ve come across in practice?
DF – As landscape architects, our project briefs usually require careful observation, lots of patience, and they require us to put aside ego, which is difficult for designers. Design itself is an ego-driven profession; practice is exceedingly ego-driven. That is probably one of the biggest challenges that you're constantly having to overcome; your own ego. Just because you've come up with an idea doesn't mean it's the right one, in fact, often, it's not the right one. 

You've got to be prepared to embrace ideas, no matter where they come from – whether it's your idea or someone else's, and to assess it on its merit and work through it and be prepared to reject it if a better idea comes along. 

This interview was undertaken in 2022, and has been edited for clarity and cohesion.

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Images: Bremer Bay Town Square by UDLA (via udla.com.au)