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  • Writer's pictureLawrie Smith AM

Remembering World Expo '88

World Expo 88 was staged in Brisbane in 1988 to commemorate the Bicentenary of Australia and I was fortunate enough to be selected and appointed as the Director of Landscape.


The Expo theme was 'Leisure in the Age of Technology' and this coloured everything that we experienced during that amazing six-month period.


Over 18 million people attended everyday and night, crowding that expansive riverside site on the Southbank of the Brisbane River and enjoying every minute. We loved Expo and did not want it to stop, ever! Today, thirty-five years later, people who experienced that 'magic' still recall vividly the fantastic spectacle that transformed Brisbane into a truly international city, placed firmly on the world stage!


“Queensland Premier John Bjelke Petersen announced that Brisbane would host World Expo 88, and I was fortunate enough to be selected and appointed as the Director of Landscape in 1983.”

Since visiting my first international exposition in Vienna in 1974, I became an 'Expo Junkie'. I continued to visit as many of these world events as possible over the years, vowing to do whatever I could to ensure that Australia hosted such an event. Not ten years later, Queensland Premier John Bjelke Petersen announced that Brisbane would host World Expo 88, and I was

fortunate enough to be selected and appointed as the Director of Landscape in 1983.


I don't intend to remind you of all the amazing facets of Expo '88. That would take too long! However, at this anniversary time, I want to share some of the more interesting aspects of how together with Jan Sked as my long-term horticultural advisor, we ensured that the landscape of World Expo 88 was dominantly Australian native plants.


Firstly, we needed a floral emblem – it had to be Australian and display the national green and gold colours, it had to be a Queensland plant that was easily grown, and it had to flower during Expo '88– the answer was simple Xanthostemon chrysanthus renamed 'Expo Gold' – that basically introduced this beautiful tree into the wide cultivation we see today.


On being appointed as landscape architect for Expo, Sir Llew Edwards charged me with a unique responsibility when he said – "I want this to be the greenest Expo ever, and I want to see it as beautiful and colourful on the first day, and the last day, and every day in-between. Can you do this?" Without thinking of the consequences, I said, 'Yes, Sir Llew, we will!" So many people have since told me this was done, so it must be true!


The landscape planning for Expo '88 meandered throughout the site in a series of precincts, each with a specialised plant community and character that reflected the various participating nations. Of course, the Australian Precinct was paramount! Aussie plants first met you at the various Expo entrances and followed you as the site was explored. A hundred or so Xanthorrhoea were used to advantage around the River Stage. Thanks to teenage efforts to see entertainer Jimmy Barnes, they became high-level vantage points on day three! Doryanthes excelsa and palmeri were variously used as focus plants. I lost a bet with the nursery supplier that they would not flower during Expo '88 – they did!



How do you grow a rainforest in a couple of years? This I pondered for a while as a Rainforest was obviously needed to distinguish the Queensland pavilion forecourt. A lightbulb moment! The only way to make a huge spectacular forest was to erect sixty poles up to sixteen metres tall and clothe them entirely with thousands of epiphytes – ferns, orchids, vines, scramblers, spill over plants, anything that was appropriate – the Epiphyte Forest is likely the first major 'green wall' created anywhere! Add special effects of fogging and mist, lighting for night effect, and the sounds of crickets, frogs and birds; then project images of rainforest canopy over the huge Sun sails that protected the forest. Hey presto! You are walking through the Daintree!


Now on the river side of the Australian and Queensland Pavilions, a giant crescent-shaped sloping bank was forming the River Stage. We could not accept a bland retaining wall (remember what Sir Llew said to me), so I turned the concrete blocks on their sides, and we now had thousands of square holes facing the sun to be filled. So commenced the Aussie Living Mural formed by potted massed bedding plants,one per block hole, collectively displaying a different geometric mural designin living colour changed monthly.


That's all very well, but Nature decided to take a hand and a couple of weeks before opening day, the Lockyer Valley experienced a gigantic storm, and a two-metre wall of flood water washed through Pohlman's Nursery and all of the 60,000 bedding plants just budding perfectly, were unceremoniously deposited into Lockyer Creek. What do we do? The specially designed green, gold and yellow mural must proceed. Nurseries throughout Australia were contacted, and sufficient potted plants were found in Gundagai – but they were white Chrysanthemums!!


Nevertheless, transport them up, and we will decide what to do. On opening Day eve Jan, myself and a dozen or so students from Grovely TAFE college spent the night spray painting every one of the white flowers gold or yellow, then placing them in the block holes and connecting drip irrigation to each! The result was magnificent!


Perhaps the largest landscape area was the Pacific Lagoon. This large precinct was centrally located and planned, with the large lagoon symbolising the Pacific Ocean, with the pavilions of the Pacific rim nations located around the edge, including New Zealand, Japan, the United States, and the nations of the South Pacific. The expansive lagoon dissolved into a series of meandering waterways that defined sites for each island nation. To create the pacific island coral cay character, the once-mined Moreton Bay coral beds were reopened, and the coral was brought to the Expo site and spread over the surface to make that unique character. The precinct was shaded by a thousand Archontophoenix alexandrae palms insteadof Coconut Palms due to climatic intolerance. They were placed at various angles, not straight, and looked natural!


The Boardwalk at the eastern end of the site, together with the adjacent Primary Industries Pavilion, displayed an edible landscape of Australian native foods as well as ever-changing commercial crops for which Queensland is renowned.


We needed larger shade trees along the boulevards, and in the eighties, there were no tree farms as we know them today. So we advertised for local people to offer trees in their front yards for transplant. We had to check each offer and, if possible, given site constraints, dig and plant the tree in huge containers to be taken back to the nursery to stabilise and return to form before planting on site perhaps two years later. Waterhousia floribunda, Schefflera actinophylla and Callistemon viminalis were some of the species found suitable.


That's just some of the many things we needed to do during the five years leading up to Opening Day. Although some were trial and error, we devised and developed a computerised system to direct the tender/acquisition/ design/construction process for the plant material and keep track of the countless thousands of specimens we needed. Jan became a computer whiz kid using Filemaker Pro, without which it would not have been as seamless.


Finally, our role did not stop on Opening Day but continued every day and night for six months. Remember, Sir Llew told us that the Expo landscape must be perfect daily! So, yet another SGAP person was invited to be part of the process. David Hockings was a DPI Officer and was seconded to Expo '88 for the duration to use his well-known abilities with plants and horticulture. After the crowds left the site each night, we had to scour the site to find plant problems, such as garden tramping or spent flowers, and direct the maintenance staff to rectify everything ready for opening the next morning.


Being part of World Expo ‘88's creation was a once-in-a-lifetime and unforgettable experience! During the six years Carmel and the family must have often wondered where I was, as being Expo Landscape Director involved lots of travel in Australia and overseas, lots of time in planning and design, and lots of meetings with the various participating nations to ensure the landscape we were planning around their pavilions was suitable.


But it was worth every minute because "Together We Showed the World!"

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