Profile: Phil Gall, Architect

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Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

It was a younger Phil Gall, writing for Source in 1971, who set out into Victoria’s East Gippsland to report on a monumental natural farming conference. He came back with a prophetic glimpse into holistic agriculture that informs his design work today.

Phil is a youthful seventy-five, living and working in Bermagui on the far south coast of NSW. As an architect, landscape designer and specialist in water management, he sees himself as a problem solver.

Phil is renting an old holiday shack, brought down and reassembled from the Snowy Mountains, looking out over Wallaga Lake. ‘The place is cold in winter and hot in summer,’ he says, but it is surrounded by the beauty of the landscape, and he is enjoying a sweet and simple life there.

Phil grew up on the west coast of Tasmania in the 1940s–50s. ‘My father knew how to get by in the bush without much – scouting and camping in an extreme climate of rain and cold. I learned how little you need, in terms of shelter, in order to be comfortable. Mum used to say, “Before you buy anything, see if you can make it”.’ These values still inform his work today.

Phil’s first love was architecture, and when his father moved the family to Victoria for work Phil studied architecture in Melbourne. What we now call sustainable architecture was Phil’s natural inclination, following the influence of his parents. But it was some time before he found others who shared this interest.

“In the 70s we were inspired and hopeful with unbounded energy. We were involved in everything together. We had hope and a belief that we only needed a few people to change the world. We pulled down fences between our backyards and shared our fruit trees and produce,” explains Phil.

A great collaborator, Phil was involved in setting up some of Melbourne’s most enduring alternative institutions–CERES, Collingwood Children’s Farm and Friends of the Earth. He also designed the first Steiner kindergarten in Melbourne, in Warranwood.

Phil’s natural inclination was to design buildings and landscapes with recycled materials and an understanding of the seasons – what we now call sustainable architecture.

But architecture, Phil’s primary trade, was not enough by itself. He sensed that there was more. In 1971, years before permaculture came about, he worked for an alternative newspaper titled Source. ‘We started this newspaper to publish good news, inspired by similar publications in the USA,’ explains Phil. ‘My brief was design, ecology and farming, which I was very passionate about.’

So it was in 1971 that Phil set out for Paynesville, 300 km east of Melbourne in East Gippsland, to a natural farming conference hosted by local farmers. It was there that he met PA Yeomans, Alex Podelinski and Peter Bennett – experts in their fields of keyline water management, biodynamics and organic gardening respectively.

‘They were able to answer the farmers’ questions, and explain the science of why organics works in simple language’, says Phil. ‘I’d already started thinking about architecture ecologically, and the landscape being ecological, so they were adding to it the farming and the gardening thing. Everything fitted into place – I just wanted to add it all together.’

Some years later, in 1977, Phil recalls a phone call out of the blue – from a man calling himself Mollison. ’Bill came to visit and ended up staying on the couch, and I took him about to see what I’d been doing in the landscape, with companion planting, mixing vegetables with landscape, using drip irrigation systems and putting food plants in and making them decorative in gardens.’

Permaculture had arrived, and Phil was able to bring all of his experience together and began teaching. Phil introduced Bill Mollison to PA Yeomans at a course he was holding called ‘Land, Plant and Water’.

Phil later met David Holmgren and they became fast friends. ‘I was older, and I was a misfit, but I was young at heart. I consider David a mentor’, Phil says.

Phil is someone who will never stop learning. When asked what simple wisdom he can offer to the younger generation coming behind him, Phil replies, ‘We can become more sensitive – to appreciate that we only exist because of nature.’

Phil Gall runs Design Evolution – architecture, landscape design and water management solutions. Contact him at phil@designevolution.net.au

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