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Monday, December 14, 2015

Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture as a stand-alone work of art.
Real estate agents tell us one of the major factors influencing the selling price of a house is something they call "curb appeal." Basically, that has to do with a would-be buyer's first impression. It is comprised of two different elements, the house itself, and the environment surrounding it--everything from the general neighborhood to the daffodils by the front steps. In the past, I've dealt at length with the different styles of domestic architecture. Not surprisingly, a buyer's taste in architecture makes up well over half of this first impression. But the landscaping, a second type of architecture, that which frames the house, and literally completes the property, has, over the past several hundred years, become more and more important to the owner's overall happiness in living with his or her (or their) decision to buy.

Landscaping which enhances but does not compete with the house itself.
There are basically two types of landscape architecture, that which stands alone, quite apart from any traditional architectural structure (top) and that which is subservient to the some type of structure--a beautiful dress on an otherwise naked (in the worst sense of the word) woman (above). I'm sure we've all seen instances where a control freak has decided to dominated every aspect of their property decorating it was way too many flowers, cutesy lawn ornaments, topiary masterpieces, and dozens of other forms of horticultural excess to create a nightmarish environment only they could love (bottom). One has the urge to post an anonymous note on the front door bearing the old Modern Art mantra, "less is more." In short, landscape architecture is a trained profession. As practiced by rank amateurs, it's often almost (but not quite) as dangerous as the work of an amateur building architect. It can certainly be as unsightly.

We named out "estate" Slopewood.
The backyard waterfall I designed and
built replaced the old steps down into
the pool.
I've had experiences in both areas. I designed our home making some costly, (but so far, non-lethal) mistakes, and did the landscaping out front in much the same manner--by instinct. In both cases, those instincts have served us relatively well. However, one of the major differences between the two architectural disciplines is that the landscape architect is dealing with living entities while the traditional architect has only to worry about changes brought on by age and weathering. Our landscaping went for some twenty-five years completely unchanged except for the fact that it grew nearly unfettered to the point it not only competed with the house but threatened to totally obscure it. My wife grew to hate it. So, on her own, she arranged for a professional to rip out everything I'd planted and replace it with a wide variety of new plantings based upon expert knowledge of what would survive and flourish in a woodland environment (parts of our landscape never see direct sunlight). At the same time we also took out the old in-ground swimming pool, replacing it with a pleasant garden area, the centerpiece of which is the waterfall I added later.

The French seek to dominate nature, the English to emulate it.
Almost from the very beginning when landscaping became a profession, there have been two styles, which are often referred to as simply French and English. The French style is formal, the English is informal. The English style appears to be (but usually isn't) quite natural. The Moorish Alhambra (below) in southern Spain is fairly formal, as are (for the most part) the gardens of Versailles (above, left). One of the first known landscape architects was the Englishman, Henry Hoare, who designed the country estate setting for Stourhead in Wiltshire, England (above, right) and had a great deal of influence in establishing the informal English aesthetic in landscape architecture. There's also the Oriental aesthetic--Chinese and Japanese--which have varying formal and informal elements, though fortunately, they're seldom seen together.

The Moorish Alhambra may be more famous for its gardens than its palaces.
As with all architecture, there exist buildings both private and public--homes and community assets. Although the two basic styles apply equally to both, most individuals homeowners tend to prefer the informal to the formal, if for no other reason that the fact it tends to demand less upkeep. In the past I've visited two of the best examples of each type. The Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, despite being French, tended to prefer the informal though there is a loose formality to his landscaping of his home and gardens at Giverny, on the Seine River west of Paris (below). It would seem that Monet had much the same problem with his landscape getting out of control as I did. Up close, near the picturesque country home, the gardens serve to enhance the setting. But move back, less than a hundred yards, and they completely take over, all but causing the house to disappear. Of course, in Monet's mindset, that may have been intentional...the gardens a pleasant luxury, the house a mere necessary nuisance.

The gardens near the house tend to be formal while across the road, the famous Japanese gardens seem almost wildly informal as can be seen on the map.
On the public side of the landscape architecture ledger one of the most fascinating examples I've ever encountered rests atop a "mountain" ridge in the Brentwood section of L.A. overlooking a busy freeway and some very expensive Bel Air real estate--the Getty Center Museum. The art is great, the building, attractive in a minimalist, Postmodern sort of way, but the landscaping... It's easily worth your while to visit the place just to see what Robert Irwin hath wrought. Water plays a major role in Irwin's garden, starting with a fountain near the restaurant, which flows toward the garden. It appears to fall into a grotto on the north garden wall. From there the stream flows down the hillside into the azalea pool. A tree-lined stream descends to a plaza, as the walkway crisscrosses the stream. It continues through the plaza, before going over a stone waterfall (below) into a round pool. A maze of azaleas floats in the pool, around which is a series of specialty gardens. More than 500 varieties of plants were used for the Central Garden.

The Getty Center landscape architecture.
The possibilities are limited only by the landscape
architect's imagination and the clients wallet.
If you were to hire a landscape architect what you would see first might look a good deal like the layout below, with the outer walls of your house accurately rend-ered and various features drawn in around it to the same scale. Each plant is named with various detailed notes include-ed to inform the client and guide the foreman as the various structural and horticul-tural elements are merged. Many landscape architects also include perspective rend-erings in full color to win over reluctant clients once they've had a look at the total cost of the project. Often the cost can rival that of the house itself, especially if the house was built several years before when construction costs were less.

The perspective view (and often the plan itself) can be created using
a special CAD program designed for the purpose.

On a large scale such as this, the landscape architect
might well become involved in city planning.
Of course the dream of every landscape architect is to join a team of designers creating a developmental master plan for a large commercial, office, apartment, or housing com-plex (perhaps including all of the above). The designer's imagination can really run wild when money is virtually no object and spectacular is the key word in every evolving presentation. Such a master plan might very well resemble the color portion of the drawing at right. To the other extreme, a landscape arch-itect just starting out might find himself relegated to designing a flowerbed (below)...then act-ually planting the flowers.

The artistry of the flower bed.

The landscape nightmare on Elm Street. Too much is quite enough.


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