A Different Direction

dsc_9650A few years ago I made my first visit to a large rural property outside Ann Arbor. It was very early in the spring. My clients had built a house very much of their own design. My first impression? An American farmhouse with a decidedly contemporary twist. Plain, but plain in a visually strong way. Their property is especially large, given that they had also purchased the house and property next door when it became available. They do the lion’s share of the work it takes to keep up that landscape, spread out over a number of acres. The landscape of their outlying areas is graceful, generous, and unstudied. There is nothing self conscious about the placement of all of the trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that they have planted.  They are good stewards of their land.  They called to ask if I could sketch out a master plan for them. A design that would help make better sense of their love of their property, and their love of plants. They were particularly uncertain about how to handle the landscape near the house. My impression, driving up on this early April day? The front of the house featured the winter remains of ornamental grasses, and mulch-a still dormant garden. A landscape friendly to the architecture would provide this view of their house with some year round interest.

a-different-direction-8R. sent me this picture of the house in the summer. The front yard grade rose from the street, and rolled until it reached the grade of the house. Though the house was set crisply square and level, perfectly matching the horizon, the ground rolled right, dropped off. Rolling ground can be beautiful, but in this case, the ground falling away from left to right made the landscape fall off. A house needs to sit squarely and securely on level ground. One of my favorite places in my landscape is that spot where I might lie down, and feel the earth supporting me. The word foundation has numerous meanings, but that base upon which all else is imagined and constructed comes to mind. As a designer, I am very interested that a house have a flat and spacious ground plane that supports its mass. Right away I knew I would advise my clients to regrade, and add a retaining wall. Their collection of ornamental grasses is lovely, but they do not constitute a landscape. The texture and mass was beautiful in spots, and sparse in others. The tall and the short of it was that neither the grade nor the planting celebrated the geometry of the house.

a-different-direction-11There were other places where those grasses shone. Further down and on the other side of the driveway, they softened the architecture. The interplay between the grasses and the rocks was quite lovely. But this view of the house is not part of the presentation of the house from the road. Ornamental grasses do not sprout until fairly late in the spring-sometimes as late as June in my zone. The house was without a landscape for too many months of the year.

a-different-direction-10The garden attending the walk to the front door was chaotic, and overwhelming to the porch. This picture tells that story. My clients have a big love for ornamental grasses, but I feel they are best in masses of the same kind, and in open areas where they can get big, and wave in the breeze. A pond on another part of the property would be the perfect spot to transplant them.

a-different-direction-9The walk from the front door back to the driveway was equally grassy. They obstructed the view out, and did not relate to the landscape on the far side of the drive.

a-different-direction-15I did a sketch for them for a landscape that would keep the landscape at the front of the house green – all year round. It should be clear from this drawing that their driveway was centered on the house at the road, but angled sharply to the left on its way to the garage. This placement of the drive was of necessity.  A raised septic field on left side of the drive made that area off limits for a drive. That angle made me think a landscape design featuring the horizontal dimension would be good. Sketched in pencil on the left side of the drive near the garage was an unspecified landscape feature, cut into the steep slope and boulder retaining wall constructed for the septic field. My clients like blue green foliage. The block of pinus flexilis “Joe Burke” to the far right would help to visually counter the steep slope away from the house.  A hedge of dwarf Serbian spruce would traverse the entire front of the house, and continue to the drive. A rock retaining wall to level the ground in front would have a hedge of yucca filamentosa in front. Hydrangea Little Lime would provide a little relief to all of the evergreen elements. Given that my clients are hands on, and very involved in the design process, a rough sketch was all they needed.

a-different-direction-21It proved very difficult to locate any dwarf Serbian spruce, so my clients substituted  several rows of Hicks yews, faced down by a spreading yew  “Everlow”. Their rock wall was constructed as a border until the ground dropped off sharply at the end. Planted above that rock wall, as a transition to the grass, is a hedge of Winter Gem boxwood. Just last weekend they came in and purchased a low and very wide steel bowl from Branch, set on top of a volcanic rock pillar.

a-different-direction-20It will take some time for the plants to grow, but it is clear where this layered landscape is going.  I especially like how the lawn panels have such a sculptural quality.

a-different-direction-13This view furthest from the driveway explains how dramatically the ground dropped away. A set of concrete stairs makes the side yard accessible from the front of the house.

a-different-direction-14The flexible pines are planted as a block off the corner of the house.  Eventually they will present as a single organism. They are doing a great job of visually holding up this corner of the house. The exposed foundation of the house is another clue as to how steep the drop in the grade truly is.

a-different-direction-4The Little Lime hydrangeas will greatly soften the architecture of the house.

a-different-direction-1My clients did a great job of creating a landscape feature on the far side of the drive.  It made such great sense to put a staircase in that permits access to that upper level. The steel retaining wall is an interesting contrast to the massive boulder wall. I see they have some sculpture set on that upper level. Someday they might break through the evergreen hedge that separates their property from the property they just purchased. That view has a lot of possibilities. It is particularly satisfying when a client takes a sketch and turns it into a landscape all their own.

 

 

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The Envelope, Please

landscape-plan.jpgOver the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time shoveling out my office. I needed a shovel!  Suffice it to say that I went over every square inch of my office in person, with the idea that I needed to sort through and clean up.  Some plans from 20 years ago did not look all that good to me, several decades later. Why should they?  Client files so old I did not recognize the name-did I need those?  Files of inspirational pictures that no longer seemed very inspirational-did I need these? Piles of notes secured with rubber bands that broke when I touched them-I could no longer remember what I was thinking when I wrote them. A point of view changes over the years-hopefully for the better. Some things from the past don’t warrant saving. I reorganized all of my books to include this past year’s purchases. I swept and dusted. What I did not pitch I updated, rethought, and reorganized. Every plan has a file now. How I love the look. Clean, and organized. Why did I the pitch the records and drawings of certain older work? Any plan that seemed immature or unfinished, not interesting or not built-I pitched them. I am happy to be free of them. Vintage does not necessarily imply valuable. But this plan dating back to 2005 still looked good to me. I remember that the architecture of the house was elaborate – winged.  The center portion of the structure was parallel to the lot, and the street. A pair of east and west wings angled sharply away from formal structure of the center section.

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A residential landscape design needs to consider the siting of a home.  That house will always be the most important feature of a landscape, as it occupies the vast majority of the space. The landscape needs to respond to that. The architect clearly felt that a central entry space would be enhanced by wings at an angle. I was not consulted about the architecture-nor should I have been. My job was to come in after the house was built, and design a landscape that would scoop up that architecture, and detail an interesting and thoughtful relationship between the structure and the property.

landscape-plan.jpgThe front door was immediately adjacent to a tower that housed the stairs to the second floor. The wing of the house off the front door to the east veered sharply to the north.  The wing off the formal dining room to the west veered to the north at a different angle. The footprint of the house was complicated, and intricate. My instinct was to generate a landscape plan that would function like an envelope. An envelope, strictly speaking, is a paper structure designed to hold a letter. That letter may address a number of topics, many of which might veer off east and west as well as north and south.  An envelope – bear with me – is a an enclosure that houses a complex of written ideas.  The plain white envelope that encloses my gas bill is a case in point.  The driveway and landscape of the front entry encompasses with a singular gesture the complexity of the architecture. A white envelope. The paving design of the drive court still interests me.  The surface of the area immediately surrounding the front door area calls out the entrance-this area was to be blue stone.  The areas denoted by diagonal lines was to be concrete aggregate. The dotted areas indicate decomposed granite.

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The grade of this property was very high at the street. That grade fell from the street to the back.  My idea was to place the grade of the driveway at the same grade as the street. And the same grade as the front door. This would involve cutting into the existing land form, building retaining walls to hold back that soil so high, and ending with a route to the front door at grade -as noted in my drawing.  The day I drew this plan, I could imagine how it would be to drive into a steep property, with those hills looming over both left and right, retained by stone.  The driveway would be the next best thing to a trip through a tunnel.  Leaving the grade high at the street meant that a large house would sit down, and have some privacy from the road. A drawing of a landscape plan never rises to the level of a dream. That takes a plan, and a commitment to a thoughtful installation that has room for revision. Any landscape needs the time and opportunity to speak back. Landscape plans provide a place from which to approach a project. This  plan I saved, as it approaches some issues in a way I still think has merit.

landscape-plan.jpgOf course, the back yard sees those site lines from various wings of the house beginning to converge. There was no way to avoid this. The driveway garden with an allee of trees pushes way into the back yard.  The drive court adjacent to the garage entry is formal.  The landscape beyond is equally as formal, and parallel to that drive court.   The rear yard design was parceled into three rooms, each one accessed by a gravel path that began at the driveway, and would eventually turn and traverse the entire rear yard.  The is gravel path is parallel to the wings of the house.  The left wing features a large blue stone terrace that captures a series of intricate twists and turns taken by the architecture. A large portion of the yard off this terrace is a lawn panel. The transition space between the terrace landscape and the pool landscape-a triangular perennial garden.  The central room features a large fountain. The property behind this house is a large golf course, so the rear property line would never be a visual issue. The transition from the pool landscape to the formal garden is another triangular shaped perennial garden.  The right wing, which houses the master bedroom, features a formal garden on axis, and a pavilion with climbing roses and clematis.

landscape-plan.jpgAs jarring as all of these angles seem, from a bird’s eye view, the reality on the ground would be much different.  The perennial gardens would soften the transition from one space to another. The design makes the most of all of the property available.

landscape-plan.jpgThe far east side of the property climbs steeply.  A four foot stone retaining wall would make that slope less steep. I still like the looks of this master plan.  If you are further interested in a closer look at the plans, you can click on each picture for a magnified view. I regret to say that this landscape never got built. Not every landscape plan comes to life. That’s life as any landscape designer knows it. But I still like how it addresses the architecture. I am especially pleased that I had the sense to specify a triangular block of taxus in the front yard, on axis with the front door.  This is my favorite part of this plan. This plan, I kept. The idea that a landscape is an envelope still intrigues me.

 

 

 

At A Glance: Drawings

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