It was 28 degrees when I drove to work this morning-chilly.  The frost was unmistakable.  Chilly and frosty can apply to other things besides the weather.  Modern architecture can be a testament to everything nature is not-spare to the point of bare, intellectual, rigorously geometric-sometimes chilly.  One client with a modern house observed that it takes a certain kind of person to be able cheerfully set up camp in a sculpture. Thw landscape attending this modern house had gotten a little out of control; the repeating weeping birch were depressingly uneventful.  The untrimmed ivy diluted the impact of the multiple walls and changes of level that intended to make the landscape a compelling extension of the house.

Trimming the ivy made a huge improvement.  This property has little flat ground; Irving Tobocman designed a house for this site that occupies most of the existing level ground.  Those of you who live in my area know the work of Irving Tobocman.  His passion and gift for architecture is a legend well deserved.  My first contact with him was almost 25 years ago-I witnessed him mopping the floor with a fellow landscape designer who dared to insert his own landscape ideas between Irv and his final realization of a project. Suffice it to say it still remember the encounter. But this day that this ivy got pruned up-a happy day for me.  Those massive retaining walls were visually representing what he intended-an interesting conversation about natural and man made spaces .

My clients own a home designed by Irv in the 70’s-it is breathtaking.  Forgive my lame description, but the structure is low, very large and imposing, spot on simple, and modern.  The exterior hard surfaces fan out from the house; they are visually influential in size and scope.  The interior spaces soar and speak-they inspire awe.  I am sure he had a hand in every material and move from the brick cladding to the kitchen layout to the light switch covers. My observation?  Those clients who take on and choose to live in a house drenched in this kind of passionate creativity-they are game, and confident people.

My clients engaged Mr. Tobocman to consult and update when they bought the house-knowing they were asking for a cyclone, a firestorm, and a substantial outpouring of opinion.  They obviously weathered all of this with him-to good end.  But almost every outdoor surface is paved over; the massive front doors are inset, and part of a porch which is really a terrace.  Nothing green intrudes on this view.

I thought this space would benefit from a warm-up; we are trying out a pair of contemporary Belgian teak boxes.  The wood is a good look with the doors, and warmly contrasts with all of the brick.  Planters low enough not to obstruct those astonishingly large windows, but large enough to permit a personal expression-a great mix. The skylight in the roof washed the front door area with light; there will be no problem getting something to grow here.

The three large brick boxes topped in baltic ivy are very stark.  What could be done here that would better enhance the impact of the architecture?

The vertical faces of the walls had aged in a not so attractive way, but the top surfaces of all of these walls are perfect. Facing two of the brick boxes down with boxwood changes the relationship of the mass of the house to the property in a good way. The house seems a little more gracefully integrated into the landscape.

The front door terrace can be accessed by staircases from both the east and west side of the brick box that abuts the driveway.  A collection of contemporary stoneware planters can be arranged in a number of different ways.  My circular arrangement strongly contrasts with the dominant rectilinear shapes.

These pots could be planted, or not.  They could be planted such that the top soil surface would be well below the rim of the pots.  The planting would only be visible at close range. They could be planted all the same, or all different.  The pots could be rearranged to suit a season or occasion.

We scraped off all of the weedy grass in this small space, in preparation for quietly sculpting the lawn plane.  The soil was low; the ground usually soggy. A carefully graded green plane would set off this beautiful view of the house.

I think once the boxwood grows enough to be pruned level,  the landscape will have a deliberately tailored, but warmer look.

A Modern Landscape

I am sure every city in every state in this nation has those larger than life, extraordinarily talented people who produced design that endures.  My city has many examples of residences conceived and built by Harold Turner. This master builder, responsible for the construction of many buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, went on to build a number of residences in my city whose beauty still shines so many decades later.  I am not an architectural historian, nor am I well versed in the life of Harold Turner, but I knew my client had purchased a home of architectural and historical significance.  My part of this-study that building, the grades, the views,  the spaces-and make a move in concert.            

The living room of the house faces the rear of the property.  Floor to ceiling windows ask for the outside to work seamlessly with the inside, and provide year round interesting views. A wide open L shape, each wing of which is some 30 feet by 14 feet,  describes on the ground plane a pair intersecting glass walls.  Terraces at either ends of the wings suggests a landscape which permits leisurely travel from one end to the other. 

The strict geometry of this rear profile of this Turner house filled my head with curves.  How so?  The glass prow is so strong, why would I interpret or dilute that gesture?  Repeating the geometry he established for the house-what need would there be?  It seemed to me that a simple but sculptural landscape that made much of the view the design of the house made possible was in order.  

This landscape plane was entirely grass when I first came to visit. A default design.  This space had no need of a mower-it had need of a landscape of interest that would look good in any given season.  The journey from the library side of this house, to the master bedroom side of this house-it seemed to me that a path would figure large in the landscape design. The stone retaining wall casually stacked and irregular in shape seemed out of keeping with the palette of materials established by the house.  An initial hedge of Green Velvet boxwood screens that stone from view, and encloses the space.   

Decomposed granite is a favorite material of mine.  I mulch plants, I build driveways, I compose entire landscapes around that material that brings the parks in Paris to mind.  A walkway all about generous curves seemed a good companion for this house. My client does like to entertain; the wide walk makes for places for guests to visit, and good circulation.  The granite is a quietly versatile material that echoes the surface of the existing concrete aggregate.  Used in conjunction with steel or aluminum edging, it can cleanly outline interesting shapes.

There is always the danger that a small space will become a corridor to somewhere else-a visual racetrack, if you will.  Planting another series of boxwood, set perpendicular to the house and boxwood hedge, will slow down the traffic.  Unlike the boxwood in the hedge, these plants are placed in the bed, and in the gravel individually.  Individually placed plants read as individual sculptural elements.   

Seven sets of three plants each are placed such that the gravel walk space opens and closes.  Pachysandra fills the empty spaces in the beds; when grown in, their mass will reinforce the pattern of the walk.     

There will be decisions to be made about the pruning.  The hedge could be boxed-the individual boxwoods pruned as spheres. Or vice versa.  The boxwoods set in gravel could alternately be pruned as squares and spheres.  The distinction that is drawn between the inidivdual plants and the hedging plants will be an important part of how the landscape reads visually.  We will see what direction my client is inclined to take.  Beyond this decision, the maintenance will be minimal. 

The View

Aug 28a 858
As you can see from this early construction picture, a good portion of the exterior of this house was slated for glass. I would not call these windows; this is glass as a building material.  Given that I was able to see the back wall of the house from across the street, a good bit of the landscape design would involve attention to the views-from inside out, and outside in.  Though the architect would be installing blinds that could be operated via an electric switch, the client was interesting in flooding her home with as much light as possible.

Aug 28a 309Luckily glass reflects light during the day.  Her life would not be on visual review from all the neighboring properties-except at night.  Given the very small size of the lot, the architect had designed a basement garage accessible from a sharply pitched drive.  I did admire how he managed to exclude the garage from the visual presentation of the of the house. The garage is rarely the most beautiful feature of a home.  It was necessary to retain the soil surrounding the house in order to permit a drive surface below grade.  This was accomplished cleanly with corrugated steel capped in corten.

Aug 28a 304The house is very tall, and the stone and glass edifice is starkly contemporary.  The land unoccupied by the house amounted to an L-shaped strip barely wider than the right of way between the street and the sidewalk. Some homes are architecturally demanding buildings.  By this I mean their sculptural element dominates the space.  My client has a big love for contemporary art and  architecture-such that the prospect of living in a sculpture appealed to her. It was my job to design a landscape that would in no way interfere with the one thought-the sculpture that would also provide a home to her.  This landscape would in no way be about plants; it needed to be about sculpture too.

Aug 28a 303The slanted steel roof presented its own problem-how to handle rain water.  A drainage system was designed, and approved by the city. It was very expensive, but it prevented water from flooding the neighboring property.  The front porch under construction here would necessitate a big flight of steps, as the bottom of the glass panels matched the grade of the first floor living space. 

Aug 28c 884As with any contemporary landscape, a restricted palette of materials makes for a clean and strong statement.  I planted a slew of Salix purpurea nana-commonly known as dwarf actic willow.  Its gracefully meadow-like appearance sharply contrasted to the hard surfaces of the house, and softened them.  The blocks of willows would be mulched in granite gravel.  The columnar poplars would not obstruct the views of the house, but would slightly break up the stone and glass surface. The placement was dictated in part to provide good views from the inside of the trees outdoors. 

Aug 28c 882The transition from the willows to the walk would be handled by lawn.  It was important for a house this size to visually include the right of way landscape, so more lawn was in order. 

Steinhardt0005Given some time, the willows took hold.  Their dense billowing appearance is simple and handsome.  These densely twiggy shrubs are solid and graceful.  Their mature height barely sweeps the bottom of the glass panels.  Their slightly bluish cast repeated the blue-green color of the poplar leaves.

Steinhardt0009The walkway to the side door is embedded in this meadow as well.   A retaining wall which permitted windows to be installed at the basement level is no longer visible-as the wall is strictly utilitarian, we screened it from view.  The look of a shrubby willow reminds me of an ornamental grass.  Ornamental grasses are difficult in the winter season.  Leave them tall over the winter-heavy snow will knock them over, and spring winds will scatter their broken branches everywhere.  Trimmed to the ground in the fall-that look is not so appealing either.  Some prominent places in a landscape wanting grasses might benefit from being shrubbed up with dwarf willows. 


Watching my client wade through the meadow to the door was hands down my favorite part of this landscape-this a little human scale comic relief.  We did however eventually prune it to appear as though we had chopped a path through a wild garden, and poured a concrete walk. The house appears all the more handsome from a landscape that took its cue from all that gorgeous glass.