Archives for August 2009

Sunday Opinion: Fifth Business

In the 1970 novel of the same name, Canadian writer Robertson Davies makes allusions to a character in opera known as the fifth business.  I love opera, but know next to nothing about it.  But I do know that there is usally two principal characters whose relationship is marked by impossible love or overwhelming angst, (the soprano and the tenor) and two secondary characters who provide either comic relief or aid to the principals-and the fifth business.  This male baritone fifth business knows the whole of everyone’s story, and keeps the audience informed what terrible and wrenching event is coming up next. The fifth business has no counterpart; he is the odd man out, the commentator, a story teller.

I have loved all of Robertson Davies writings.  How he tells stories is electrifying.  When I read his books, I am completely convinced the world he creates is authentic, genuine. His view of the world completely absorbs, and informs me.  I am better for having read his books.   This may mean that for whatever reason, I am interested how other people see the world.  This means people in general, gardeners, artists, composers and writers, imaginary people. Though my memory is not what it used to be,  I still remember my earliest imaginary friend, Anthony Bowguidem. I am interested in what other people imagine. I would guess this is key,  as I continue to make a career generated from what I imagine.

How does this relate to garden design?  I fancy myself the fifth business in a design relationship.  I see the property where no one has time to keep it up, though I am hearing that they garden. I meet people whose obligations as parents eclipse what they might want as adults from an outdoor space.  I see a Mom with young children asking for play space, when she really means she needs a place for she and her husband to relax and talk, separate from a play space.   I meet clients who tell me they like wild gardens, when I see that wild garden they have overwhelms them.  I meet clients whose work obligations shock them-they are looking to reestablish some connection to their home and its environment.  I meet young people who are looking for a schedule of do it yourself projects.

I like hearing the stories.  New to me-I tell my story.  I invite clients to see my garden.  Its a small property, but I have given plenty of thought to it.  I have done it over the past fifteen years, not the past 15 weeks.  The plants, the forms-this is a common denominator.  Many people’s lives and circumstances are very different than mine, but in the end, the shapes, the plants, the problems-these things we share.   What I share with people comes to some good.

I cannot express how shocked I was a year ago to discover that the fifth business was not part of the language of the history of opera.  Robertson Davies invented that word, and invented what that word meant.  All these years I had supposed I was one of a group of baritones who knew all the stories, who could make better, given my reach, other lives. There is not one bit of history to support my efforts.  Given some time and thought, I realized that most everything I do is energized by my imagination.

The energy generated by an active imagination?  Good energy.

At A Glance: Little Colonies











A Project in Dublin


Anderson Miller Ltd., a noted local  firm specializing in hospitality design, asked if I would be interested in a landscape renovation project for one of their clients-the Four Seasons Hotel in Ireland.  How pleased I was to be asked!   They were in the process of redesigning the interior spaces of this beautiful old hotel, and were interested in including the landscape as part of the scope of their project. 

Moments after saying yes, I was worrying.  I know not one thing about horticulture in Ireland, and I certainly was not at all confident that my views about a successful hotel landscape would mean much of anything.   But Anderson Miller had very definite ideas about where they wanted to take their project, so I had a welcome set of parameters.  They were looking for a very fresh, and contemporary approach that would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the only aspect of this hotel that was traditional was its vintage architecture.  Pam Anderson was interested in a use of topiary that would have a contemporary and sculptural appeal.  And she liked my steel spheres.  Make something from these elements, she said.  


The hotel  surrounds a large courtyard space, open to the sky.  A small fountain, backed by a large mirrored wall trellis anchored one end of the space. This look did not seem historically pleasing; it seemed dated. Mature lindens ringed three sides of the space; these I liked.  They were the only large scale landscape element, and they were definitely worth keeping.  I hope some day to see their canopies pruned into very large spheres.


The opposite end of the space featured a conservatory occupied by a hotel restaurant, a terrace, and some iron garden furniture.  Guests of the hotel did not particularly use the space; it did seem sleepy, and not especially inviting.
The other two sides of the courtyard featured a boxwood hedge punctuated by wood benches;  I would call this a sideline landscape that was lacking a main event.  Good landscapes do engage visitors.  This landscape needed not only a reason to encourage visits, but a plan view that was beautiful; each room on the interior of the hotel has a  window, with a view to this space. Thus a landscape that was also a sculpture seemed like a good idea.


The center of the space is a giant lawn; this seemed a good place to start.  A sculpture which would read from many stories above ground needed to be simple but interesting.  It also needed to be large enough for people to interact with it. It will not be easy to read what I have written on the drawings below, which is a good thing.  The shapes and spaces are what is important to see here, not the words.


My schematic drawing details an elevated interior garden space, bounded on all sides by curved steel retaining walls, 21″ tall.   This elevated garden is accessible on the east and west sides by three widely curved steps. The north side features a curved bench some sixteen feet long with a great view to the fountain.  That bench can provide seating for a whole group. The fountain I like; the center sculptural element needs to be something much more interesting.  The existing lindens, whose shape is ringed in chartreuse, will have a much more sculptural feeling, set in lawn right up to their trunks.  The upper level landscape repeats the curve of the steel retaining with hedges of 36″ diameter boxwoods pruned into spheres.  The four large spheres in the drawing-72″ diameter boxwood spheres on standard.


The blue sphere at the south end-a pool of blue tumbled recycled bottle glass set in three or four inches of water, with another large meeting-sized bench.   The centerpiece-a six foot diameter strap steel sphere.  This color version speaks much to the overall impression of the garden. Big spherically shaped lindens. Medium sized spherical boxwood on standard.  Curving shapes of small spherical boxwood that remind me of  strings of pearls.  The center space would be a beautiful place for a cocktail party, with bar tops scattered around, or set for a dinner on a long series to tables put together for a specific occasion.  The steel finished to look like lead will have a beautifully curving and contemporary appearance from the ground level. Two species of plants, lots of lawn on two different levels, and some sculpture.  All it will need is some people to be invited to the party.  The news I heard today is that Mr. Sharp, the founder of the Four Seasons, and a legend in the hospitality business, likes what he sees here.  This has made for a very good design day for me,  yes.

What I Was Thinking?

Some years ago an auction of old garden ornament belonging to a well known Dutch antique dealer attracted my attention.  Rob happened to be in Europe, shopping for the store in England; it was no problem for him to fly over to Amsterdam and preview the pieces.  He fell for a giant 19th century French cast iron fountain and basin. The reserve price was steep, but the piece was compelling and gorgeous. As I could not afford much over the reserve price, I dared not hope. However, it took not three minutes for me to cast the successful bid by phone, and own it.  This part was fast and easy;  what proved to come was not.

dsc07709The biggest headache?  The basin was too large to sit flat on the floor of the container that would bring it to the US.  So, some 6 weeks and plenty of money later, cast iron crates had been welded up for the basin, and fountain.  The fountain centerpiece had rusted tight to the basin; it was after all, 130 years old.  The centerpiece was painstakingly removed with the help of an acetelyene torch, and then welded to its custom made steel crate. 

Transport from Holland to Paris was finally arranged; this was not an easy thing to move.  Just insuring the move from Holland to France was a big deal.  The fountain sat in a warehouse another 4 weeks, awaiting transport to the US.  Only days before the arrival, I learned a boom crane would be necessary to get the fountain off the truck-we were dealing with many thousands of pounds of cast iron.  I was trying to stave off that “what was I thinking” feeling; it was all mine now, right?

dsc07737It was an operation the likes of which I have been involved in rarely; the entire day went to uncrating, and positioning that fountain.  The crane people were incredibly professional and focused.  At some point during the day I actually looked at what had been the center of so much commotion.  It is one the most beautiful large scale fountains I had ever seen.  The pattern of the cast iron leaves is as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside-this a hallmark of very fine ironwork. 

dsc07748The torching and unbolted to free the pieces from their steel crates was slow and tedious.  

dsc07743What was I thinking, that I had to have this?  I had scared myself, no doubt. But today I would say once in a while something comes along that makes you feel like speaking up.    Who wants to spend time contemplating their lost opportunities? 

dsc07765Buck helped out getting the basin set perfectly level, as we knew there would be no moving it once it was placed-except to a new home.  The boom crane held the fountain piece aloft until both pieces were perfectly aligned.�
A few days later, on a very foggy morning, it seemed to me that it had been well worth the time and trouble to acquire this fountain.   It makes a big statement, where it sits, and it will make even a bigger statement the day it is placed in a garden. 

aug-17-001In the meantime, it is my pleasure to look at it every day.  In spite of everything it took to get it to me, I know when the day comes, it will be very tough to give it up.  Funny,  that.