Archive for June 2012

Too Many Trees for One Front Yard?

June 30, 2012

I’m a huge fan of trees in a garden. And any new house can certainly benefit from planting with an eye to the future. That’s why a recently-installed landscape at a new house in my neighborhood caught my eye, and caused me to contemplate the question of how many trees might be . . . too many. First, some background. I live in an area that most people would consider fairly traditional in terms of architecture – mostly brick Colonial houses (like mine) with, more recently, tear-downs that “eat the lot” even if they are attractive Arts-and-Crafts style (large) bungalows. About five years ago (I think), an extremely modern house went up on a large, deep lot. It was really different. I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of the house before the front yard’s plantings went it, but suffice it to say it was the talk of the neighborhood. In any event, the house was finally completed after some starts and stops, but the front yard was simply over-seeded and left alone for a very long time. My designer’s curiosity was peaked – what would happen in front of this black/gray stone fronted house that looked unlike anything else around it? The front yard was terraced, but for a long time decorated only with weeds. Then, very late in the fall last year, trees and shrubs started arriving. They were left lying around on the ground for so long I feared they wouldn’t survive until they were planted. But before Christmas, they went in. So here is the front yard in its winter glory.

modern landscape, minimalist architecture, modern architecture

The new house with brand-new landscape in winter.

The landscape design is simple and striking: trees, only a few shrubs (a line of yews at the top of the second terraced level, where the driveway meets the house’s facade, and some inkberry hollies near the street on the lower left side of the lot), and liriope for groundcover. There are seven Betula nigra (river birches) and three maples – all planted on a front yard that is about 80 feet wide.
modern architecture, modern gardens, Betula nigra, river birches

The view from the street after the trees leafed out. The inkberry hollies aren’t visible, but the rest of the plantings are.

Even though the site faces north, it gets a moderate amount of afternoon sun. The river birches are beautiful, with exfoliating bark, and will grow relatively quickly if they get enough water. (I don’t think the garden is irrigated). I don’t know which variety of maples were planted. My concern is that these are both tree species that can get huge, and quickly. The birches can’t be more than about 10-11′ on center, and the two maples on the left side of the lot, near the property line, are even closer together. Right now the effect is balanced, but five years down the road, I think, the canopies of these trees will be fighting with each other; river birches can reach 25-35′ wide, and maples even larger. I’ve had my own experience with planting trees too closely together, as my Okame cherry post demonstrates. So I wonder what the landscape designer/architect was thinking when he or she designed this space. I’d be interested in my reader’s reactions.

An Urban ‘Farmhouse’ and Garden

June 16, 2012

On June 9th, I visited a newly built house and garden in Garrett Park, Maryland as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation‘s new program called Garden Dialogues. For two hours, about a dozen of us talked with the site’s architect (Richard Williams), landscape architect (Gregg Bleam), and builder (Abe Sari of Horizon Builders) about the concept for the house and garden (and the relationship between the two), how the owner’s goals were achieved, and materials and process involved in bringing the dream to reality. I should set the stage by explaining that Garrett Park is a neighborhood full of large old (and new) Victorian-style homes complete with spacious front porches and yards with mature, existing trees.

Garrett Park, Maryland, Victorian homes

No, this isn’t the Reed house, but one of Garrett Park’s traditional Victorian-style homes, complete with eye-catching paint, big front porch and hammock, and brightly contrasting shutters. A town ordinance encourages renovated and new homes to include front porches.

As the architect and owners explained before we were let loose to wander about on our own, the lot on which the house and landscape now stand was once occupied by an old farmhouse, which burned down several years ago. In 2009, the Reeds purchased the lot and started to look for an architect who would understand their desire for a feeling of tranquility and belonging in this “magical neighborhood.” The resulting house, while distinctly modern, was designed to evoke the sense of a modern farmhouse, including a distinctive front porch. And the plantings, brilliantly designed by Gregg Bleam, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect, are in sync every step of the way.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Garden Dialogues, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architects, modern gardens, modern architecture

The Reed house, viewed from the street, pays homage to the old farmhouse that previously stood on the site, with an “orchard” of Cercis canadensis, planted in a rectangle of mondo grass surrounded by lawn.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Garden Dialogues, modern architecture, modern gardens

On the right side of the house, an aggregate driveway, intersected by grass panels, leads to the garage, and the corner steps to the front porch welcome visitors.

Once inside the house, the first view that greets you immediately draws your eye out into the garden.

Richard Williams Architects, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Horizon Builders, water feature, modern architecture, modern landscape architecture

The view from the Reeds’ front hallway takes in a rectangular water feature crossed by a simple wooden bridge and leads the eye to a panel of Equisetum and then to a group of Amelanchier trees at the end of the garden. A specimen ‘Jane’ magnolia can be seen on the left in front of the serviceberry grove.

The pool is only about 8″ deep (the safety of future grandchildren having dictated the decision on depth). Stacked 1-1/2″ flagstone pavers provide access up and down from the bridge on the grass side. A single specimen ‘Jane’ magnolia of considerable heft is in the lawn area in front of the Amelanchier trees. A row of tall hornbeams surrounds the yard on the left and rear, in front of a simple open-design fence only 4′ tall, chosen to avoid a “walled feeling” while provide necessary screening. The simplicity of the design is elegant, reminiscent of a Dan Kiley landscape (Bleam trained with Kiley early in his career, and the design kinship is evident – and impressive.)

Garden Dialogues, Equisetum, Gregg Bleam, modern landscapes

Architect Richard Williams discussing the design of the Reed house. A panel of Equisetum, noted for its sculptural qualities, is seen left front.

The Reed house has been LEED certified, both for the house itself and the garden. The roof, made of a type of galvanized aluminum designed to deflect solar rays, also suggests that of the farmhouse that once occupied the site. The patio area near left is composed of thermal bluestone with joints designed to allow rainwater to percolate into underground drainage collection and dispersal “dry wells.”

It is not often that clients are foresighted enough to understand the importance of bringing a landscape architect into the design process while the house is on the drawing boards. When they do, the relationship between interior and exterior and materials used both places, and the importance of views, can be exploited to the maximum. And when designers like me have the opportunity to hear from clients and the creators of their visions in a dialogue like the one I experienced Saturday, everyone is the richer. I look forward to attending more of these events – and hopefully of seeing more of Bleam’s and Williams’ work. It’s inspiring.

The Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian

June 2, 2012

Several weeks ago I was  treated to a small-group tour of some of the highlights of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.  Before we began the tour, we took some time to admire the Arlene and Robert Kogod Courtyard that joins the MAA to its sister building, the National Portrait Gallery.

I wasn’t unfamiliar with the space. Back in my days as a lawyer for the Justice Department, I would meet friends in the courtyard for lunch. But what a difference between then and now. Then it was open to the elements, with just some tables to serve people enjoying lunch brought in from the NPG Cafe – so it could be too hot, or too cold, to use year-round. And while the buildings themselves are beautiful, I often felt the space could use some dressing up.

The Kogods must have heard me. Although technically the Courtyard isn’t a garden, but an interior gathering space, it has plantings (see below) and both its ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ spaces are something special. The ceiling, composed of countless glass and steel panels that undulate above the rooflines of the old buildings, supported by steel columns whose color matches the stone of the buildings almost perfectly. No two panels, it is said, are alike.

Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Norman Foster

Individual “tiles” of the roof of the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.

The patterns of the tiles allow light to play on the walls of the courtyard, lighter or darker depending on how sunny it is outside.
Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American ArtThe ground plane and “understory” areas of this urban landscape – as it might be characterized – were designed by Kathryn Gustafson, a landscape architect renowned for her inclusion of original “water features” in unexpected settings. Here, in the Kogod Courtyard, there are several rectangular water scrims that can be turned off and on, providing the sheerest of areas for visitors to explore (as long as they don’t run through them, asks the museum’s literature describing the area). Sometimes the scrims are turned off for maintenance (or evening events), and they simply disappear.

Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Kathryn Gustafson

One of Gustafson’s quarter-inch deep water scrims invites visitors to explore.

As for plantings, there are four large marble planters (also designed by Gustafson’s Seattle firm). The brochure at the Museum described them as containing two 32′ tall ficus trees (although I saw only one on my visit; perhaps the second one has not survived) and sixteen black olive trees, also called “shady ladies,” as well as a variety of ferns and tropical-looking plants. The planters are generously proportioned, inviting visitors to read or check  e-mail while perched on the planters’ edges (the courtyard has a wireless connection).

Kathryn Gustafson, Kogod Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Art

A Courtyard visitor enjoys a quiet place to read on the edge of one of the marble planters.

In short, this place is a delight to visit. If you’re in the area, stop by – the Museum is open until 7 pm on many evenings (although you should check its website for updates). For more information about the design of the ceiling and the brilliant architect, Norman Foster, behind it, click here.


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