An ‘Endemic Creation’ in El Cerrito

I enjoy visiting gardens that unsettle my designer’s sensibilities. One of my sons once told me that he thinks of me as a photographer who likes taking images of “beautiful things” (rather than edgy street scenes, etc.) and I guess that’s what my mindset is when I design – somewhat traditional gardens with as much beauty in the design concept as I can pull together. So when we visited a garden on the APLD Conference Tour described in our materials as an “East Bay hillside in a modern vein,” I was delighted that our schedule let us spend some time there so I could take it all in.

Created by Brian Swope, who describes himself as a ‘contrarian designer,’ the back yard garden welcomed us first.

APLD, Brian Swope, El Cerrito garden

The view from this part of the garden includes a vantage point that takes in the neighbors’ house – which belongs to the garden owners’ parents.

Where to start? The sloping site has been brilliantly handled; the gravel “trail” that is visible just beyond the  perforated steel obelisk ( which is lit at night) climbs a hill that is modeled after trails in Marin County, complete with switchbacks.

APLD, Brian Swope, sculpture in the garden, Bay Area gardens

‘Siskyou Blue’ fescue grasses soften the planting area at the foot of the perforated steel obelisk.

The plantings in the garden are predominantly native species, including small buckeye saplings that cast shadows at night against panels set above a retaining wall behind the dining patio.

Brian Swope, APLD, Bay Area Gardens

Buckeye saplings edge the patio area at the top of the steps.

Poured concrete walls, as well as the edging for the planting beds shown above, have been textured with Trex – something that I never would have thought of doing in a million years.

Trex, APLD, Brian Swope, Bay Area gardens

Bed edging, created from concrete forms textured with Trex.

Closer to the house, in a shady site, planting combinations were softer.

Brian Swope, APLD, Bay Area gardens

I loved this combination of ferns, ginger, clover and other shade plants at the edge of the back of the house.

The front yard, installed in a second phase of work, is defined by a previously existing bamboo hedge. Swope chose other large forms – substantial rocks, Corten-steel edging, and gravel – to respond to the bamboo as counterpoints. (For a look at some other Corten steel projects for the garden, click here.)
El Cerrito Garden-8

A variety of shapes and textures, including 'Siskiyou Blue' fescue grass again, define the narrow front garden.

A variety of shapes and textures, including ‘Siskiyou Blue’ fescue grass again, define the narrow front garden.

In a harsh and challenging setting (with a fabulous view of the Bay), Swope and his client have created an inviting, modernist landscape. We felt privileged to visit it – and I knew my designer’s horizons had expanded, more than a little.

Explore posts in the same categories: Environment, landscape, photography, Travel

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3 Comments on “An ‘Endemic Creation’ in El Cerrito”


  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head Melissa: one strives for max beauty. A design like this is exciting in many ways but I am not convinced its innate harshness works in a domestic context. To me it is shopping mall design: impress and move on stuff. Jack

    • Melissa Says:

      I hear you. But the owner loves it, and I wish I could have seen it at night with the obelisk lit and the buckeye trees throwing shadows on the walls at the back of the patio. Could be mysterious and beautiful.


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