Guest-blogger Ted Cleary, ASLA, of Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture offers insights into midcentury modern garden design. Today’s post is the first of his “Case Study Gardens”.
MCM enthusiasts will be familiar with Arts & Architecture magazine’s legendary design feature known as the “Case Study House Program”. From its inception near the war’s end in 1945, through 1966, the CSH Program showcased innovative modernist designs, many of them modest, others more grand, meant to address the postwar housing needs of the typical American family. Like the CSH examples, some unbuilt, others still existing, these Case Study gardens strive to offer solutions you can apply to your own outdoor spaces.
If you own a great midcentury modern home, it’s natural to want a landscape design that’s period-appropriate. But of course, MCM homes make up just a small percentage among a sea of traditional styles across America. What then if your heart really craves “modern” when your home says “neo-Georgian”? Do you have to accept either the typical suburban-y landscape look, or a more elegant version of it echoing Classical formal gardens?
This is a design dilemma that I think is becoming fairly common among home buyers whose house style doesn’t really represent their tastes as well as they’d like; instead, it was just the only option because a home builder decided it’s what the “market wants”. I always marvel at how you can’t walk into a high-end furniture store these days without tripping over a Noguchi table or Eames lounge chair, and yet so many homes’ outward appearances seems to pretend it’s occupied either by the colonial governor of Williamsburg or an 18th-century French nobleman.
While I’m inclined to encourage that the architectural style of the building should drive the architectural style of its surrounding landscaping, there may be justifiable exceptions. Among modernist landscape architects practicing in the ‘40s and ‘50s such as Garrett Eckbo, I’ve been surprised to find that some of their clients’ homes were not your quintessential modernist design. When I’ve closely studied certain gardens I particularly admire, beyond their most iconic photographs other seldom-published photos from different angles reveal adjoining residences of quite traditional styles. When designing a garden, I believe the key is to seek out the essence of the architectural details, rather than slavishly duplicate them in a literal way.
The owners of this large home are a perfect example; it might be best described as “French Provincial”, but their modernist taste was clearly conveyed to me both by her spoken desires and the collection of contemporary art throughout their rooms. When I first arrived, it was a bit of a head-scratcher to figure out how I might make these two seemingly incongruous directions “speak” to each other in some complementary way.
The existing lower level’s outdoor space was an inadequately-small bulbed-out patio, with a formless curving wall wrapping around one side of it to hold back the significant grade change. But the clients had an ambitious program, for both an active family-with-kids and for grownup entertaining: full outdoor kitchen and cocktail bar, and various bells & whistles that are part of many clients’ wish-lists such as pizza oven, TV, outdoor heater, and some kind of fire feature. A pool was also mentioned as a possible future-phase item. The challenge was to accomodate this program, using a very modernist vocabulary, in some creative way that nestled a design between the traditional home and its abrupt grade change.
Can homeowners with a modernist sensibility, but a very traditional home, find an outdoor space they’ll love? Tune in again next week, when we look at the design solution.
Written by: Ted Cleary, ASLA