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American Society of Landscape Architects


February 2005 Issue

Hortus Ludens
The Cornerstone Garden Festival brings Chaumont to northern California.

By Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

Hortus Ludens
Mark Pechenick

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in Homo Ludens (Man the Player) that play is not just the actions of children or an adult pastime but a fundamental activity at the root of human experience. Chris Hougie, founder of the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, is a serious player. After selling his business, the toy company that made the glowing stars found on the ceilings of millions of children’s bedrooms, Hougie was eager for a new challenge. It is this profession’s good fortune that he found it in the world of landscape architecture.

At his home in Napa, California, Hougie worked unsuccessfully with several landscape architects until he hired Jack Chandler to design his garden—the beginning of Hougie’s education in landscape architecture, as he moved from client to aficionado to inspired patron. On his honeymoon in France in 1996 Hougie was tremendously excited by the Chaumont Garden Festival. His reaction was, “I’d love to do a garden.” Returning home to the vineyards of northern California he thought, why not a Chaumont here?

After he read an article about Chaumont that mentioned Peter Walker, FASLA, Hougie contacted Walker, unaware at the time of his preeminent place in contemporary design. Walker was skeptical at first that an avant-garde garden festival would be successful in the United States, but after much discussion Hougie conceived of the garden festival as a place that would showcase experimental design and selected a site for the project.

The Cornerstone Festival of Gardens is located directly on the road that links the Sonoma and Napa Valleys and San Francisco. In its previous incarnation it was the roadside attraction World of Birds, but it was in a derelict condition: a flat site with drainage and soil issues but fine views to the adjacent vineyards and hills. Walker did a broad concept plan and then San Francisco landscape architect Ron Lutsko, ASLA, did the final design. Lutsko describes his objective as the creation of “an eventful, forward-thinking and creative, modern space...grounded in California, both the native and the cultural landscape.”

From the parking lot, visitors pass through a delightful entry court, a bosque of palms in multicolored planters by Topher Delaney, and trees set within blue glass tree pits by Andy Cao. Simple structures, reminiscent of the Sonoma Valley’s agricultural buildings—shops, an office, and a soon-to-open café—act as a forecourt to the gardens. The core of the festival is a series of garden rooms, each about 1,800 square feet. A six-foot-high hedge will eventually enclose each room, but for now the hedges are still short, so for a few years there will be serendipitous interaction among the gardens. In the future the paths will be bordered by green hedges on one side and will be more self-contained with a single entry point. At the core of the site are Lutsko’s angular mound of grasses (covering a septic tank) that bisects the area and a lawn with a barn/gallery that displays information about the designers and affords necessary shade.

Designers for other garden festivals, such as those at Chaumont, Grand-Métis in Québec, or Westonbirt in Britain, are largely chosen by competition. At Cornerstone, by contrast, Hougie selected and invited the designers to participate under Walker’s guidance. Cornerstone is conceived more in the spirit of a museum, with its outdoor galleries holding a permanent collection along with some of the garden rooms functioning as rotating gallery exhibitions. As a design showcase, Cornerstone hearkens back to the classic garden shows at Hampton Court or the Chelsea Flower Show. Its location in California also suggests connections to Sunset magazine’s demonstration gardens. But these gardens are not intended to showcase the possibilities for residential design. The ambition is grander.

Hougie brought an outsider’s enthusiasm to the project. He did not offer any proscription to the chosen designers other than that they were free to do what they would like and a suggestion that they “invent something new.” If the results had a practical application, that was fine, but it was not the goal. The aspiration was to expand and explore the possibilities of garden design, to make visitors think but have a good time while doing so.

Fortunately, one can physically enter all of the gardens at Cornerstone, unlike many at Chaumont that prohibit entry and restrict visitors to a single viewpoint. The professional community has applauded the project, but the public has loved it, and it is gradually building an audience. For Hougie, what’s appealing is that “it’s alive,” people participate in it and walk through it, and “like a park, it’s really fun.”

The landscape architects were given free rein, and each worked alone, but key themes do emerge. In all such situations, the constraints dramatize certain design issues. In a limited, confined space and with such a stage, the temptation can be to do too much. Fortunately, most of the installations take a single idea and try to present it with clarity and force. Different strategies are apparent. There are mazelike paths in Tom Leader’s garden and in an installation by students from the University of California at Davis’s Department of Landscape Architecture. There are also the undulating surfaces of Cao’s mounds; an excavation by Pamela Burton, ASLA; calibrated layering in the eucalyptus garden by Walter Hood, ASLA; and several gardens that borrow adjacent views, especially of the vineyards. From these spatial manipulations, the perceptive visitor might actually glean ideas for giving a sense of expansiveness to a compact residential garden. uc Davis Professor Mark Francis is encouraged by Cornerstone’s potential to make the private expression of garden design public and its potential to “demystify landscape architecture” and encourage “non-professionals to become landscape architects in their own backyards.”

The garden designers were given $10,000 budgets, which included their design fees. They could spend more from their own pockets if they wished. Some designers spent weeks on site participating in the construction, while others sent their drawings. Project manager Dave Aquilina was in charge of construction. He supervised moving almost 5,000 cubic yards of dirt, planting one mile of hedges, and constructing an elaborate drainage system. He is a master of materials; in spaces not yet assigned to a designer, he created a series of “elements” gardens, each of which features a landscape material. These are minimalist in design, a refined presentation of properties, and they are indistinguishable from their more self-conscious companions.

Cornerstone’s gardens highlight the possibilities of traditional materials—plants, water, and soil—but also the innovative potential of screens, glass, plastic, and vernacular elements such as pinwheels, Christmas tree ornaments, and miniature golf courses. Certain plants have not yet reached maturity and the hedges have yet to frame the gardens, but most of the gardens are complete right now, although time will see how they withstand the heat of Northern California and the feet of visitors.

Many of the gardens could be reproduced in other locales with little diminishment of their effect, and in some instances a different context would enhance the experience. But for many, the site’s location enriches the experience. Cao’s glistening woven mats echo the surrounding hills; Hood’s eucalyptus project was inspired by one of California’s now endangered icons; Leader’s garden pays homage to the rural landscape; Claude Cormier’s tree merges with the blue sky; and the garden by Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, dramatically honors immigrant workers.

The work is not yet complete. Cormier’s tree has become the site’s symbol, but other designers have already been approached to add their contribution to the collection. (Hougie owns 27 more acres of vineyards, where gardens could also be added.) The coming attractions include the prospect of seminars and educational events. As patron, Hougie successfully challenged landscape architects; as a result, Cornerstone invites the public to engage in a conversation that is too often limited to the professional and art communities. All landscape architects have a stake in the success of the venture.

Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon and former editor of Landscape Journal.

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