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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2005 Issue

Feral Geometry

A creekside garden that blends design aesthetics and environmental sensitivity.

By David Dillon

Feral Geometry
Carolyn Brown

A contemporary strolling garden by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, starts at the edge of a Dallas cul-de-sac, slides beneath an overhang on architect Antoine Predock's burly concrete-and-glass house, then meanders across and down a 45-degree slope to a small creek wedged between limestone banks. With its stainless steel planks and concrete retaining walls, the garden is unequivocally a designed place; at the same time, it is lush and mysterious, as though a mild tremor had broken off pieces of the house and nobody had bothered to put them back.

This combination of calculation and serendipity is precisely what the clients—a leading Dallas arts patron and her businessman/birder husband—were looking for: a garden that acknowledged the strength of their house without succumbing to it, a commentary rather than a mechanical extension. "We were accustomed to sitting in our living room and looking out at the garden and the creek without engaging the landscape," the wife explains. "We decided we wanted a backyard that pulled us outside and kept us going so that we could see new things, maybe even get lost."

The seed of that idea had been planted several years before when the clients visited Van Valkenburgh's Pucker Garden in Brookline, Massachusetts. Located at the rear of a nondescript 1915 house, that garden is flat rather than sloping; yet in other ways it foreshadows the Dallas project. Stainless steel planks and stairs extend the axis of the front entrance across an excavated bowl of lawn, then up a gentle slope to a curving walkway that functions as an observation deck for the garden and its sculpture. Although the plan is open and diagrammatic, it manages to satisfy basic desires for sequence, spatial variety, and surprise in a small space.

What impressed the Dallas clients was how lightly the contemporary industrial elements touched the land. The steel planks and stairs, supported on sonotubes, seem to tiptoe across the ground, while a translucent metal scrim provides privacy without cutting off all views. "These elements allowed you to enter the garden without hurting it, and that was very important to us," says the wife.

Not disturbing the landscape became one premise of the Dallas garden; using almost all Texas plants was a second. Working with local horticulturist Rosa Finsley, a specialist in native plants, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates introduced sea oats, star sedge, and columbine beneath a canopy of mature live oak and pecan trees; elderberry and coralberry were added to attract birds. The only "immigrants" were black bamboo, planted in thick stands leading down to the creek, and assorted hybrid grasses in a small outdoor patio off the kitchen.

The patio is treated as an extension of the house, even though Van Valkenburgh designed it. "It was one of the trickiest things to do," he says, "because we wanted it to look as if we hadn't done it." He also designed a fountain and shallow birdbath, turning what had been a faux-stone waterfall into another contemporary extension of the house.

Although the Dallas garden covers barely half an acre, it feels much larger because of the way the paths rise and fall with the topography. No grand axes or tapis verts here. The steel planks, supported by sonotubes to soften their impact, are laid down in an irregular pattern to induce a slow, contemplative walk. The stairs are likewise scaled to the slope of the land, deep in some places, shallow in others. And the paths fall and snake and rise, with the materials changing constantly—from metal to gravel to grass and soil, each producing a different texture and sound. The effect is to make you slow down and pay attention to where you are, to pick your way across the site instead of just plowing through it. "You have to respond to surface and slope," says Van Valkenburgh, "and that intensifies your sense of connection to the place."

Combined with changing light and shifting perspectives, the experience becomes slightly phantasmagorical—not what you would expect from a stroll in your backyard. And even though the garden is its own thing, it also subtly reiterates the themes of surprise and serendipity in the house itself. Along the street, Predock stacked huge limestone blocks to a height of 28 feet, creating a nearly windowless bunker, cliff dwelling, or Mayan temple, depending on your perspective. The effect is to dam up expectations and create a sense of mystery as a prelude to the interior of the house, which Predock has sliced, curved, notched, and beveled to give each space its own character. One path leads to the kitchen, where a long ribbon window provides superb bird-watching. Another rises to the master bedroom, where decks and terraces jut out into the canopy trees like fingers.

The pièce de résistance is the "sky ramp," a 60-foot footbridge that soars out over the garden and the creek like a bowsprit: utterly gratuitous and absolutely stunning.

"What we love about the house is that you never know what you're going to see," the wife explains, "and Michael captured those qualities in the garden. Instead of just looking at it, my husband and I take our morning coffee and walk out there with the dogs to look for warblers. It's like a playground where you can use your imagination and be a kid again."

David Dillon is architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News.

Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects, PC, New York City. Design team Fountain designers: R.J. Van Seters Company, Unionville, Ontario. Surveyor: Sparr Surveys, Allen, Texas. Structural engineer: James F. Smith, P.E., Dallas. Arborist: Bill Seaman, Wylie, Texas. Shade turf consultant: John Stier, professor of horticulture, University of Wisconsin. Construction team General contractors: Thomas S. Byrne, Inc., Fort Worth, Texas. Landscaping contractors: King's Creek Landscaping, Cedar Hills, Texas. Steel stair manufacturer: United Metal Fabricators of Texas, Dallas. Stone supplier: Yerigan Construction, Isanti, Minnesota.

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