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American Society of Landscape Architects


February 2006 Issue

Requiem for a Garden
When sprawl encroached, this landscape architect tried to save what he could of his private oasis. He was fighting a losing battle.

By Glenn Morris

Requiem for a Garden Richard Bell

In 1955, Richard C."Dick" Bell, FASLA, began fashioning a personal campus on 11 acres west of Raleigh, North Carolina, dedicated to establishing the profession of landscape architecture in that state. The Water Garden, as it would be called, became significant for its conception, its execution, and its narrative. In a broad sense, the Water Garden had two themes: the environment crafted to be an inspirational place to live and work and the influence of that place on the young professionals who came of age here. The two threads are tightly woven because in the formative years of his practice, Bell looked to architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a conceptual model of what he wanted from this rich piece of Piedmont ground.

"I set out to create a home and office like Taliesin," he said, referring to the Wisconsin studio/commune where Wright hosted apprentices dedicated to his ideals. Bell intended to fashion a studio setting to showcase his own ideal to"work with nature, not against it." Perhaps this is Bell"s wistful, romanticized recall of his motives—feeding a family was another—but it doesn"t change the fact that the Water Garden would become both a testament to landscape architecture and Bell"s lifetime work.

Ironically, for the past several years, Bell has lived with a dilemma: The value of the Water Garden as a special place of landscape architecture lagged behind the Water Garden"s value as a property with highway frontage. Its story ended poignantly in late 2005 when, after trying to preserve the Water Garden intact for several years, Bell accepted the sale of the property and the dismantling of his lifetime work. As of this writing, the Water Garden is doomed. Its 11 acres will be cleared for development as a subsidized retirement community. Speaking shortly after completing the plans for the sale, Bell seemed surprisingly sanguine about the change."If it"s got to go for something," he said,"I"m glad it"s going to something for people to enjoy."

But Bell never intended it to turn out quite this way.

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