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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2006 Issue

Garden of Planes
Clients and landscape architect collaborate on a small residential garden in Richmond, Virginia.

By Vernon Mays

Garden of Planes Scott Smith

When a client steps forward with a commission but has strong ideas about how to execute the design, one doesn’t know if the road ahead is rich with opportunity or predestined for prolonged frustration. But good fortune was on the side of Gregg Bleam, ASLA, whose patrons for a residential garden in Richmond, Virginia, had a vision tempered by their willingness to let the design process follow its due course. By the time the process was complete, the collaboration between Bleam and the astute couple, Charles and Carter McDowell, had yielded a serene urban garden that is remarkably rich and varied, in spite of its relatively small size.

A timely reference from a Richmond architect connected Bleam with the McDowells—he a retired orthopedic surgeon, she a tireless community volunteer. For their new garden, which was to occupy the back half of their city lot, the couple asked Bleam to come up with a fitting translation of a Tuscan garden—to be more specific, a cloistered garden. The residential landscape already contained a minimalist Japanese garden that provided privacy in the space between the main residence and a guesthouse, so the extension of that privacy was a key requirement.

“They had just come back from Tuscany and were interested in an Italian garden,” says Bleam, principal of Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We started out with that as an idea, as a precedent. Then, as the project evolved, it became more minimal in character and simpler in organization. So even though you can see Italy in it, it really is more abstract than a literal Italian garden, where you might do something like put in a fountain and divide the space into quadrants.”

Bleam’s alternative approach was to create a private sanctuary consisting of three very distinct spaces organized asymmetrically on the flanks of a strong axis. Using a combination of architectural elements and plants, he wove a rich tapestry of edges, paths, focal points, and hedges. Manipulating the elements of the design at scales both large and small, Bleam produced a garden that is ever changing in color, varied in texture, and charged with cultural references that give it an easy familiarity. Its merits were recognized in 2005 with an ASLA Honor Award for Residential Design.

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