Back to the Land

Graham Landscape Architecture accentuates the built environment while promoting responsible stewardship.

By Dan Cooper, Period Homes

Once built, a house does not exist in a vacuum. Whether it is sited in city, country or suburb, its elevations are now contextual with the land. And no matter how brilliant the mind of the architect or the hand of the builder, the resulting structure will be enhanced or compromised by its surrounding environment. It is here that the measure of a landscape architect is taken; can he or she create a setting that will ultimately exceed the sum of its parts? Will they be adept enough to create the illusion of naturally occurring landscapes, without an excess of human intervention? And increasingly, will they be environmentally responsible?

Of course, those involved with preservation and the building trades have experienced emotions that veer from dismay to delight when we have visited a completed project; few things diminish superior architecture more than lumberyard plantings thrust into the soil in an ill-considered manner.

This is obviously not a concern when the grounds are entrusted to a skilled landscape architect, such as Graham Landscape Architecture of Annapolis, MD. Jay Graham, who founded Graham Landscape Architecture in 1984, is a University of Virginia alumnus and became a registered landscape architect in 1976. He and his firm are well aware of their role, not only to any given client, but also to history and the land itself. “There are a few mantras we repeat to ourselves,” says Graham. “First, that we have two clients – the people who pay for our services and the land. Second, that the best design will have a quality of inevitability – we are of our time. This can refer to the fact that people live differently today than in the past, and also to the need to be responsible stewards of the land.”

Looking to the Past
Just as today’s architects who are involved with building in traditional styles are mindful of an historic vocabulary when designing projects, so too are landscape architects who draw from the past when working on an historically inspired project. Their challenge is to adapt the landscaping preferences and styles of the past to contemporary desires and needs, much the same as any room that has evolved radically over time, such as a kitchen or bathroom. The result must function in a modern manner while retaining a nostalgic impression.

“When we are asked to work with architecture from a particular period in history, or a site that dates to a particular period in history, we look at the philosophy of ‘landscape thought’ of that period,” says Graham, noting that, much the same as a preservation or historical architect studies the surrounding environment, his firm “looks for clues as to how to use those ideas to clarify how people experience the land today.”

Graham cites the work of British landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996) as influential. “He was a student of history yet was of his time,” he says. Again, as with landscapes and buildings, it is this concept of maintaining a respect for tradition without a rote adherence to it that is a guiding principle in Graham’s approach to a project.

The Evolving Landscape
Many casual observers are under the impression that the arrangement and species of gardens and landscapes are static and conform to standards dictated long ago, when in truth, they are always evolving in ways both extreme and subtle. A persistent trend in recent years is a movement away from the highly manicured appearance seen earlier in the last century. “For years, people have been asking for low-maintenance landscapes,” says Graham, “and with research and experience, we’ve realized that the more native plants we use, the closer we come to a low-maintenance landscape. We have accepted the challenge to use natives in both formal and informal ways with success.” One such emerging preference is seeking alternatives to the common grasses that comprise many a lawn. “We have been able to add nuance to our landscapes, such as alternatives to turf grass, and this will become a more accepted look in the near future,” says Graham. This departure from the accepted norm of turf grass not only lowers the amount of labor involved in maintenance, but also reduces the amount of water and chemicals required in its care.

This eye to the future does not mean that the firm is adverse to the formal Classical arrays favored at the end of the 19th century and earlier. In their Cedar View Farm in Potomac, MD, Graham created a luxurious lawn that is accessed by a stone stairway framed with Classical balusters. Perpendicular to this is a broad set of terraced steps that accommodates the incline from one grade to another. The completed effect of the white masonry against the turfed terrace is striking in its combination of formality and naturalism.

Similarly, Wye Hall’s front walkway is a neat arrangement of a long, arrow-straight brick path that emanates from between the main portico’s entry columns and cuts through a verdant lawn to a ringed perimeter of shrubbery. Beyond this are rolling fields, and the stark geometry forms the impression of an 18th-century Georgian estate. Interestingly, a far less formal aspect of the Wye Hall project is the landscaping at the shoreline, which was augmented with tall grasses that conceal a pathway in a type of perfected naturalism.

As mentioned on the company’s website, one of its guiding tenets is to have their landscapes speak of an “understated elegance and fluency among land forms, plantings and architecture that connect landform and architecture and blend house and gardens.” This can be observed in Graham’s graceful treatments of transitional areas, often composed of smaller seating areas and gardens that in turn lead to broader, more open areas.

From Building to Landscape
Often, an architect is called upon to design a transitional device between house and grounds, and an enduring solution is to specify the construction of a pergola. This open framework creates an outdoor room that augments both indoor and outdoor environments. “We think a fully developed garden is expressed in alternating layers of planting and architecture,” says Graham. “This structure is separate from the house and surrounded by planting – adding a nice complexity to the garden. A pergola serves multiple functions: it offers a place to sit in the shade, it helps us in shaping an outdoor space, and the architectural character of the pergola can give a specific character to the garden.”

While many pergolas conform to a rigid Classicism, Graham and his firm played upon this with a poolside pergola they created for a Langley, VA, residence. The structure runs the length of the pool and is incorporated into the masonry walls that sequester the pool from unwanted guests. In lieu of the expected smooth, white columns, the firm specified rough stone pillars with exposed mortar that convey both a look of ancient stonework and a contemporary twist. Coupled with this, finished stone capitals support the unfinished wood beams. The same stone was used to create the walls of the pool compound, and the overall effect is stately yet organic. On the back wall that supports the beams, white arched areas are centered between each column, mimicking niches found in formal Classical architecture, resulting in a juxtaposition of Classical formality and a rustic interpretation that tempers it.

Another structure that “softens” the transition between the built environment and its grounds is a trellis. The dark brick exterior of Kenwood in Maryland’s Montgomery County prompted a series of formalized exterior areas, and Graham’s firm specified a series of lattice trellises topped with projecting “shelves” that span the first floor of the rear elevation. As the vines have matured and spread across these shelves, the simplest trellis has evolved into an organic loggia that shelters the back patio.

In a less formal setting, Graham has designed cottage gardens that are a symphony of colors and shapes that depart from formal arrangements and instead create an impressionistic array. An example of this would be found at the Hickory Ridge project, where there is a formal Georgian brick house accompanied by a smaller, rough stone dwelling that appears to be at least a half-century earlier in origin. Here, the grounds and beds pay tribute to the works and plantings of Gertrude Jekyll, reflecting a brilliant use of the variations of color and texture that flow randomly into each other.

On a far grander note, the poolside surround of Cattail Creek Farm, eschews a casual naturalism for a bold Classical symmetry. Here, a robust stone loggia supports a row of massive columns that overlook the water and seating areas. The pool itself serves as much to reflect the house’s towering elevation as it does to function as a recreational facility. The formality of this area transitions to a more bucolic treatment as gates open onto lush beddings and a sprawling estate, and in these areas, the firm has created that “perfected Naturalism” so reminiscent of the great British country houses that have shaped our collective expectations of an estate.

Architect and Client
As with the design of a dwelling, the responsibility of the attendant landscaping also varies with the amount of client interaction and input. “Each project is slightly different,” says Graham. “We listen to the client talk about their program, aspirations and expectations, then we look at the land. When we sense that there is a disconnect between program and land, we try to explain to the client about the land and then see if we can make a fit.”

One can well imagine there would indeed be a potential disconnect, as the client might have to conform to the limitations of their property and purse, which may not always match their desire. “This initial exercise of programming, site analysis and concept development is a back-and-forth process that ends with an agreement on direction and priorities,” says Graham. “We intend to involve our clients in the process, and clearly, different people bring their own life experiences, and that tends to modify the process. We do our best work when the client trusts us yet also feels a part of the experience of bringing this new landscape to life.”

Spanning more than three decades, Graham’s career has provided him with a rich sense of satisfaction. “The rewards are many,” he says, “from hearing people’s responses to designs we have completed while expanding their idea of what is possible to seeing something physical come to life and then to realize it all came from your head. Another reward is seeing a piece of land come back to health once we have implemented a stewardship plan.”

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This entry was published on June 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm. It’s filed under Historic Building and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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