Category Archives: Design Examples

From the Drawing Board-Planting Concepts


How do planting plans evolve from initial client preferences to final installation? Usually through a sequence of steps.

First, we talk with the client about the style of plantings they prefer and how this relates to the overall design style for the project. Next, we create a plant booklet that outlines recommendations (includes a photo and characteristics) based on our initial conversations and the realities of the site where the plants are to be installed. The booklet might contain anywhere from 25-100 different plant varieties. Clients may be more or less horticulturally inclined, but usually we ask them to select plants that they either love or hate, and then we work to fill out the rest of the palette.

After we have a general idea for plant selection and style we usually create a massing plan. This sets the relationships and geometries of the plantings (usually based on size, and the location of any specimen plants). We then assign plant varieties, moving, modifying, and tweaking things as we go. At this stage, we may lead the clients on a tour to the local nursery to view the plants ‘in the round,’ as this is usually much more informative than viewing pictures alone. For big trees, we may go to a tree nursery and select specimens with the client.

After we assign varieties, we usually present the plan to the client for final approval. Any final changes are made, and the plan is ready for construction. This usually is not the end of the process however. In the field we do a preliminary layout of the plants prior to installation, to make sure the client likes the overall layout and positioning of the plants. We have found this process to be very effective as it is much harder to move plants after they have been planted. Once the client has approved the field layout we start planting. Remember, green side up!


From the Drawing Board- Color Planting Plan


Here is a color planting plan from a recent project. We use colored planting plans with common plant names for illustrative communication with clients. Over the years we have found that these type of plans are much more effective and easier for clients to understand than black and white wireframe plans with Latin names, number systems, or abbreviations.




Landscape Architecture’s Identity Crisis


A recent review of our blog recently sparked a thought concerning landscape architecture. Most people do not really know what landscape architects are. This is a common topic of discussion in the profession, with seemingly monthly discourses in the professional magazine and lengthy manifestos, like that done at Iowa State- An Apocalyptic Manifesto, which laments the profession’s complacency:

“At the start of the 21st Century, landscape architecture is a troubled profession, more distinguished by what it lacks than the qualities that it actually possesses. It has no historiography, no formal theory, no definition, direction, or focus. A vast schism currently existing between its academics and professional practitioners. In universities across the nation, researchers poach methodologies from other, more vibrant disciplines. Meanwhile, in professional offices, designers yoked to the bottom line crank out pedestrian design.”

Of particular interest to me are the public’s perception of landscape architecture and landscape architecture’s relation to the construction industry. Ask your average person on the street to name an architect and a minimum you will get the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright. Likely modern names of Pei, Geary, and others will follow. Pose the same question with landscape architects, and any response would probably be an exception rather than the rule. Should landscape architects be as recognized as architects? Ask the same question of notables, concerning other design disciplines such as engineering, and you are unlikely to draw a response either (The Spanish architect and engineer Calatrava jumps to my mind).

From our perspective in residential landscape design and construction, a strengthening of the relationship between landscape architect and builder is something that could help the profession as well. Design theory is one important element, but equal focus on construction methodology and cost could enhance and improve the public sector practice of the profession.

For More:
Manifestos from the Pruned Blog
A definition from Gardenvisit
ASLA definition of the Profession
Wikipedia definitions and professional associations

The Katrina Cottage


There was an article in Slate last week highlighting the ingenious Katrina Cottage, a low cost alternative to the FEMA trailer, for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The cost of construction of the Cottages (there are several designs) is the same or less than the trailers. In addition, they are designed to better resist future flooding and hurricanes (walls are constructed of a concrete board to prevent mold and mildew). FEMA, however, is a hard sell so far. These cottages make sense, they work as a longer term solution to the problem and provide a more comfortable living environment.

Image courtesy Slate

For More:
Inhabitat Article
Cusato Cottages- Manufacturers of one of the designs
Business Week Article


Lawrence Halprin’s Stern Grove- San Francisco

Landscape Architecture magazine had its cover feature this month on Lawrence Halprin’s redesign of the Stern Grove Amphitheater off Sloat boulevard in San Francisco. The amphitheater had deteriorated quite a bit after 75 years of use, and after a 20 million dollar renovation debuted in the summer of 2005 with free concerts every Sunday. Halprin helped transform it with his signature focus on using stone- one of his key inspirations was the ancient Greek amphitheater.

Image from Stern Grove Campaign Website- Visit to see more renderings


Image from Stern Grove Campaign Website- Visit to see more images
For more:
Stern Grove Music Festival Website with Pictures
Stern Grove Halprin Profile
NBC 11 Interview with Halprin from 2005
SF Chronicle Article on Stern Grove refurbishment
SF Parks Info on Stern Grove improvements from 2005

Posted by Michael O’Connell at 08:45 PM | Comments (0)

Architect Sim Van Der Ryn Interview


Noted California architect Sim Van Der Ryn was on Forum with Michael Krasney on KQED radio today (listen here). It was interesting to hear some of his perspectives on green architecture, alternative energy, and associated topics. See this previous post on the Real Goods Solar Living Center for more information on Van Der Ryn.

View details on Van Der Ryn’s new book Design for Life at Amazon.

Image from


Design Review Tyrany?


San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic Arrol Gellner has a couple of very interesting takes of the state of design review and its increasing restrictiveness and emphasis on conformity. In Marin there are certainly some of the municipalities that are quite restrictive. There seems to be a correlation between the size of the municipality and the level restrictions placed on design. This is something that typically affects landscape projects less than building projects; but design review can get pretty restrictive even for landscapes. This is even more the case if the residence is in a PUD (Planned Urban Development) or HOA (Home Owners Association).

Read the first two parts of Gellner’s Architext column: Design Review Boards Seem to Do More Harm than Good & Playing it Safe at the Cost of Originality

Art or Eyesore- Would this Rotterdam, Holland Cubic Condo Pass Design Review in the U.S.?


Different Types of Fencing

We are currently working on a couple of projects where we have employed alternative fencing types, instead of traditional wooden fencing. When designing fencing there are several options for detailing, both for wood designs, and for alternatives.

These two projects both used wire elements to give a more architectural feel to the design, and to prevent a boxed-in feeling.

In the first, we used heavy grade welded wire fence panels framed with wood to create a fence that would act as a trainer for vines. For the other project we used wire cables to prevent deer from entering a property, while still preserving views. The client did not want a fenced in feel, and did not like the aesthetic of a tradition welded wire deer fence or chain link. Vines and shrubs will be used to screen where necessary.

Photos to come…




Isamu Noguchi- Landscape Artist

Finishing off a week of lengthy landscape treatises, we turn to renown sculptor and at times landscape artist Isamu Noguchi.

Isamu Noguchi was a unique figure among American artists of the twentieth century. He excelled in a wide range of genres and in countless media, in a career that spanned genres from the development of Modernism through Post Modernism. He created intriguing sculpture pieces, stage sets, paper lanterns, public spaces, landscape sculptures and architecture. His use of media extended from his favorite stone, to wood, metal, clay, mixed materials, and most importantly space. It was in the dimension of space that Noguchi thrived and his ability to bring art into the landscape was the hallmark of his career . Whether his work was a simple piece of carved stone or acres of a public park, Noguchi had an amazing flair for conceptualizing and designing things that were spatially engaging and which broke out of the box of traditional sculpture and art. Throughout his career he was always pushing the edge of what was considered art, and searching for ways to explore, and redefine personally what art indeed was. His experimentation, relentless drive and passion to create, pushed the limits of the art establishment throughout his over sixty-year career. With the larger canvas of the landscape, his stone sculptures reach a new and more powerful significance. Drawing on a rich cultural heritage and experiences from Japan, the United States, and time spent in Europe, Noguchi transitioned techniques and themes found in his sculpture into larger landscape projects.

His forays in the landscape strayed from the traditional staples of sculpture. His landscape compositions are a unique fusion of both art and landscape. An examination of Noguchi’s origins places him in the proper perspective. Throughout his career, Noguchi sought to define himself and his work through a unique blending of his own personal context, in concert with his own artist’s prerogative. Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904, the son of a Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi and an Irish-American writer, Leonie Gilmore. This duality of cultural backgrounds, heritage from his childhood spent in Japan, and later experience living in the United States would shape Isamu’s life and work. Noguchi referred to himself as an outsider because of his mixed-heritage and a less than stable family life that included a strained relationship with his father. Uneasiness and a lack of security shaped Noguchi’s life. According to Bruce Altshuler in his book on Noguchi, “Noguchi said he could feel at home everywhere because he was at home nowhere.” Perhaps it was this uneasiness, one that sat at the very core of his being, which would signal the purpose for his immense and diverse life’s work as an artist.

Noguchi’s landscapes were far reaching in their scope, representative of the currents of the rest of his art as a whole, and spanned the many decades of his career. From his landscape Play Mountain (1934), which was a conceptual idea for a children’s playground that he conceived of early in his career, to his later works of landscape artistry, Noguchi maintained and continued to develop a refined design style and interaction between his art and the landscape. As time progressed, he polished his skills of combining sculptural elements with elements of the larger landscape.


Of particular distinction is Noguchi’s work at what he entitled California Scenario (1980-82). It is here, at the end of his career, that Noguchi perfected his art. With an artists’ hand Noguchi crafted this amazing work of plant, water, and stone. Just off of the 405 freeway in Costa Mesa, California there are two clusters of uninspired office buildings sitting close to the freeway. To the casual driver, or unknowing passerby, this office park, the South Coast Plaza, seems to be of little distinction. Similar developments are commonplace throughout the Southern California landscape. Entering into the complex in the direction of the freeway reveals subtle changes. Paths of flagstone of a rose hue draw inward, hinting at something more. Continuing into this space, there is a fountain of stone, capped by stainless steel, marking the transition into a different spatial envelope. Here, sandwiched between two glass monoliths scraping the sky, sits a divine 1.6 acres. Here lies Noguchi’s scenario.

Noguchi’s scenario is the embodiment of California through an artist’s eyes. Using primitive and somewhat simple forms and representations, Noguchi captured in this work the essence of California, while at the same time maintaining a purity and clarity in sculptural form.

California Scenario is a composition of balances. Each element, each factor in the overall composition aids the larger message, while any factor solely by itself would illustrate only a diluted meaning. There is energy in this place, and it is odd that what is considered a landmark of landscape design and artistry should sit in such an inauspicious setting. The common user of this space may be a cigarette indulgent employee housed in the nearby office buildings for which Noguchi’s artistry is unrealized; yet perhaps even the most unknowing viewer is affected by Noguchi’s Zen-like composition. The space seems to command a certain recognition by those whose pass through it. This design is executed extremely well as the spatial layout and symbolic meaning flow together in perfect harmony.

The forms and symbols chosen to represent California in the work reflect both a basic understanding of archetypal units of California, and of an overall mystery. A stack of boulders, hand picked from the California desert is one such symbol. The individual piece titled by Noguchi, The Spirit of the Lima Bean, is both a wonder of construction and visually remarkable. Simple in its meaning, the large grouping of rocks reflects the essence of the Lima Bean, the crop that was farmed in the area prior to development. The rest of the meanings in the work are of the same simplicity, yet they maintain effectively what Noguchi was trying to accomplish. A large sculptural form to represent the mountains, stream paths to represent the valleys and to show the movement of water, a stand of redwoods to represent the mountains. In a corner a large mound of sand and cacti represent the desert. Each of these isolated elements is effective in its simplicity. Just the two words California Scenario, and the meanings of the basic elements become clear and command appreciation. Yet, like all great works of art, not only can the meaning differ with the individual, but also it is clear that Noguchi conceptualized something more complex.

Perhaps the best thing about the space is it forces no messages. Some may see a stack of rocks where there is a small ledge perfect to sit and smoke a cigarette; others may see the broadly sweeping and diversified California landscape. Noguchi’s hidden jewel, enclosed in industrialism, sits still today as it did when Noguchi first installed it, slowly aging and growing wilder by the day.

Noguchi was an amazing artist not because he was just a great sculptor. He achieved greatness through an all-consuming passion for his art, and a unique appeal. As the Latin America Daily Post referred to him so eloquently, “He is a curator. A curator of time and space. A creator of a continuum of the universe that is only known to him.” For those preoccupied with landscape and with space, he did something magical. He created spaces of living art and sculpture, greater than any landscape design or piece of chiseled rock alone. He created places of meaning, metaphors beyond the scope of traditional art.


Clearly Noguchi did not want to leave the world of art, just redefine its boundaries. In an interview with Noguchi in 1981, the Latin American Daily Post beautifully articulated the artist’s ability for capturing space, “This is a man who has brought clarity to natures order. It is a vision of time and space made tangible by one who lives in the present, but scans all and perhaps more, of what is Homo sapiens.”
Noguchi in his landscape works created an outstanding sense of concept, often tapping into mythology from around the world, which gave a human level of meaning to his often abstract stone and sculptural works.

Isamu Noguchi grasped the concept of the Arts, not art alone, are a reflection of human life and existence. Art is not anything but an opinion, created by man for our own amusement, inspiration, and expression. Noguchi beautifully defined and created a wide range of works in his art, taking the known boundaries of what was considered art and pushing them further. This is what he did in the landscape, using the principle mediums of stone, form and space. Interestingly, Noguchi was not widely accepted in the art world as much as he was in the world of architecture and design. This isolation did not faze Noguchi though, he was resolved to take sculpture and artistry to the next level. Bruce Altshuler in his book on Noguchi eloquently surmises the aims of Noguchi’s landscape art. “For Noguchi, in the chaotic void of the modern world- a world without religion and threatened with nuclear destruction- meaning must be created, and its creation required spaces that would encourage social ritual. The structuring of those spaces was to be
the new calling of sculpture, and it reining metaphor was the garden.

Indeed Noguchi’s aim had multiple objectives. He sought to further sculpture while at the same time creating spaces and using the power of external three-dimensional space. He also sought a fellowship with nature, this was the reason why he had an affinity with stone and its expression in both the natural and man-made landscape. The article in the Latin American Daily Post expounds on this desire,
“This continuum of Isamu Noguchi is a realm of time and space which he describes with a halting simplicity and directness. His is a modest statement that it is nature, not man who prevails… [Noguchi represents] a man and his vision of the kinetics of nature. Sky, light, shadow, water, occasionally flora, and stone. Almost always stone.”

Despite all his works, in his essence Noguchi was a stone sculptor. Yet as stone is both natural and expressed in space, this did not preclude him from pursuing and designing places to express his sculpture. In the end this is exactly what Noguchi did, he created space in the landscape to display his sculpture of stone and space together as one.

Through his work with the landscape, Noguchi expanded his own artistry, and left a legacy far beyond the stone of the studio. In his landscape compositions, scattered from Paris to Japan and points in between, Noguchi created a theater for his legions of stone; a wonderful and mysterious tapestry through which the stone could be brought to life. — Noguchi’s carvings through the larger landscape transcend what he could do alone with any artistic medium or with any landscape by itself. Noguchi gained the rarified distinction of landscape artist. Perhaps Noguchi didn’t even see himself by this title, but he did have the realization that the landscape afforded him a much wider, sweeping appeal than through some stuffy museum alone.

California Scenario – “The Spirit of the Lima Bean”

1. Altshuler, Bruce. Noguchi. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers. 1994.

2. Ashton, Dore. Noguchi East and West. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1992.

3. Cummings, Paul. Artists in Their Own Words. New York: St. Martins Press. 1979.

4. Latin America Daily Post. “Isamu Noguchi Neither An Artist Nor A
Sculptor, But A Curator Of Time And Space.” Brazil. 1981

5. Noguchi, Isamu. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. New York: Harry
N. Abrams Inc. 1987.

6. Torres, Ana Maria. Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space. New York. Monacelli Press. 2000.

7. Tracy, Robert. Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs. New York: Proscenium Publishers. 2001.

Michelangelo- Contrasts of a Renaissance Genius


As part of our ongoing Masters Series

Michelangelo Buonarroti was the prototypical Renaissance man. Sculptor, painter, writer, poet, architect and engineer, there was nothing that was outside the man’s reach. Not only did he excel at all these disciplines, but he excelled at them exceeding well. Practically every facet of his work was breathtaking. From his sculpture of David, to his design for St. Peters cathedral, both are to this day incredible. It is interesting to compare his two most recognized areas of expertise, painting and sculpture, with his underemphasized work in design and architecture. There are similarities and differences in their elements, style and overall significance to present day society. Although Michelangelo’s art is some of the greatest in the history of western civilization, his architecture and design work are equally important to western design and architecture.

Mention the Sistine Chapel and the average person will be able to understand and visualize the paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican in Rome. Yet mention to this same person Campedoglio and they may stare at you dumbfounded. Michelangelo was so prolific in his sculpture and painting that many times recognition for his architecture and design is lacking. Yet Michelangelo’s accomplishments in design were pivotal in the evolution of western and renaissance design. His work with projects such as Campedoglio, the Porta and Strada Pia, and the plan for St. Peter’s cathedral showcase his immense architectural vision and abilities.

In regard to the evolution of architecture, Michelangelo was as pivotal as he was in his contribution in art. His abilities in spatial design are incredible as well. Through his use of a distinct personal design philosophy he was able to innovate in the practice of spatial layout and architecture. As Denis Sharp put eloquently “He always subordinated invention to the needs of overall composition, which to Michelangelo was analogous with the symmetry and articulation of the human body.” Michelangelo’s strength laid in his practice of rejecting convention and designing space that did not always obey the strict rules of Renaissance design. This kind of thinking, the breakaway from Renaissance classical ideals known as Mannerism, paved the way for an expansion of thought and innovation that led to the baroque period. He played with the rules in the same way he expanded art, and created something more in the process.

Campedoglio and the Porta and Strata Pia are the lasting and best examples of Michelangelo’s talent for designing space. Campedoglio, situated at the top of Capitoline hill in Rome, shows his ability for spatial design and the creation of unity. Using a modified system of geometry from the classical ideal, Michelangelo, through his use of the oval and trapezoid, was able to create a dynamic and engaging space at Campedoglio. The Porta and Strata Pia showed Michelangelo’s versatility in designing open public space. The design showed excellent definition of space, and use of scale to create a sense of monumentality, as was seen as well in Campedoglio. Both the spaces serve as reminders of Michelangelo’s versatility.

Even though Michelangelo was primarily an artist, his work as a designer cannot be overlooked. The qualities he brought to his art, originality, monumentality, and overall sense of style, can be seen at a much larger scale in his few design and architecture projects. Michelangelo was always busy with work and always moving from project to project as a life of incredible art consumed him. He showed an overall skill and individuality that has never been matched and probably never will.

Campidoglio, Rome. Michelangelo systematizes the irregular site with an egg-shaped oval paving pattern. Engraving by Étienne Dupérac (1525-1604), 1568. (Image from Wikipedia)


Sharp, Dennis. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991.

Hartt, Frederick. Michelangelo. New York. Abrams Publishers. 1964.


Masters of Landscape Architecture- Thomas Church


A continuing entry in our Masters Series

One of the most intriguing and certainly one of the most influential California landscape architects was Thomas Church. Church represented a critical bridge from an older school of traditional landscape design to a newer more modern “California School” of landscape design. What distinguishes Church from the masses of other gifted and note worthy landscape architects was his straight forward and effective approach to design. He is an interesting designer because of his intensive work in small scale residential design, his personal relationship with and care of his clients, and his practicality and effective use of modern design form.

Unlike many other famous designers Thomas Church made a name for himself in the residential arena of landscape design. His designs and design theories at this scale are perhaps his most notable and best work. His book Gardens are for People, is especially compelling because of its basic tenet of the garden being a logical extension of the house. Church’s work and ideas are appealing because they deal with the often dismissed or under appreciated realm of residential design. It seems that in the landscape architectural field today a tremendous deal of emphasis and focus are give to larger scale landscapes; parks, urban projects, and large public places seem to at times dominate the focus of the profession, when the residential garden or landscape can be as compelling and as difficult to design as many of the other large spaces. In his residential designs he was able to articulate and create amazing and unique landscapes within a small and rather limited residential setting. A noteable classic example of this design work is the Donnell Garden in Sonoma county.

Church also had interesting relationships with his clients. A spirit of cooperation and mutual input is something Church was noted for, and something that provides a great model for all landscape architects. This ability underscores the immense importance of the designer’s relationship to the client. A designer may be the best designer in the world, but if one can’t relate and work with the client then there designs are only going to achieve limited effectiveness.

For more:
Church’s work on the Stanford Campus
Seminar on Chruch inspired garden design


Landscape Lighting- Adding another Dimension

Special touches and features can really put a finishing touch on a project. Water features, sculptural pieces, custom woodwork, and outdoor lighting are some of the most common elements that can help take projects to the next level of detailing.

Low voltage outdoor lighting is an especially effective way to add the additional dimension of nighttime viewing. Lighting allows enjoyment of the garden year round, while also addressing safety and access concerns. This is typically done in a way that accents trees, pathways and special features, while not making your garden look like Las Vegas.

We typically install high quality professional low voltage lighting fixtures from a number of companies including FX Luminaire and Vista Professional Lighting. There are an increasing number of manufacturers producing high quality fixtures giving more options in terms of light style and application. We prefer low voltage lighting for flexibility of installation (it is easy to add or remove fixture to existing lines), safety, and lower cost.

Most fixtures we install are finished in copper or brass, but there are also a wide variety of powder coated metal colors available from manufacturers. As with anything, when it comes to lighting fixtures you get what you pay for. You can buy a cheap transformer or light set, designed for the do-it-yourselfer, but the lights are typically plastic and not designed to last.

Masters of Landscape Architecture- Lawrence Halprin


From time to time I will expound on some influential landscape designers in our “Masters” Series:

Lawrence Halprin is one of the most distinguished modern landscape architects. His scope of work and ability to capture the public imagination with his parks and projects made him as close to a household name as a landscape architect could attain. He is known for may great projects, including his groundbreaking integration of development and nature at Sea Ranch, and for the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C.

At 88 he continues to be active, recently consulting on George Lucas’ the new Letterman Digital Art complex. (Also read his recent opinion piece on the Golden Gate Bridge in the SF Chronicle) His San Francisco resume alone is impressive, with works along the Embarcadero including Levi Plaza, involvement in selecting and developing Justin Herman Plaza, and a redevelopment of Ghirardelli Square.

A most captivating signature element to many of these projects is Halprin’s fountains. Many of these are inspired by natural streams and water flow from areas such as the High Sierra. As Halprin writes, “I believe not only does form equal process in nature, but also think that we derive our sense of aesthetic from nature… I view the earth and its life processes as a model for the creative process.” (1)

Three standouts of Halprin’s fountains that I have visited, Levi Plaza in San Francisco, Freeway Park in Seattle, and the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, clearly show these natural influences. Each Halprin fountain seems to be related, variations on a theme. Large slabs of concrete, that gray over time to look like stone. Man made geometric pieces that use the magic of water to transcend into something natural.

Like most aging public projects, especially fountains, many of Halprin’s works are being threatened with removal or redevelopment (Portland, Washington State Campus, Denver, Virginia). Should you get a chance to visit one of these features, with the water turned on and running, you can appreciate some of Halprin’s genius for creating a bold statement.


More Information on Halprin:
ASLA Michelangelo Award

Lovejoy Fountain, Portland
Ira Keller Fountain, Portland

(1) From: The Landscape of Man, Jeffery and Susan Jellicoe, p.333