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In my work doing residential landscape architecture, I have encountered a number of instances where someone has bought a house on a sloping piece of land, getting what seems to be a steal. Usually, the buyer/client first tackles work on the house, revising its interior, and sometimes its exterior, to make it just as he/she wants it to be. House modifications can take years. When the house update is done, the homeowner turns his/her attention to the landscape. Most people want as much usable outdoor space as possible: a patio is a pleasant place to sit, a big, level lawn lets kids play comfortably and within sight, and walking, driving, swimming, or playing sports are all easier on flat surfaces. And it’s when the owner of a sloping site wants to enlarge their usable domain that it becomes clear why the dream house was such a bargain.

Why? Because slopes are expensive to unslope.

For people to use the land immediately around their house with any degree of comfort, it’s necessary to make level areas. A patio typically has a cross-pitch or slope of not more than 2% (just enough to drain water), and a lawn that slopes no more than 5 or 6 percent is best for active kids to organize and play games on. When a house is built on really noticeably sloping ground, the grade can measure anywhere from 8 to 15 percent, or more.

Sometimes earthen banks can hold up a level area; sometimes strategically placed boulders can do the job; often large retaining walls are necessary. Where surface area is scant, retaining walls may be the most efficient way to hold land level. Walls tend to be costly.

To start from a different point: A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to visit a friend in Konstanz, Germany. While there, we took a number of side trips into Switzerland. We punctuated our train trip to Appenzell, Switzerland (home of many cows and of Appenzeller cheese, a famously stinky but delicious local specialty) with a visit to St. Gallen, home of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall.

St. Gallen, Switzerland, from the air. The medieval walled city core is clearly visible among the more regular fabric of later-built streets and buildings. The Abbey and its World Heritage Site Bibliothek can be seen at about four o'clock in the walled part of the city.

The Bibliotek (Library) was closed when we arrived. We were ready to take a rest anyway, so found a spot on the spacious and sunny courtyard lawn and got out a picnic lunch. The day was bright and only slightly cool; though cars puttered by outside the court and a bell nearby clanged the hour and several other people sat on the grass and on nearby benches, the courtyard felt extraordinarily tranquil and pleasant. We munched and chatted, and I tried to put my finger on what made the courtyard feel so different from the surrounding area.

Look closer at the Abbey and its grounds. It takes up a large area within the walled city, and though the surrounding land slopes to the northwest, (that is, toward the photo's top left corner), the huge Abbey courtyard is almost perfectly level.

I had been thinking about the slope/cost issue for a quite some time, and it sprang to mind again in that peaceful abbey close. From the railroad station in the valley bottom, we had climbed winding medieval city streets to get to the Abbey; the walled city around the Abbey sat considerably higher than the station itself. Outside the three-sided Abbey complex, streets bent and sloped against the thick walls of the Roman Catholic enclave. Inside, green grass carpeted an utterly level quadrangle, muffling sound and lying like a tablecloth on a tabletop

Outside the Abbey walls is an orderly but dense fabric of masonry buildings and narrow streets that wind up and down the hilly terrain. Inside the Abbey walls, the utterly level and open ground of this tranquil courtyard puts on display the power and wealth of the Church that built it. Photo by kind courtesy of Galen Frysinger, at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/

In this Swiss city, slope is a fact of life. Buildings themselves do double duty as retaining walls; the back door of a house here can easily be situated a full floor above the front door. The city fabric is tightly woven, to conserve energy and again, because amending long sloping frontages can be expensive. Most homes are built cheek by jowl, with little or no space between houses.

The Church was and is a wealthy and powerful homeowner/landowner, as evidenced by its leveling of a sizable piece of the town’s steep foothill to make a vast piece usable ground. The fact that the courtyard lies in the middle of this densely woven city, and that it is given over to luxurious lawn sends a quiet but clear message of power and wealth. While the elegant and extremely solid buildings convey that message, the carving out of level outdoor space speaks just as definitively about the ability of this particular institution to make unlevelled places plain.

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That last post made a good point — sometimes the leftovers in a landscape can be used as a feature in and of itself — but I much prefer the photo here. This hemlock is very much alive, and lives outside of Boston on private property. Carl Cathcart, Consulting Arborist, took me to see this wonderful tree last July, and you can see more photos of and information on the tree at Taking Place in the Trees.

To get an idea of the scale of this tree, look just to the right of the tree's center; Carl Cathcart is standing on the ground under the tree's canopy, and his legs are just visible.

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The other day I was on Beacon Hill and spotted this mostly dead hemlock tree, completely swathed in Boston ivy:

Though this hemlock tree on Beacon Hill is dead, its stripped-down structure maintains usefulness, as Boston ivy covers it entirely with foliage.

Perhaps the owners were simply neglecting their courtyard garden, but I like to think that they saw the mature tree’s size as an asset to the place, and decided to use the deadwood as an armature for another plant, and to use the resulting ‘hybrid’ as a garden element.

I have seen this strategy used with other trees; an ancient, mostly dead apple through which a vigorous rose climbs and blooms, tiny dead crabapple that hosts a clematis vine, and a couple of thriving Norway maples through whose canopies wind equally thriving wisteria vines.

We see bittersweet and poison ivy taking advantage of the height and sun exposure offered by trees; why not use that principle and foster the growth of ornamental vines over dead trees, or, as in the case of the Norway maples and wisteria, let one aggressive species provide a platform for another aggressive species?

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About ten years ago, I noticed a mild fad rev up in the gardening world; all the garden centers around here started carrying Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, usually trained into standard form with a 3-4′ high stem and a pompom of foliage at top. Hakuro Nishiki, also known as Dappled Willow, is a fast-growing, twiggy large shrub/small tree with variegated white and light green to pink leaves, and it lights up a garden with its foliage, which is profuse and almost aggressively healthy-looking.

I’m fond of these plants, though they certainly need to be placed with care. They like full sun, but can deal with some shade. Because they grow so vigorously, it’s a good idea to commit to pruning them every year or so, to keep them in bounds. Actually, I can see how sculpting them in various ways each year might be an interesting exercise — not something you’d want to do with most plants, but this one seems malleable enough to allow some experimentation.

I have written earlier about L. and A., my excellent clients on the North Shore, who enjoy developing and fostering their landscape. Several years ago L. bought a Dappled Willow for her perennial garden. It’s not a standard form; instead, she’s keeping it pruned low, to keep it in scale with other elements in the garden. Here’s a photo of it in leaf:

This plant is about thirty inches high and wide, and is kept as a mounded shrub with pruning.

And here’s a photo of how L. prunes it to keep it contained to this form:

Every year L. cuts this Dappled Willow back hard, to keep its vigorous growth contained in a form that works for her perennial garden.

I have wondered what these plants look like unpruned, and last week got to see one. If the willow in L.’s garden looks like a contained explosion, this one looks as if the top blew off the container:

Perhaps the owner of this plant didn't realize what level of attention Hakuro Nishiki was going to require annually.

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The massive four-stem Norway maple that blew down in high winds last week.

Following up on the list post item from June 9, about what to use to replace a lost Norway maple: it will be a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis ‘Shademaster’), placed slightly upslope from the Norway stump.

Last week I visited the North Shore seaside site (where last year we revamped the drive court planting and added bamboo and holly for property line screening; to read about those projects, see Refinement and Air Spade In Action) and saw the spatial effect of losing this tree.

Surprisingly, the loss wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. The tree’s canopy had taken up a huge amount of space and cast deep shade over quite an area. It had screened my clients from an unappealing view of the corner of their neighbor’s house — but also from a wider view of the Boston skyline in the distance. Now the horizon is wider; they’re going to have a spectacular view of the city’s July 4 fireworks. While the neighbor’s house is unfortunately visible for the moment, the honey locust will mitigate that view. A younger specimen maple just over the property line, which had been hidden by the larger tree, looks healthy, and helps provide a perspective-focusing foreground to the far horizon.

Fortunately too, while the tree provided shade over a wide area of the site, much of its underplanting consisted of junipers and taxus, which should benefit from having more sunlight. The redtwig dogwood, azaleas, and hydrangea will think a bit about how much they like being exposed, but I think they’ll adapt. Even the little spring shade garden should fare all right, protected as much of it by a dense shrub planting from full sun exposure. Many of the herbaceous plants in it are ephemeral anyway, showing up in early spring before any trees leaf out, and fading back as foliage emerges above them.

Shade cast by the now-gone Norway maple protected the little spring garden and its ligularia circle at the path's end.

Our biggest concern for this newly sunny area is the ligularia bed. This bed, banded with a circle of bluestone, makes the southern terminus of a sightline through the tiny spring garden. The ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ ligularia, with its chocolate-brown foliage and golden spikes of flowers, makes a ravishing dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. And it’s a shade lover.

Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford' in its circle bed.

It may not be at all happy to be getting sun all day every day. My hope is that it can handle it well enough for long enough to feel relief from the kinder, more dappled shade that the new honey locust will eventually cast.

This site has seen several mature trees come down since last year; neighbors next to the drive court removed a large maple and a lovely S-shaped pine, an ailing ash tree got taken out, and a graceful Russian olive specimen, some 20 feet tall, blew down in the same storm that took the big Norway maple.

Each subtraction has shifted the sun/shade proportions, and each will affect the growth and health of the surrounding area. This kind of change requires adaptation both by the plants and by the owners, and provides opportunities for new ways of seeing a familiar place.

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I mentioned my last post, Landscape by Landscape Architects, in the LinkedIn ASLA and BSLA group discussions, and got some great responses to the observation that the AIA, in this difficult economy, is aiming to position architects as the best professionals to do the infrastructure projects being funded by the economic stimulus. Several suggested that all professional players — LAs, architects, engineers — should be at the table, and that integration among the professions will result in the most effective solutions. Another raised the important point that we live in a free market economy, and that those best qualified, and most adept at showcasing their qualifications, will be those chosen in the free market to do the projects. Still another member commented that LAs need to advocate not just for our qualifications to do the work, but also for the landscapes themselves once they have been designed and installed, as their maintenance requirements are unique and perpetual.

(I just checked those discussion boards, and find that this topic on both boards has been moved to the Jobs section — I’m trying to get them switched back to Discussions, but for now if you check LinkedIn, take a look in Jobs on both the ASLA and BSLA sites. The topic is Architects and Landscape Architecture.)

So — as I say, thoughtful and thought-provoking responses, and clearly this is a topic lots of people have thought about. A couple of people referred also to the William Hamilton piece in the same issue of The Architect’s Newspaper, which discusses the need for the preservation of designed landscapes.

And really, it was reading this feature article, in addition to the editorial that got me thinking about the stance of the AIA and the architectural profession towards landscape architecture. Not the gist of Hamilton’s article, with which it’s hard to disagree, but for his language. In the entire discussion, he uses each of the terms ‘landscape architecture’ and ‘landscape architect’ exactly once. ‘Landscape’, and ‘landscape design’ stand in for landscape architecture through the whole piece. I’m wondering if the decision to do this came from the editors or from Hamilton himself — however it came about it seemed peculiar.

Maybe I’m being persnickety. Language does matter, though. What would an article about architectural preservation look like if it was written without the use of the words ‘architecture’ or ‘architect’? We would be reading sentences like “Enduring building design, like that by master designers like Paul Rudolph and Pierre Koenig, has the power to move societies…”, or “Craig Hartman, the respected SOM designer leading the project, has acknowledge the historical significance of the building…”. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

And that’s why reading this whole piece, with its curious skirting of ‘landscape architect’ and ‘landscape architecture’ felt weird. Though the deans of twentieth century LA were mentioned, none was given the title ‘landscape architect’, and the profession itself was mentioned only that one time, in reference to its obscurity. I don’t think I’m living in a parallel universe to the real world, but this piece made me wonder.

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Last week my copy of The Architect’s Newspaper arrived, and yesterday I sat down with it at the breakfast table and read through. Page three opened with an editorial (‘Why We Do City Work’) by Julie Iovine and William Menking about architects and the hurdles they face in competing for public projects in various cities.

The competition among American architects to get public projects started when the AIA was born, back in the late 1800s; it began as part of a drive to show off the talents of American architects. Construction was booming in the 1880s and 90s, and the AIA saw a need for solid architectural design of “post offices, custom houses, and other official buildings” being put up in the boom (this according to Andrew Saint, author of The Image of the Architect (Yale,1983). The results of this ’employ the architects’ effort are visible in cities all over the county, where architect-designed public buildings abound. (My grandfather, practicing in the first half of the 20th century, designed quite a few municipal buildings in and around Providence, RI, including all of the city’s branch libraries.)

With the current economic situation, and the federal stimulus money being parcelled out to states, and thence to municipalities, the AIA is now pushing again for architects to jump in and dish up a piece of the pie for themselves. This time, though, they want a much bigger piece. Iovine and Menking report that the AIA, at a UCLA-sponsored conference called WPA 2.0 next week (November 16), “will urge architects to “take back the streets” and along with them the public buildings, parks, bridges, and roads across the nation that are the most obvious symbols of true investment in the future.”

Are landscape architects listening? The AIA is gearing up to urge architects to push hard for contracts to design landscapes. Iovine and Menking applaud this direction, and assert that “architects must continue that good fight to bring their design perspective and social awareness to public works.”

Well. Do architects (educated and licensed to design buildings, some of which are truly atrocious), have a lock on decent design perspective and social awareness? I don’t think so. Do they understand the complexities of designing outdoor spaces? The architect-designed park that comes immediately to mind — Parc de la Villette, by Bernard Tschumi — was a exercise in postmodernism that apparently has great individual building elements and features, but whose a landscape lacks scale and comfort. Commodity, yes (it’s big!), but fitness and delight — perhaps not so much, if visitor reviews are any guide.

Conversely, do landscape architects, we who have been educated and licensed to design outdoor spaces, lack design perspective and social awareness? Again, I don’t think so. Do we understand the materials involved in shaping outdoor space? Do we aim for proportion, for usability, for integration and sustainability, for beauty and fitness and readability? It’s why we went into this profession in the first place.

Certainly it’s not possible to claim that no architect understands outdoor space, and every landscape architect makes great places — but our profession ought to be aware that the building designers, having a hard time finding billable work these days, are aiming to position themselves as qualified to do our work, both to increase their billability now and to ensure revenues when building-design biz slacks off in the future. It would behoove every landscape architect, and every LA professional organization (this means you, ASLA) to do what we can to ensure that our bailiwick — the intelligent, sensitive, and skillful design of outdoor spaces, both public and private — remain in the hands of those actually professionally qualified to do it.

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