The big picture:
Integrating landscape design and architectural style

By Linda Erskine-White

When designing anything, we are told that we have to look at the "big picture" for inspiration, ideas and a starting point. As landscape professionals, our customers instil a certain level of trust that we will provide them with a landscape that suits not only their lifestyle and needs, but also the overall style of the property it highlights.

     In his seminar "Integrating landscape design and architectural style" at Congress 2000, Frederick R. Spicer, Jr., manager of horticulture for Morris County Park Commission in Morristown, NJ, indicates that many in our industry fall short in the overall design process by not taking into account all of the features of the property, including the house, and specifically its architectural style.

     "Many people in our profession are providing customers with landscapes that in no way relate to the architectural style of the house, and people are buying it," says Spicer. "It behooves us to be better than that."

     As Spicer recommends, prior to even quoting on a project, landscape professionals need to meet with the clients in their home, first to get a feel for what the clients want, but more importantly to perform a visual site inspection to examine the architectural style of the house, the symmetry of the property and to look for any outstanding features. Is it a Georgian-, Colonial- or Victorian-style of house? Is it a ranch-style or bungalow? Does it have any outstanding architectural features that the clients may (or may not) want to highlight? Landscape designers and architects must also look at the topography of the site, including focal points and the sight lines from all angles, even from inside the home.

     These days, defining the architectural style of the house is not as clear-cut as one may think. It is easier with older, more established homes, says Spicer, as you usually have a rough time line of when the house was built. "Early architectural influences came from the European continent with local differences between German, English and Dutch styles, with local or regional design influences," explains Spicer, adding that, with few exceptions, European culture also had a hand in later styles. These exceptions usually stemmed from the rejection of anything English, such as the Federal-style. Today, with often mass produced communities, it is hard to find anything with a true and definable architectural style. "Many houses we see today are an amalgam of many architectural styles, often at the expense of them all," says Spicer, noting that most may start off with a particular style in the main part of the house, but are then modified with the addition of large, often indiscernible blocks of rooms, whether it be a garage or great room, etc.

Examine the important architectural features
After determining the style of the house, you must look at distinctive architectural features and ask how the landscape could integrate with the architectural style. "Use materials that play off against the structure of the house," Spicer notes, and decide whether the structure is symmetrical or asymmetrical. A very traditional, Georgian home would not suit a loose and flowing, meadow-like landscape, but would be enhanced by a more formal, symmetrical type of garden.

Building masses and materials
When you are examining the architecture of the house, you must also evaluate the building masses and materials in those masses, its proportion and delineation of sections or wings of the house. Your design must reinforce the dominant building masses and soften any disproportionate masses in that structure, and repeat elements found in the house in the landscape. "When you can't duplicate the exact material, use different yet harmonious materials," he says. "You can also harmonize with colour."

     One example of this can be seen in a 1700s farmhouse, which has been added to over the years as the family has grown. One of charms of the farmhouse is its use of stonework, and says Spicer, this is an element that should be celebrated not hidden. "Do not hide the elements that speak directly of the history of the house," he confirms, stating that instead of using large, foundation plantings to obscure the really old and beautiful stonework, a selection of low-growing, herbaceous and deciduous plants was more appropriate.

     Another example cited by Spicer examines a newly constructed property with a small circular driveway and even smaller entrance. The driveway, a seemingly major feature of the property failed to perform for two reasons: a) the driveway was not wide enough to accept two cars and provided no parking for guests, and b) it also did not have the room to allow for people to walk by to get to the main entrance. This feature was resized to provide a place to drop off visitors close to the main entrance and to accommodate guest parking.

     A Palladian window in another property presented a challenge because the feature was so prominent. "There are some features you just can't hide or obscure," says Spicer, refering to the large window situated above the entrance, which while very grand, does not have enough brick space between the window and the roof line. "You might as well buy right into it and repeat the form in the landscape because it will be integrated with the house." Spicer remedied the situation by extending the entranceway outward, mirroring the long and curved shape of the window in the hardscaping of the entrance platform.

     Certain shapes found in architectural features can be repeated in the landscape through the use of plant material. For instance, the shape of the columns that frame an entranceway can be repeated elsewhere in the landscape, perhaps with the columnar effect of some vertical growing evergreens to create an entrance into another area of the garden. The round curve of a driveway could be repeated in a retaining wall or hedge.

     While Spicer says this type of mirroring in the landscape is good for the overall flow of the property, he does admit that too much of a good thing is essentially just that - too much. "When repeating architectural styles in the landscape, keep it simple," he says, noting it is better concentrate on one or two main elements rather than try to compress everything into one design.

Entries - importance, location and size
The previous 'Palladian window' project offers a segue into the next item on Spicer's list - entries and their real and perceived importance. "The imporĀ­tance of entries will determine the circulation patterns on the property and the emphasis of views," he says. "The main entrance must be the focal point because that is where you want people to come."

     While the 300-year-old farmhouse exhibited very beautiful and timeless stonework, its main problem was that with the number of extensions and add-ons over the years, and now with a total of seven doors from which to choose, visitors could not decipher its main entrance. "You have got to clarify the directional ambiguity that people experience when they approach someone's home," comments Spicer. With the main entrance actually at the side of the house, part of the redesign was to create a feature along the driveway at the front that would accommodate parking, and with a ribbon of walkway and plantings, lead visitors to the new entrance. "The landscape can be made relative to the entry," he confirms. "Plants and hardscaping make it obvious the areas reserved for parking and walking."

Building lines
Foundation lines, corners, edges, roof lines and window layout are extremely important to a home's overall style and can not be hidden away. Instead, Spicer recommends reinforcing these structural elements through repetition and extending these architectural forms in the landscape. While Spicer likes to use foundation plantings in a landscape, he says that people tend to plant them too close to the house and often obscure the natural lines of the house. "The plants should define a space, not merely occupy it," Spicer comments. Instead, he recommends moving the larger plants out approximately 10 feet from the foundation and creating a pathway between the house and plantings. Lower plantings can be situated closer to the house. In one property, a home with a main portion and additions coming out at right angles, Spicer points out that the client had all but ignored the building lines, placing a hedge in a narrow space, jutting against the house. "This makes the space less able to breath. We are so concerned about smashing these plants right up against a house that we forget about space, proportion and the impact of building and window lines." He also notes that we as landscapers are too quick to take out these same shrubs. In some cases, Spicer says, "we can prune them from the inside to make them more open and scupltural, or from the bottom up to permit walking beneath. They become more transparent, we can see through them and this creates more visual interest." More importantly, says Spicer, any good landscape architect or designer designs a space with the future in mind. "A flowering tree planted far enough away would allow the incorporation of a walkway, and would, throughout its growth, allow space for people to walk." He also suggests that designers and clients look for the unusual in plantings. Instead of planting the typical upright plant between two windows, "we constructed an upright trellis and grew flowering vines. Even if it were an annual, this can add a lot of drama to a space. The plants would never overgrow, never require extensive pruning and will never grow underneath the soffit of the house. It's a better, long-term effect."

     Plant placement is equally as important in creating and highlighting changes from public to private areas. Plants, Spicer says, must be pulled back from the facade and used to create spatial transitions. Partial screens help to give the space a sense of privacy, yet mystery, with people often curious as to what lay behind it. As Spicer concedes, these walls, arbors, trellises and structures, while screening an area, also help to define a garden room or area.

      No matter how talented or inspired a landscape architect or designer is, the bottom line in any successful landscape design is to create a space out of what has been given. And, especially when homes today have no set style but often rely on an amalgamation of various styles, it is important to look at all elements of the home. "The building says what to do with the space," confirms Spicer. All it takes is for the designer to look at all architectural and physical elements of the property, including the circulation, sensory and spatial needs of its owners, to see its potential, its problems and, ultimately, the solution.

Frederick R. Spicer is the manager of horticulture for the Morris County Park Commission in Morristown, NJ, where he oversees the Frelinghuysen and Willowwood arboreta. This article is a summary of the seminar, "Integrating Landscape Design and Architectural Style," presented at Congress 2000 this past January.