The Cambridge, Massachusetts, project is This Old House’s first foray into Modernism–both inside and out. Homeowner George Mabry is anxious to extend the modernist philosophy into his back yard to create a private Eden away from the busy streets of the Boston suburb.
Anyone can build a Modern landscape as long as they understand the philosophy behind the design. It’s a break from the rectangular garden beds and predictable stone pathways that until the 1950s dominated outdoor planning. Instead, Modern design allows for a more artistic approach to recreating a natural flow in a man-made landscape.
“People turn to Modern landscaping to create a romantic notion that they’re in nature, that they’ve fallen out of the sky and landed in untrammeled naturalism,” says landscape architect Greg Lombardi, who spearheaded the landscaping efforts at the Cambridge house. “It should look accidental because that’s how you would find it.”
Sorry, that doesn’t mean letting the lawn go unmowed, but rather building and riffing on the nature that already exists. To start, Lombardi suggests standing at an entry point for the yard. See what features catch your eye, and what emotions they evoke. For instance, a little hill with trees may create the sense of being a grove. “That is something we should accentuate,” he says.
Consider what types of natural vegetation would exist in such a grove. Modern landscaping generally advocates for native plants and species, or at least staying away from exotic vegetation. A local garden center can provide advice on indigenous plants that are best suited for specific areas of a yard.
When planting, triangulate plants so that they’re never in a straight line, and plant in odd-numbered groups to get a more natural, haphazard look. Create scattered beds and blur the edging so that it doesn’t look too contrived, Lombardi says. If the yard is big enough, consider creating different sections, like an unmanicured tree grove or a grassy mound with a water feature.
Bear in mind, though, that Modernism allows for different definitions of “natural” Maybe phasing from soil to broken glass to grass speaks to you, and suits your surroundings. Go for it. Water features, sculptures, rock designs–all are equally welcome in the landscape if they complement the overall mood.
Of course, nothing spoils the Zen experience of one’s own landscape faster than a view of the neighbor’s rusting yard equipment. So add a tree line or vined trellises to close in your sanctuary. Make it more natural by planting native species that will blend into the rest of the yard.
Ultimately, Modern landscape design means tapping into the flow of the environment and manipulating it to evoke a sensibility.
“As a designer, you’re an editor,” says Lombardi. “Even if you use Astroturf and artificial plants, as long as you experience something, that’s Modern art.”