A Modern Landscape Designed by Students

Mike Rhines examines sketches and planting samples.

For many people, hiring an expert is a natural part of any home-improvement project. But for confirmed DIYers, hiring help can feel like a blow to both your self-esteem and your pocketbook, issues my husband, Mike, and I wrestled with while addressing our house’s dramatic lack of landscaping.

Our 1949 Bauhaus home, designed by Quincy Adams (a direct descendent of the former president) in Lincoln, Massachusetts, had somehow survived 60 years with no landscaping at all. While the house was bold, its surrounding yard was a bumpy mess of crab grass. Our curb appeal further diminished when, after converting the attached garage into living space, we moved the driveway away from the house, leaving a muddy pit behind.

Our first impulse was to roll up our sleeves and start planting. I read books on Modern landscape design, trying to determine what made a landscape “modern.” We hit the nursery sales at the end of the fall and bought a Japanese maple, and scoured the big-box stores for bushes. Then a friend—who knew I was neither an accomplished nor an enthusiastic gardener—said something that gave me pause: “Your house is really strong architecturally. You don’t want to mess things up.”

Lucky Break

That winter, I attended a Historic New England lecture on the Modern landscape, given by Michael Wasser of Michael Wasser Associates in Boston. He talked about the landscape being an extension of the architecture—connecting the building to the land. I knew he would understand our house.

I went home and told my husband we had found our designer. Mike thought someone who presented lectures sounded expensive. I sadly emailed Wasser, saying we weren’t in a position to pay for his expertise.

He wrote back: “I’m disappointed; I was thinking of using your house as a case study for my landscape-design students at Harvard’s Landscape Institute.” (The Landscape Institute is now affiliated with Boston Architectural College.) Usually Wasser used newly built houses for his case-study projects, but our landscape managed to look as raw as that of a spec-built home.

The finished design by Michael Wasser incorporates many elements from the students’ plans.

We agreed to let his six second-year students visit our property and have free rein in designing comprehensive plans. We would then attend their three-hour final exam presentation. While we wouldn’t be able to keep the students’ designs, Wasser would distill and interpret our reactions into a final design for a reduced fee. It was like winning a spot on one of those home-improvement reality shows.

Design Decisions

Wasser and his students arrived on a rainy day in June and started snapping pictures of the yard. Then they came inside and asked questions, some of which surprised me.

“What is your favorite piece of art in your house?” I pointed to an industrial scene of warehouses in Chicago—probably not the most helpful choice for garden designers.

“Would you like to have a vegetable garden?”

“Not really,” I answered. I knew I would have trouble weeding a flowerbed, let alone tending a vegetable patch.

“Would you like a pool?” Mike said no, and I answered yes. It couldn’t hurt to see where it would fit in someday.

The author and her husband work to lay 3′ x 3′ pavers.

The students jotted notes, took a few more pictures, and then went off to discuss the results of their walk-around and interview. We didn’t see them again for two months.

On the day of the final review, the students arrived carrying large 3-D models of our house and yard. They covered the walls of the conference room with gigantic plot plans in color. I was humbled when I saw the many hours of work each one had poured into our house.

Each student took 45 minutes to present his or her comprehensive plan. I marveled at the drawings, the sample pictures of hardscaping materials and plantings, the discussions of interior and exterior viewscapes, and the clever solutions for problem areas. Just the variations of design and material choices for the patio alone were amazing. We saw built-in seating, half walls, trellises, stone planters, reflecting pools, and fire pits.

Each plan, whether it resonated or not, provided useful information. For example, one student took up the challenge of designing a pool in the yard. She worked valiantly to come up with a pleasing sort of pool fence, which is a safety requirement in Massachusetts. I realized from her efforts that we would never have a pool like those shown in Julius Shulman’s vintage photos of Palm Springs houses. Massachusetts code simply would not allow me to have a moonlit pool gently lapping at my foundation. I laid the pool idea to rest.

The couple is installing the new landscape piecemeal; the bluestone walkway was the first project completed.

Meanwhile, as Mike and I tried to absorb this huge flow of ideas, Wasser and a professional colleague critiqued each student’s work. One month later, Wasser distilled our wish list and deftly produced the comprehensive plan.

Breaking Ground

So now the implementation phase begins. Can we adapt the final plan into something that takes into account both our need to be involved and our budget? That remains to be seen. We have already maneuvered some 3′ x 3′ bluestone pavers into place, so we know the hardscaping will indeed be hard. As for the rest, I’m crossing my fingers that we can find a construction school looking for a case-study project.

Tags: Barbara Rhines bauhaus gardens mid-century modern OHJ August/September 2011 Old-House Journal

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