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Gardens for People

“Landscaping is not a complex and difficult art to be practiced only by high priests. In any age of reason, it is the owner who . . . decides . . . the garden and the purposes for which it will be used.”

These words from landscape architect Thomas Church’s seminal book, Gardens Are for People, ring as true today as they did when they were first published in 1955. Gardens truly are for people, and while that’s manifestly an obvious statement, it seems to be a concept that insufficient numbers of today’s watershape and landscape designers fully grasp.

That’s nothing new. More than half a century ago, in fact, Church was motivated to write what is widely acknowledged as the book on creating gardens for the human experience by his observation that too many of his contemporaries were on the wrong course. They were, he regretted, delving into design work that might have satisfied their egos or looked great in photos, but didn’t really take human use of the spaces they were designing into account.

Let me confess that I too have occasionally been guilty of trying to stretch the creative envelope with my work – typically in display gardens, where making artistic statements is accepted and even encouraged. For the most part, however, I’m ever mindful that gardens are for people and that I’m devising spaces in which my clients will sit, swim, cook, socialize, reflect, exercise and/or play.

It’s about clients, that is, rather than about ego.

TRACING INFLUENCES

Ironically, Church is probably best known today for his “radical” pool designs, particularly the “kidney bean” pool with which he graced a home in Sonoma, Calif., in 1948. In looking at this pool time and again, I can’t help thinking how well its design has held up through the past 60-plus years. Certainly it’s been knocked off countless times by other curvaceous pools, but it has an integrity that none can rival.

For all sorts of reasons, Church has had a major influence on my work – and on that of countless others. But while I admire him (and my numerous other design heroes) for barrier-busting design and engineering feats, in using them as inspiration I never, ever lose touch with the fact that my gardens are for my clients, not for me, my portfolio or my desire to walk in the footsteps of brilliant designers.

Yes, I want my projects to look good in photographs, basically so I can show prospective clients what I’ve done. But more important, I want my clients to want to be in their gardens: I want them drawn outside toward the pool, over to the colorful garden, onto the well-appointed terrace or into the kitchen garden.

And I don’t see this practical ambition as an option. Indeed, I think it’s wrong to impose my will on clients and design according to my preferences or my artistic ambitions. It’s simply wrong to expect clients to accept this.

Case in point – and one that has nothing to do with watershapes or landscapes: My wife and I enjoy dining out and often notice how these experiences parallel elements of our working lives – a point Brian Van Bower has made many times in print and in his presentations. At its best, the dining experience transports us to a relaxing frame of mind, extracting us from daily cares and giving us sensations of luxury and self-indulgence.

Sharon and I appreciate these experiences and enjoy finding new places. At one restaurant, however, as soon as we sat down neither of us could help noticing the flatware – beautiful, sculptural, artistic and, unfortunately, quite difficult to use.

The fork and knife had a quarter twist in them that made them rest on the table with their handles perpendicular to the tabletop. We commented on how they appeared to float on the tablecloth – a stunning visual effect – but to use them, we had to rotate them awkwardly in our hands and consciously turn them sideways to spear food off our plates. We both had the same question: Didn’t the designers (or the restaurateurs, for that matter) ever try to use these things themselves?

Herein is the crux of my argument (as derived, of course, from Church’s): Why don’t we engage our clients and give them what they want rather than what we decide they want? Why don’t we just come right out and ask them what they think? What we see instead is that too many designers have an “I know what you want and need” arrogance about the process and form preconceptions before they ever ring the doorbell. That’s a shame – and it’s wrong.

HEART OF THE MATTER

As designers, it’s our job to dig in and figure out what our clients really want. This enables us to create spaces that are worth what we’ve asked them to pay and that will be used (as intended and desired) for entertaining, by the kids or for myriad other purposes. To make this happen, we need to listen.

I can’t count the number of times clients have told me, after I’ve presented a proposal, that ours was the only firm that actually listened to them and absorbed what they had to say. I like hearing this, of course, because it puts us on an inside track; but I’m also dumbfounded by the fact that so many of my fellow designers seem incapable of paying attention to those who will be opening their lives and homes to them.

Once again, Church hit the nail on the head: “No one can design intelligently for you,” he writes, “unless he knows what you need, what you want, and what you are like. If you won’t tell, he will have to guess.”

Of course, it would be great if all clients insisted on giving designers all the information they might need. But let’s face it: Not all clients are sharp enough or practiced enough or insightful enough to know how important it is to open up – which means, pure and simple, that we have to work at unlocking their minds.

Often, of course, they’ll need practical guidance along the way, as when they don’t understand local codes or the fact that their yards are too shady for the pools they want or too sunny for the clumps of hosta they envision for their gardens. No matter: It’s up to us to work with them, setting aside our preferences for certain plants or stone types or architectural styles and determining what it is that they really want and need – what it is that will make them happy with the project’s outcome.

To that end, in my business we use a simple questionnaire to aid this process – just as many other designers do. We ask four pages of direct, simple questions about favorite (and least favorite) colors, how they intend to use the space and whether they like entertaining guests or prefer private dining. We ask if they like formal or informal gardens and all sorts of other questions, some of them doubling back so we come at key issues from multiple directions. We also ask about budget so we can focus on what’s possible.

When we listen to our clients and give them what they want instead of what we decide is best for them, chances are better than good that they will be happy every time they enter and use the space. This formal garden is just such a space — designed for its owners and scaled to meet their desires for years to come.

Entering this process, we let our clients know that design is subjective, and that everyone has an opinion. Then I remind them that when the job is done, I’ll go home and they’ll have to live with the results. “And so,” I tell them clearly, “if you want a pink walkway with purple polka-dots, I will do that for you. I may not like it very much, but I will design it properly and install it perfectly.”

SEEING RED

Naturally, I prefer working with those who trust us and the vision we set out for them, but each client is different. Some will say that indulging clients’ sometimes erratic desires is a disservice to the design profession, but if the clients are happy and I did my best, who’s to judge?

This brings me to another case in point: The notorious “red pool,” a project by David Tisherman that was featured (and heavily debated) in these pages several years back. Here was a design that shocked WaterShapes readers with its audacity but is passing the tests of time as a standard-changing design.

The project was definitely way outside the box, but it worked for the client and aligned with a venturesome designer’s need for unique, soul-satisfying work. In this instance, the clients had a vividly colorful home filled with African folk art, and Tisherman brilliantly played off their tastes in creating an exterior environment perfectly befitting the clients and their tastes.

In another backyard for another client, this would have been the product of the designer’s ego; in this backyard, however, it was brilliant.

If I ever was given an opportunity by a client who trusted me enough to let me do my own thing, I can only hope that I would be as bold and inventive as Tisherman was with his red pool. I would also hope that I’d have enough sense to listen carefully to my clients and respond as appropriately as he did to their basic needs and desires.

Several years back, I worked for a client who told me after I had suggested using a yellow-flowering Dwarf Forsythia that she absolutely hated the color yellow – and would not tell me why. “No yellow,” she said in that long-ago, pre-questionnaire time. (It was only years later that I accidentally learned that her ex-husband had made a cutting remark about how she’d looked in a certain yellow dress – a bad enough memory that she had a vendetta against the whole color.)

This is why, even when a client tells me to “do my thing,” I still pester them for information and thoroughly exploit our questionnaire. While the notion of a client leaving us free to create is fantastic in concept and does wonders for the spirit, it’s also a great and incredible burden and responsibility – not one I would care to tackle blind.

But there’s a tricky little issue buried in all of this: There are many instances out there of pure, artist-driven designs that just take my breath away – and some of the most noteworthy achievements in watershape and landscape design are among them.

Consider landscape architects such as Martha Schwartz and Ken Smith: These are designers I greatly admire, and they have made their bones creating landscapes that are considered to be works of art. For all that, I consider Schwartz’s Bagel Garden and the plastic daisies Smith used for the Cornerstone Festival project as instances in which outsized egos overwhelmed the clients’ needs.

ADVENTURES IN DESIGN

It may be possible that the notoriety of the Bagel Garden ultimately made the client proud of having such an art installation on the rooftop, but does it really, truly invite anyone out there to enjoy a cup of morning coffee or an evening glass of wine? As for Smith’s daisies, I’ll grant that I myself am intrigued enough by the crazier potentials of display gardens that I can’t protest too much.

And for the record, I am not slamming either Schwartz or Smith: They each have amazing talent and between them have done some very cool and eminently practical projects. My point is that purely artistic works have great potential for running against the grain of utility; while I can admire the aesthetic achievement, I am supremely aware that I do not want to be seduced into thinking that making such bold statements is the best way to meet my own clients’ needs.

By way of contrast, look at a “garden” such as New York’s Central Park, which Frederick Law Olmsted presciently devised as a backyard for masses of walkers, bikers, joggers, Frisbee-players, boaters and sunbathers while also offering a showcase for trees, shrubs and perennials. All at once, it is as visually stunning as can be while also being about as people-friendly as a space can get.

One of the things I value most about Central Park is that it’s so understated. It doesn’t grab the eye with unusual details, which is a wondrously subtle way of suggesting that all of it – every tree, every flower, every path, every bit of water – has been there basically forever. It’s a forest primeval through which people have cut paths and shaped playing fields.

Above all, it’s a magnificent response to Olmstead’s clients: the citizens of New York and those who come to visit. In other words, Olmstead knew, as did Church, that gardens are for people. The challenge for us as designers is to keep our ideas fresh and exciting while still paying attention to what our clients want and need the most – that is, places to enjoy what they define as the finer things in life!

Coming up: a series of columns examining the practicalities of spaces created for human use.

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens. You can reach him at [email protected].

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