An Artisan’s Touch
 When I was a kid, the conventional part of my education in environmental design came in helping my father, Jay Stang, plant parkways and blocks of Pinus Pinea across the city.   The unconventional part - the part that apparently took firmer root as I grew up - had me admiring the plate he'd made from hardwood with the dozen split avocado pits he'd carved and mounted on the surface; it also had me listening to my mother, Judy Campbell, tell me that the earth was here first, that the garden already exists and that pathways, watershapes and structures are best built around what we find there. Those unconventional lessons - one about creativity and vision, the other about respect for nature and a method for approaching it - have stayed with me through the years and have given me access to a number of incredible projects. As is the case with most intriguing and fascinating designs, the one seen here flowed from a client with whom I developed a close creative connection that resulted in a free exchange of ideas¬ - a synchronized spontaneity that became a pattern for the entire design process.  She always had strong thoughts about what she wanted, but she allowed me to interpret and express her ideas based on our conversations and the nature of the site. As designers, it's not unusual for us to be called on to use our skills and figure out what a client such as this one really wants and then suggest ideas we think will work.  I call this process "environmental psychiatry" because, while so many clients have a sense of what they want and a laundry list of general ideas, few have a
Playful Pursuits
All projects come to an end, of course, but there are times when the inevitable takes its own, sweet time.  The project featured here, for example, took more than six years from the time I first met the clients until we wrapped things up. Unlike some projects that take a long time because of ongoing problems, change orders and difficult challenges, this one was very much a labor of love from start to finish.  Sure, there were some tough spots, but for the most part, this was one of those jobs that we watershapers and landscape professionals can only hope will come along from time to time - projects we don't mind extending through a period of years. This one had everything going for it, starting with great clients who had the resources to do something special as well as playful, fun-loving personalities that made the process exciting and rewarding.  Then there was the property:  an acre of ocean-view hillside in Brentwood, Calif., with mature trees and a big, Cape Cod-style house that was going through extensive remodeling during the time we were involved with the landscape. The clients wanted something that was elegant but playful, with formal lines and structures but a light overall touch.  They insisted on beautiful materials, were heavily involved in every decision and, ultimately, had our firm, New Leaf Landscape of Agoura Hills, Calif., work with
Original Intent
  A well-conceived garden that has endured through many decades can teach us all a multitude of lessons.  In the case of the Virginia Robinson Gardens, however, even getting to the point where those lessons might be recognized and appreciated has taken years of research, study and painstaking restoration.   In the nine years I've been associated with the gardens, I've done all I can to determine the original design intent of those who owned and established it, stripping away generations of alterations, additions and miscalculations while interpreting the site and uncovering clues that point to the sense of mission and the creative spirit that influenced its creation and further development early in the 20th Century. I've done so with a recognition that the Virginia Robinson Gardens are important as an emblem of southern California history and an era gone by.  I've also come to perceive the complexity, artistry and beauty of the space, seeing it as a blueprint that, examined closely, can serve to inspire and inform the work we all do today. The current gardens occupy most of the grounds of the former estate of Harry and Virginia Robinson, heirs to a department store fortune.  My charge has been to restore and manage these six-and-a-half acres in the heart of Beverly Hills, Calif. - a graceful setting in the midst of
Sea of Tranquility
During a lifetime of driving up and down the part of Sunset Boulevard where it finally meets the Pacific Ocean, I'd often noticed the sign pointing to "Lake Shrine" but had never taken the time to stop and have a look. I suppose the "shrine" part of it made me think it was the exclusive preserve of adherents or members of the Self-Realization Fellowship - an organization I knew nothing about other than that their facility was in one of Los Angeles' most beautiful locations. I finally overcame my hesitation about visiting the Lake Shrine a couple years ago, when a friend told me it was a place where people of all faiths and religions were welcome to stroll, meditate and enjoy the tranquility of the setting.  Curiosity overcame skepticism and I finally visited the place.  What I found at the Lake Shrine was a serene, calm, meditative oasis of lush, beautiful gardens surrounding a lake. To this day many years later, the minute I drive through the entrance gate, I'm always swept up by sensations of serenity and peace - and have since
The Graceful Dance
Successful residential exterior design is akin to a precisely choreographed dance.  One sequence of steps defines the relationships among hardscape, water and plants.  Other sequences distinguish light and shadow, color and texture, open views and intimate spaces.  If the choreographer has done a good job, we don't see the individual steps so much as we enjoy the overall experience of motion.   The key to making these multifarious steps work together?  It's all about balance. Transferring these principles to backyard design, there's a similar need for
The Complete Retreat
Finishing up a project of any size is all about the details.   From the final touches on the artificial rockwork and the placing and adjusting of lights to the fine tuning of the circulation system and signing off on the equipment room, the art of fine watershaping ultimately boils down to applying the same stringent standards for excellence that you bring to the beginning and middle of the project straight through to the end. Of course, it's virtually impossible to complete a project of this magnitude without
Finding a Way
One of the keys to designing effective spaces for human occupation is to create opportunities for movement from one place to another.  This component of mobility adds functionality and utility to just about all spaces while keeping them vital and interesting. In watershape design, we have several options when it comes to introducing mobility to our work, including pathways and bridges that lead to
The Enchanted Hill
Visiting Hearst Castle is an experience that sticks with you.  Long before I became a watershape designer, I know that my childhood visits to this hilltop in Central California inspired and affected my thinking about art and architecture and the creative use of space long before I had any professional interest in those subjects.   Every time I go - which is as often as I can - I'm impressed by a collection of art and architecture so rich and varied that I always find something new.   For years, I've been amazed by the castle's two pools and their beautiful details, incredible tile and classic style.  More recently, however, I've started paying closer attention to the other ways in which water is used on the property - and my appreciation for what I'm seeing grows every time I stop by. A BIT OF HISTORY William Randolph Hearst inherited the 250,000-acre ranch on which the castle was built from his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, in 1919.  The remote property hadn't seen much development to that point, but he soon began transforming it into a monument to American ambition and his passion for
Gallery Views
Looking for inspiration in an urban environment can leave a designer with precious few useful references.  Take downtown Chicago, for example, where our indigenous waterfeature is Lake Michigan and our public art is too often plopped in the middle of concrete plazas.   Be that as it may, I do my part by trying to introduce both water and art into my projects.  So I was thrilled to be retained by Mary O'Shaughnessy, owner of the Wood Street Gallery in Chicago, to design a sculpture garden.  I knew it would give me the chance to create a balanced, beautiful space - even though I also knew the job wouldn't be easy.   What she wanted was a garden environment in which she could display and sell contemporary American sculpture - a place that would help clients visualize the way the art might look in their own gardens.   As we dug deeper, we uncovered additional goals:  It needed to be a space that would accommodate a changing variety and number of pieces; it had to be functional for large parties; and it had to incorporate and acknowledge the garden's urban neighborhood while still providing a sense of enclosure for gallery visitors (and, of course,