Modern Landscape Design
(Not Your Grandma's Garden)
Images Courtesy of Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects
This just in from some top-notch gardenistas: the outdoors continues to rock. Landscape aficionados are currently busy blazing a trail to the future of our exterior spaces. “There’s been a big shift in the style of house we typically were called in to work around,” says Eric Groft, a partner at Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects based in DC. “It used to be very traditional houses with brick and mortar, now we’re seeing more steel and glass,” he says.
The company sprouted in the Georgetown basement of horticulturist Wolfgang Oehme who teamed up with architect James A. van Sweden back in the 1970’s and helped pioneer the “New American Garden” style. “It was a break from the usual rings of azaleas and oceans of lawn,” says Groft.
The firm uses a mix of ornamental grasses and native perennials to create a more natural feeling that blurs the transitions between the cultured and the natural world. The look now stretches from private homes here, spreads in the Hamptons, botanic gardens in Chicago and the US Embassy in Barbados.
The existing building or house always provides the springboard for the design around the perimeter including new kinds of settings for pleasure and business. “Everybody is doing fireplaces and outdoor kitchens, swimming pools have evolved into water features, even business meetings are being done in the garden,” says Phil Kelly, COO of McHale Landscape Design in Northern Virginia.
The firm’s work consistently wows the judges at landscape competitions giving the crew at McHale enough awards to pull down a stone wall. The company was formed by two brothers, Kevin and Steve making use of the familiar mix of horticulturist and architect. They now run three divisions in two states.
The impressive growth is not hard to figure out. “Entertaining continues to expand to the outside,” says Kelly. “Our clients aren’t traveling so much and they’re using their homes more for business.” Need to plan your next acquisition? Forget the boardroom and instead adjourn to the portico, cabana, or take the meeting poolside.
Green design is huge in the garden especially relative to water management. “Controlling water is on everybody’s list, whether it’s in an expressive manner or a utilitarian manner” says Joanathan Fitch, owner of Landscape Architect Bureau (LAB) also in Washington.
If you ever strolled through Cady’s Alley in Georgetown you’ve experienced LAB’s work. They also have a project going on in Southeast DC near a little place called National’s Park and they recently kicked some serious gardening butt in France with their award winning entry at the Seventeenth International Garden Festival of Chaumont-Sur-Loire.
Fitch is also seeing modern influences making their way onto roof gardens in mixed-use commercial projects and suburban backyards. “The nature of outdoor space is chaos, introducing repetition is a simple way to bring a sense of order to that chaos,” he says. Fitch likes to instill order by “taking a simple idea and repeating it over and over.” Picture horizontal bands of stone unifying a landscape, a labyrinth of plantings to free the mind or a rectilinear reflecting pond to define a view.
If current trends prevail, whatever happens outside the home may take on more importance than the interior. “We’ve done a lot of second homes where the plan is to keep the house modest and invest more in the garden,” says Groft. “The goal is to make the house disappear by building a garden around it. The house becomes just a pavilion for sleeping.”
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