The Landscape Guide

The California Style of Garden Design

Thomas Church was the first professional landscape architect in North America to embrace the principles of abstract modernism. He had met Fletcher Steele in the 1920s but worked as a garden designer for a decade before becoming interested in the Bauhaus and Cubism. Church then embarked on a European tour and returned with a confirmed belief in the use of modern materials to achieve functionalist objectives. His work, with Lawrence Halprin, on the Dewey Donnell Garden (El Novillero) in Sonoma County is a masterpiece. Michael Lancaster describes it as 'one of the most significant gardens of the twentieth century' (in the Oxford Companion to Gardens) and describes it as:

Informed by the Cubist idea that a scene may be seen simultaneously from a number of viewpoints, and by his feeling that a garden should have no beginning and no end, Church, typically, has placed the rounded V-shaped pool so that it cuts across the pattern of concrete and redwood squares, each stressing the rhythm of the other. Line plays against line, form against form, the whole uniting, with admirable restraint, into a composition which has its own unique identity and at the same time belongs essentially to the site.

Lawrence Halprin was born in New York, in 1916, and took a first degree in plant sciences from Cornell. A visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's home, Taliesin East, led him to read Tunnard's Gardens in the Modern Landscape. It struck him 'like a bolt of lightning' and led him to study, under Tunnard, at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. He qualified in 1943 and then joined the navy. In 1945 Halprin moved to San Francisco and took a job with Thomas Church. After working on El Novillero he branched out on his own. Often, he employed the same craftsmen as Church 'but the detailing was more refined, and often more elegant, than that of Church. Planting was typically more artful and adventurous too' (Walker and Simo p151.) He became a vital influence on 'the California garden' and went on to design a famous set of civic projects, including Lovejoy Plaza in Portland, Freeway Park in Seattle, the  Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC and Jacob Riis Plaza in New York City.

Garrett Eckbo was born in 1910, in New York, and raised in California from the age of 4. He graduated in landscape architecture from Berkeley in 1935 and went on to study at Harvard, where he absorbed the precepts of  cubism, constructivism and Christopher Tunnard. His first book Landscape for living, published in 1950, was also the first American book on modern gardens. The designs, and the drawing style, was 'uninhibited, constructivist, jazzy' (Walker and Simo, p 129). It became a key text for the development of Californian gardens.