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Turning the Inside Out : Gardens That Reflect the Design of Their Houses Are a California Innovation

October 12, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

The trick in California land scape design has always been to give a house and its garden a feeling of unity. The notion that a garden is simply an extension of the house--with the decks and patios representing outdoor rooms--began here. The idea was that you could walk through walls of glass into the garden, without putting on your overcoat and boots, and be almost unaware of the transition. The climate allowed it, and that became California's contribution to the history of garden design.

When house and garden are on a hillside, creating the theme that links them is somewhat trickier; it takes an imaginative designer to keep the flow from being dammed or disrupted by the change in elevation. All too often, a broad expanse of patio or deck just outside the house is constricted by a narrow path down the hill--the eye can't travel any further.

That is what makes the Nina Liff garden in Santa Barbara so remarkable. Here, Isabelle C. Greene & Associates designed a bold transition between the house and the swimming pool below. The path is no rickety affair but is as wide as a good-sized trout stream. And furthering the illusion that this is a natural gully, as the steps tumble down the hill they widen several times to include tiny pools. Water doesn't actually flow from top to bottom--the pools are self-contained--so the walkway is the connection, the "stream bed" to a larger body of water.

This imaginary watercourse begins in a very formal and rectilinear pond that echoes the stark Mediterranean formality of the house. But as the illusive water wends downhill, the pools become progressively more natural, tucked here and there among boulders (which were trucked onto the site; there is no shortage of large rocks in Santa Barbara). The natural appearance of the situation is not the least bit overdone. The design does not seek to copy nature but to harmonize with the contours of the land.

The plantings are in harmony as well. While they also are not meant to imitate nature, they do emphasize the flow of the path down the hill and make each section with its adjacent pool distinct and interesting. On one's first few trips down to the swimming pool, in fact, it is not easy to move along with any speed, because the plantings keep tugging for attention. Tucked along the path are all sorts of little plants of merit. All are good choices for a hillside, but they are not simply utilitarian ground covers. Most of the plantings are clustered near the ponds, as though huddled in the moist and protected bottom of an arroyo. Farther from the walkway, the ground covers become more utilitarian, because getting to them for any kind of care is difficult. But, at the risk of wearing all the rubber off the analogy, these plants can be viewed as the more Spartan vegetation that might be found on the chaparral-covered sides of a canyon.

At the base of this canyon, the water, and the path, again make a transition--this time from natural to formal--before ending at the swimming pool, the imaginary water having found its level. It doesn't actually drain into the swimming pool but winds up in a fish pond.

It is gratifying to see that no attempt was made to make the swimming pool "natural." If it had been surrounded by boulders, it would have seemed out of place on this flat bluff above the beach. From somewhere deep inside the subconscious would have come questions about why these boulders were lying on flat ground and how they got there. And why are they clustered only at the water's edge? They make more sense beside the path, where they are treated as things uncovered by erosive forces.

The pool is obviously for swimming--an extension of the house but still a part of the garden. The steps also could have been treated that way--that is, in a more formal fashion. But then the trek down the hill would not be as satisfying--and would have been over before it had begun.

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