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STYLE: GARDENS : The Hard Stuff : It's Easy to Plant a Lyrical Landscape, but Designers See Beauty in a Garden's Built Forms as Well

October 23, 1994|Susan Heeger

At first glance, the subject might seem about as dry as decomposed granite. Where's the poetry in a patio? Who cares what kind of stone goes into a pool deck, or whether a path's made out of dirt or rocks or even peanut shells? When Tennyson talked about the crannied wall, it was only to get to his real subject: the adorable, pluckable flower.

But let's face it. That flower would be nowhere without the wall. And Tennyson might never have found it without a proper path. Leave out the hardscape--the term garden professionals give to a landscape's built elements--and a garden's likely to be a sorry mess, a trackless wilderness. Without the whip-cracking of walls and walks and decks, not only do prize plants fall out of formation but space remains undefined and therefore unusable: So long lounging patio; goodby al fresco dining room.

In a city like Los Angeles, terraces are what allow us to carve flat space out of sheared hills; walls hold back craggy canyons and screen out the neighboring populace; paths and steps link the various levels of our landscapes and connect up our gardens and houses. What's more, the pavement we install reduces planting area, maintenance and water use--appealing dividends in our fast-paced, drought-conscious environment.

Back in the 1950s, California landscape architect Thomas Church was unequivocal about the value of hardscape in the general scheme of life. He wrote: "Paving--something hard and convenient underfoot--has been man's concern ever since he came down out of the trees."

Beyond the merely practical, however, there's a way in which paving defines the quality of our connection to the earth. In his classic book, "Genius Loci," Norwegian architectural scholar Christian Norberg-Schulz recounts the experience of architect Gerhard Kallmann wandering his devastated childhood street in postwar Berlin: His family's house was gone, "and Mr. Kallmann felt somewhat lost. Then he suddenly recognized the typical pavement of their sidewalk: the floor on which he had played as a child. And he experienced a strong feeling of having returned home."

Perhaps there is poetry here after all. And a message for us in Southern California, where our own streets were recently piled high with quake rubble--bricks and broken concrete--literally the building blocks of our outdoor life. Most of this refuse was taken to landfills or ground up and recycled for highway construction. Maybe now as it disappears, and before we're back to absently walking our new driveways and burying garden walls in shrubbery, we should stop to appreciate the hard stuff and its role in binding us to the world.

Think of hardscape as a framework--for outdoor space, for plants, for all the activities that go on in a garden. In some areas, it might shine forth as the star, as in the case of a beautiful reflecting pool or a back-yard gazebo. In others, it falls back: the picket fence that's smothered in wisteria, the brick path connecting the rose collection to the vegetable patch.

Always, hardscape should take its cue from the house, the style and lines of which it extends into the landscape. Amid shaggy plantings, an edge of wood or stone gives the eye a resting place. It also suggests an overarching, human-made order in which, to a degree, nature is shaped and subdued.

Church, an inspired pragmatist whose aim was to get people to live in their gardens, argued for simplicity in a landscape's built forms. "It may be the role of paving to remain calm," he suggested, "to be the common denominator and a foil for the excitement created by fences, steps, grass forms, brilliant flower combinations, foliage textures and distant views."

On the other hand, history is full of landscapes remembered as much for their show-stealing stonework as for their greenery. Picture the pebbled courts and terraces of the Generalife palace in Granada. Or the formal gardens of the Italian Renaissance, replete with sculpture, grand stairways, pergolas and splashing waterways. In California, early 20th-Century residents of Montecito used Spanish, Islamic and Italian models to adorn their estates with fabulous rills and water walls, mosaic garden seats and walled, secluded courts.

Of course, even then, most Californians could only dream of garden living on such a scale. Today, given the small size of a typical landscape plot and the high cost of labor and materials, most of our hardscape decisions are very basic. We need steps--but where exactly? How many? Made of what? We'd like a patio to eat on--but how big? What kind?

Beyond the economic factors, these decisions are shaped by considering the consequences of our choices. Nowhere is this more evident, says Santa Barbara landscape architect Isabelle Greene, than in the realm of water conservation. "The greatest hardscape trend I see now," she reports, "is the awareness of the need to use water wisely."

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