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Garrett Eckbo's philosophy is clear at Holmby Hills estate

The landscape architect viewed the grounds and structure as one entity.

October 09, 2010|By Jeffrey Head, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Sidney and Frances Brody estate, an 11,511-square-foot mansion set on more than 2 acres in Holmby Hills, brought together for the first time three Midcentury Modern masters.
The Sidney and Frances Brody estate, an 11,511-square-foot mansion set… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

The Sidney and Frances Brody estate, an 11,511-square-foot mansion set on more than 2 acres in Holmby Hills, brought together for the first time three Midcentury Modern masters: Architect A. Quincy Jones designed the house, decorator William "Billy" Haines created interiors with all custom furniture, and for the garden, the Brodys chose the leading Southern California landscape architect of the era, Garrett Eckbo.

The design trifecta was more a reflection of the Brodys' own taste for modern living than an expression of their considerable wealth. As both patron and curator of artistic talent, Frances Brody's foresight in hiring the three seems priceless, although the house is on the market for $24.95 million. She maintained one of the most highly valued private art collections, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti — many of which were among 56 lots that sold at auction in May for more than $335 million.

Fittingly, Eckbo (1910-2000) viewed landscape architecture as a fine art and looked to modern painting and sculpture, including artists Joan Miró and Naum Gabo, for the forms, shapes and geometries that appeared in his work.

"The way Eckbo planted and grouped plants was transformed," said Mark Rios, principal of Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an environmental design firm in Los Angeles. "He was more interested in the character and texture of plantings. He would select a plant for its sculptural quality or create mass plantings in a painterly fashion. He redefined the ideas of planting design instead of following the tradition of planting by species. It was less of a gar-deny approach."

Of the hundreds of gardens that Eckbo designed during a career spanning more than 50 years, the Brody property remains one of his most exceptional — and intact — residential projects.

The initial landscape design started in the fall of 1949 when the house was in the preliminary planning stages. The expectation was for the house to incorporate the outdoors and extend into it, requiring a coordinated effort among the three designers. Construction of the house was concurrent with the development of the interiors and the outdoor areas, rather than an afterthought for the completed house. Eckbo believed that "it is best to plan the whole lot at once as a series of indoor-outdoor rooms" and that "gardens are places in which people live out of doors" — a recurring theme in books Eckbo wrote on landscape design.

These ideas paralleled architect Jones' organization of the interior spaces and reinforced the experience of indoor-outdoor living. Jones created large windows, sliding glass panels, multiple entry ways and patios, and vistas from the inside out and the outside in. The two terraces in the master suite upstairs appear as floating landscapes that raise the ground plane from below.

On the exterior, vertical steel trellises for plants to climb become natural walls — half architecture, half landscape — to further define the open and enclosed areas in private and public spaces. Hanging steel plant holders built into an exterior wall are decorative ways to visually tie the structure and landscape together. Eckbo's understated water fountain near the dining room is another integral connection between the interior and outdoors.

The plan, Eckbo said, "increased the sense of space, movement, and interest" and eased the transition between the indoor and outdoor.

"You cannot tell exactly where one person's work starts and stops," said Rios, also a former director of the USC landscape architecture program. "Quincy was honestly active with the design of some of the outdoor spaces, like the pool house, and I think Eckbo's patterning and forms in addition to the landscape probably influenced him, along with the furniture in the atrium and the outdoor furniture that Haines also designed, and how it was all used. It is a wonderful model of collaboration that all of us practicing today want to have, that kind of seamless approach in our work."

After the completion of the Brody house in 1952, Eckbo, Jones and Haines collaborated once more for the Gary Cooper house, also in Holmby Hills. Although each designer had his own long and successful career, the three did not share another client like the Brodys.

Eckbo taught at USC and became chairman of the landscape architecture department at UC Berkeley. He was especially interested in the social benefits of site planning, anticipating the increased need for smart growth and sustainability.

But it is his body of enduring landscape projects for which he remains best known. Eckbo worked with widely recognized architects of the era: Gregory Ain, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner and Richard Neutra, among others. Eckbo was sought for commercial and residential projects alike. He often expressed to clients that a building only exists, visually and spatially, in relation to the surrounding landscape. And the site, as he stated in his book "Landscape for Living," exists in relation to people. "The building and the site are one in fact and in use."

home@latimes.com

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