“Leave, my friend (for it is high time), the low and sordid pursuits of life to others, and in this safe and snug retreat emancipate yourself for your studies.” — Pliny the Younger
Another house on the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour in Los Angeles this early May had some wonderful ideas. Right at the curb, the broad, decomposed granite parkway provided stark contrast to the neighboring turfed properties. Even though this house and garden stand out among the others on its street and carry a bit of the shock of the new, the design principles upon which it draws are old. Very old. Ancient, in fact. Indeed, the designer didn’t stray very far at all from the source materials for mediterranean homes and gardens.
Step away from the street and the double rows of parked cars, up a short flight of steps, and we could be entering a Roman villa.
And I’m talking about garden principles faithful in spirit. The Romans would have used myrtle and box, not the Australian westringia, but the latter’s small leaves fit in seamlessly.
Landscape architect Joseph Marek began work in 2011, with more fine-tuning in 2014.
By a cleverly strategic, stripped-down use of water and plants, a lushness and vitality is nevertheless communicated and felt. Through gestures such as the rill in the front garden.
From the tour notes: “[I]n 2014…the garden was re-graded and all lawn was removed from both the front garden and the wide parkway. Once cleared, the house’s true scale and presence were revealed…A gurgling iris-lined lily pond, intersecting a richly colored sandstone and gravel courtyard surrounded by Mediterranean, Australian and native California plants now welcomes neighbors and visitors.”
Step through the portico, follow the path into the back garden, and we could be in Ibiza or Santorini.
The side path leads to a trellised table area.
Looking from the pergola, past a small fountain, to the pool.
Looking down the length of the pool reveals a prioritized, economical use of space. (And to further update a neoclassical setting, I believe that’s actress Rosalind Chao, nee Keiko O’Brien of Star Trek: TNG, under the olive.)
The chairs and fire pit area are semi-screened from the pergola by citrus and from the neighbors by towering bamboo. Ancient principles are clearly stated here, that irrigation should not be wasted on plants serving as shallow-rooted carpeting underfoot.
Water is prized, framed and contained, where its liquid abilities to brim and spill can be appreciated, but never squandered.
Looking at the main house. Buxom evergreen plants of box and citrus flesh out the patterned geometric surfaces underfoot. This all just makes so much sense for hot and dry Los Angeles, a frenetic city that requires strong doses of sanctuary (and not just from the sun). As Pliny the Younger puts it, in such a place as this we can leave the “low and sordid pursuits of life to others.” Amen, Pliny.
Looking at the apartment/studio connected by the pergola to the main house. Materials could be COR-Ten steel, recycled concrete, any neoclassical references on pergolas can be stripped away. The basic premise remains that, weather permitting, it’s outside the home where mundane activities like napping, reading, eating, become heightened adventures shared with the birds, the wind, the sun. Perhaps it’s a primal link to a time when we were outdoors far more than indoors?
Under a surface luxury lies careful, conservative planning, strategic use of plants, water, shade, based on timeless design principles for summer-dry climates.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re treated to more about this garden.