The Modern California Garden

El Novillero, Sonoma County, 1947–8. This garden, usually illustrated with the famous free-form pool and sculpture by Adeline Kent is one of the most significant of the twentieth century. The native trees, retained and emphasized, provide shade for sitting near the house. Photograph by George Waters

El Novillero, Sonoma County, 1947–8. This garden, usually illustrated with the famous free-form pool and sculpture by Adeline Kent is one of the most significant of the twentieth century. The native trees, retained and emphasized, provide shade for sitting near the house. Photograph by George Waters

The San Francisco landscape Garden Show, April 21 to 25, has as its theme this year California’s garden heritage. Michael Laurie here surveys the history of garden design in the state and the contribution to it of some prominent practitioners.

The modern California garden has been described as an informal outdoor living room filled with deck chairs, tables, and swings, social rather than horticultural. Similarities are often seen in the close relationship of the Islamic house to its garden and in the austere restraint and occult balance of the Japanese garden. But, as with all historical garden styles, the modern California garden was a response to its place, time, and people — that is, to climate and natural environment, to the state of the arts and sciences, to social structure, and to the lifestyles and preferences of those by whom gardens were made and used.

Place and Time

The coastal areas of California have what is often referred to as a Mediterranean climate. Temperatures range from the 50s (F) in winter to the 70s in summer, hotter in the south, cooler in the north, rarely dropping below freezing. Rainfall is limited to the winter months, from November to April, and generally amounts to twenty to thirty inches, often less. Crops and gardens must be irrigated in summer. Predictable patterns of rainfall, high temperatures, sunny skies, and low humidity results in an environment conducive to out­door living.

The youthful geology of the Coast Ranges around San Francisco and the transverse ranges running through Los Angeles provided sites for urban and suburban homes on steep hillsides with distant views. Native vegetation, evergreen oaks, madrone, ceanothus, and chaparral, along with the introduced Australian eucalyptus, covered the hills. This landscape of slopes, views, and vegetation was embraced as counterpoint and opportunity by designers of the modem California garden.

The story of the California garden reveals a blending of several traditions over a span of two centuries. The Islamic concept of house and garden was introduced by way of Spain, Mexico, and the Franciscan missions in the eighteenth century. Later two European concepts were imported: the English landscape garden in the nineteenth century by way of the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest, and the Mediterranean villa from Italy and Spain in the early decades of this century. Finally, California’s geographical position on the Pacific rim brought an Asian influence, which overlapped the English and the Mediterranean. The modern garden as it evolves in the West thus represents an uninhibited borrowing from several cultures, as well as a response to climate and natural conditions. The product of this blending of cultures has since been emulated in other parts of the United States and the world.

Cultural Origins

Adobe homestead of the kind built by retired Mexican soldiers and pioneer ranchers in the 1850s. These were simple whitewashed structures with covered porches around a courtyard that was the social center of the ménage. The simple garden was related to the practical aspects of irrigation and cultivation

Adobe homestead of the kind built by retired Mexican soldiers and pioneer ranchers in the 1850s. These were simple whitewashed structures with covered porches around a courtyard that was the social center of the ménage. The simple garden was related to the practical aspects of irrigation and cultivation

The missionaries introduced familiar agricultural and ornamental plants to an alien land but with a benign climate suited to their growth. They also incorporated in their mission establishments two architectural forms from their homeland: the enclosed courtyard or patio and the covered walk, or galleria, which served as a cool transition between indoors and out. Early California homesteads, built by retired Mexican soldiers and pioneer ranchers in the nineteenth century, employed these proven and appropriate architectural features in their layouts. Simple, whitewashed adobe houses were built around a courtyard, which became a social center in which ranch business and family affairs were conducted. The central court and adjacent gardens were rectangular and also simple in design. Their form was related to the practical requirements of irrigation and cultivation, and the integra­tion of house and garden reflected the outdoor life of their inhabitants.

In England the informal landscape garden developed during the eighteenth century as a reaction to the excessive and symbolic formality of the French style, which did not fit well with the English countryside or the English temperament. By the nineteenth century the English-style landscape garden was widely popular. The remodeling of the gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello and Mount Vernon heralded its acceptance in the United States. Andrew Jackson became its most influential advocate on the East Coast.

When California passed to the United States from Mexican hands in 1847, it fell, along with the northwest territories of Oregon and Washington, under the influence of the lifestyle, fashions, and attitudes of the eastern states. The adobe architecture and patio of the Mexican-Spanish homestead was rejected in favor of the suburban villa and landscape garden popular on the East Coast. A front lawn preserving social distance from the street was an important element, and a large plot of land was necessary to accommodate the meandering paths, shrubberies, plantations, kitchen garden, and orchard, all of which were basic ingredients of the style. The landscape garden, better suited to the Northwest, was made possible in California through irrigation and the golden wealth of the region’s inhabitants, some of whom paid as much as a hundred dollars each for specimen ornamental plants.

Not everyone welcomed the new garden styles. The East Coast landscape architect, Fre­derick Law Olmsted, who collaborated on the innovative plan for Stanford University, criticized what he interpreted as the inability of Californians to adapt to the climatic conditions of the West. He also expressed disapproval of the widespread tendency to ignore the advantages of health and comfort that a close relationship between house and garden could provide in a mild climate.

Villa Rose, Burlingame, 1920. A revival of interest in classical architecture at the end of the nineteenth century produced many villas and Spanish colonial houses in the early twentieth century. Architecture extended into the garden, and loggias similar to those found in Italian villas of the sixteenth century permitted a more direct link between house and garden and served as shaded transition between the two

Villa Rose, Burlingame, 1920. A revival of interest in classical architecture at the end of the nineteenth century produced many villas and Spanish colonial houses in the early twentieth century. Architecture extended into the garden, and loggias similar to those found in Italian villas of the sixteenth century permitted a more direct link between house and garden and served as shaded transition between the two

A revival of interest in classical architecture at the end of the nineteenth century resulted in the construction of numerous Mediterranean­ and Spanish-colonial style homes in California and the Pacific Northwest in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The directness and formality of their garden designs appealed to some California artists and landscape architects. The way in which the architecture extended into the garden and the use of loggias similar to those found in Italian villas of the sixteenth century permitted a more direct link between house and garden and served as a shaded outdoor room. In other examples of the new style, placing the front entrance at the side of the house facilitated a new relationship between living rooms and the garden.

At a more modest level, an important development in the early 1900s was the invention, out of the Arts and Crafts Movement, of the southern California bungalow. This was a convenient style of house for an increasing population of middle-income families. The Califor­nia bungalow was a single-story house with many windows, wide eaves, and ample porches, built on small lots in a variety of architectural styles. At the front a large area typically was devoted to lawn. The main entrance faced the street, and a garage was placed in the rear where stables would have been in an earlier era, requiring a long driveway up the side. At the back the porch was frequently extended into an outdoor room overlooking the garden and used for dining and other family activities, much as the Mexican-style California patio had been used. With this shift in perception of the functions of the garden, earlier styles became less suitable. The naturalistic landscape garden could not be successfully adapted to serve as an extension of the house, and on small lots the heroic proportions of the classical revival style could not be accommodated. The bungalow and its garden was especially well suited to the population, climate, and lifestyle of California in the mid-1900s.

The California bungalow continued to evolve to meet changing needs of homeowners. In a modification of the bungalow style based on responses to a survey of Berkeley housewives in 1939, most of the front lawn of this new prototype was enclosed with hedges for privacy, and the garage and guest parking were located next to the street. The living rooms at the back were extended into terraces for outdoor living, barbecues, and games. Clothes drying, doghouse, and other functional areas were placed to the side. A small lawn in the back was enclosed with flower gardens and vegetable plots, and a gate opened into an adjacent neighborhood park with communal facilities such as swimming pool and tennis courts. Community and privacy were interdependent.

The gradually emerging California style thus was a reflection of changing social and economic times, including smaller building plots and the increasing presence of the automobile, with a resulting reduction of usable garden space for the average homeowner. At the same time there was a change in attitude towards gardens as their potential for providing additional living space in an agreeable climate was realized.

The post-war years saw the flowering of a California lifestyle, but its roots lay in the 1930s, when the garden, and the healthful outdoor life that went with it, was proclaimed as essential equipment for gracious living. Californians had long been obsessed with the outdoors, having spectacular landscape easily accessible and the Sierra Club to remind them of it. A tradition of dining outdoors dating back to the rancho barbecue and the informal entertaining it inspired was a major theme of Sunset magazine, which showed readers how to do it. An influx of population after the war, with young children, mobile, active, interested in sports and leisure, saw the garden as an extra room for the smaller post-war middle-class family house.

Garden by Thomas Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1950. Church’s early designs were sometimes architectural, using clipped plants and hedges, and gravel surfaces to give year-round form to the garden. The results were symmetrical and simple. Author’s photograph

Garden by Thomas Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1950. Church’s early designs were sometimes architectural, using clipped plants and hedges, and gravel surfaces to give year-round form to the garden. The results were symmetrical and simple. Author’s photograph

Pioneers of the Garden Style

Thomas Church and Garrett Eckbo are com­monly given credit for originating the contemporary California approach to garden design. Along with other members of the “California school” — Royston, Osmundson, Baylis, Halprin, among others — Church and Eckbo demonstrated that, in California at least, a garden could be more (or perhaps less) than a collection of plants, more than an imitation of historical styles, and that it could be, once again, an art form, regardless of size.

Born in Boston in 1902, Thomas Church spent his childhood in the Ojai Valley of southern California. There he learned to love the native landscape and to appreciate the advantages (and limitations) of the climate. His adolescence was spent in Berkeley, where at the age of twelve he made his first garden on an open lot next to their home. The young gardener terraced the sloping site, built steps, seeded a lawn, and planted roses and privet hedges.

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, Church was expected by his family to major in law. However, a course in the history of garden design, offered by the fledgling division of landscape design in the college of agriculture, convinced him to change direction and he graduated with a degree in landscape architecture in 1922.

Church then enrolled in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Landscape Design, where the first landscape architecture program in the nation had been established in 1900. He also spent six months on a scholarship in Italy and Europe. A thesis he submitted on his return, entitled “Mediterranean Gardens and Their Adaptability to California Conditions,” drew parallels between the climates and landscapes of the two regions.

Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1929, Church was soon at work on Pasatiempo, a planned community near Santa Cruz. Here he sited houses in the natural landscape and designed compact gardens suited to the Spanish rancho-style architecture. The gardens were separated from the surrounding landscape by clipped hedges. Distant views were created or maintained by selective pruning of the coast live oaks and madrones, near which the houses were set for shade and wind protection. The simplicity of these outdoor rooms, the use of paved surfaces and low-maintenance plantings, and the careful preservation of existing trees illustrated Church’s innovative style.

But until the late 1930s Church’s designs overall could be described as conservative, and, although not replicas of historical models, they clearly were based on traditional principles. After another European trip in 1937 to study the work of Le Corbusier and the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto as well as that of modern painters and sculptors, Church began a period of experimentation.

Small demonstration garden designed by Thomas Church for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition. Here the central axis was abandoned in favor of a multiplicity of viewpoints, simple planes, and flowing lines. Texture and color were manipulated in a manner reminiscent of the cubist painters, yet all practical criteria were satisfied

Small demonstration garden designed by Thomas Church for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition. Here the central axis was abandoned in favor of a multiplicity of viewpoints, simple planes, and flowing lines. Texture and color were manipulated in a manner reminiscent of the cubist painters, yet all practical criteria were satisfied

Two small gardens designed for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition marked the beginning of this new phase. They demonstrated the possibilities for the evolution of new curvilinear forms in the garden while satisfying all practical criteria. The central axis was abandoned in favor of multiplicity of viewpoints, simple planes, and flowing lines. Texture and color, space and form were manipulated in a manner reminiscent of the cubist painters. A variety of curvilinear shapes, textured surfaces, and walls were combined with a sure sense of proportion, and the gardens incorporated new materials such as corrugated asbestos and wood paving blocks. Stylistically they were a dramatic advance on previous garden designs.

The new house and its small garden, Church argued, must go to work for us, solving our living problems while also pleasing our eyes and meeting our emotional and psychological needs. The need for a new kind of garden did not arise from the whims of designers; it evolved naturally from the needs of people. At the same time, Church believed, the garden should be aesthetically pleasing from all vantage points, both inside and out, like a living work of art. In 1939 Stephen C Pepper, professor of philosophy and aesthetics at UC Berkeley, suggested that through landscape design the arts had rediscovered space: “The creation of a garden in this new light becomes something halfway between the making of a painting and the making of a house. It is as if the landscape architect were composing an abstract painting for people to live within.”

Garrett Eckbo also brought an artist’s sensitivities to the problems of creating usable forms in space. As was Church before him, Eckbo was born on the East Coast and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he, too, entered the program in landscape design at UC Berkeley. He was interested in plants and in art, and this emerging field combined those subjects. After graduation he worked for a large nursery in Los Angeles, drawing plans for customers who paid ten dollars — refunded if they purchased one hundred dollars worth of plants. Eckbo estimates under this arrangement he designed a hundred gardens in a single year.

A nicely rendered plan of a large garden designed according to standard principles of the day won him a scholarship to study landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1936. Here Eckbo found entrenched traditionalism and reverence for Frederick Law Olmsted. But in the architecture department (upstairs) there had been a conversion to the radical theories of Wright, Le Cor­busier, Gropius, and Mile Van der Rohe. The Bauhaus and modem architecture had arrived in America, and Eckbo defected to these new ideas. Even before finishing his degree, he published an article entitled Small Gardens in the City, in which bilateral symmetry and conventional rules of design were uncompromisingly rejected in favor of “forms which come out of the situation” and artistic expression — dynamic, not static.

New forms were needed to solve new problems. “This is the USA AD 1937,” wrote Eckbo, “Automobiles, airplanes, streamlined trains, mass production, the machine, new materials, new thoughts, new social concepts, a more abundant life — all of these suggest a new kind of garden for the modern age.” Gardens, he observed, are “places where people live out of doors… But more than an outdoor living room, they are places of delight, fantasy, illusion, imagination and adventure.”

Eckbo’s article was accompanied by drawings of sixteen versions of town gardens on lots twenty-five by sixty-five feet. Eckbo advocated the design of house and garden together to achieve unity and relationship. Special attention was paid to counteracting the limitations of small sites through partial screening of some areas, the creative use of levels, and deemphasis of enclosing lines and walls through the use of murals, mirrors, and glass block. The sixteen alternatives for the same lot showed the potential for imagination and artistic expression in garden design.

After the war Eckbo opened a practice in 1945 with Robert Royston and Edward Williams. Eckbo was in charge of the Los Angeles office and there, with an expanding affluent population and many clients associated with the movie industry, he was well positioned to experiment with his new ideas for garden design. He understood that the modern garden had fewer constraints than the modern house, which was concerned with function, efficiency, and economy. The garden could be approached much as a sculptor approaches a new block of stone or as a painter, brush in hand, stands at a blank new canvas.

Plan of experimental garden in southern California by Garrett Eckbo for the Aluminum Company of America

Plan of experimental garden in southern California by Garrett Eckbo for the Aluminum Company of America

Eckbo’s garden plans of the 1940s and 1950s have been compared to the paintings of Kan­disnsky and Miro, and the gardens illustrated in his first book, Landscape for Living (1950), indicate a concern for the sculptural structuring of space and the use of imaginative, nonfunctional shapes and patterns on the ground plane. An experimental garden designed by Eckbo for the Aluminum Company of America incorporated an angular aluminum fountain and a garden structure, also of aluminium, with an undulating roof that provided protection from sun but did not keep out light. These features were incorporated in a plan with shaded paved surfaces for use in relation to the rooms of the house and enriched by personal touches such as discarded wood sculpture and special plants in pots.

Fanciful garden house in Eckbo’s experimental garden in which aluminum is employed as slats, trellis, and expanded mesh. The garden house is the uppermost rectangle in the plan opposite

Fanciful garden house in Eckbo’s experimental garden in which aluminum is employed as slats, trellis, and expanded mesh. The garden house is the uppermost rectangle in the plan opposite

The Modern California Garden

The modern California garden evolved from a distillation of the works of Church, Eckbo, and others, photographed and published in popular magazines such as House Beautiful, House and Garden, and Sunset. Characteristically, the garden was quite small, even in the country. There were direct connections between indoors and out and a prominent use of hard surfaces next to the house for outdoor living. Mowed turf, if any, was confined to a small irrigated area. On sloping sites wood decks extended usable living space. Swimming pool, barbecue, and other recreational amenities often were featured. The small space was divided and structured with fences and walls to create immediate privacy and screen utilities. Shade was provided by incorporating existing trees into the design or by overhead trellises. Wherever possible, views of distant hills were brought in to give a sense of space to small gardens. In an auto-oriented society, parking was a major component of the design, its extent often exceeding the area of the house. The quantity and variety of plants depended on the interests and time constraints of the owner.

Although different gardens reflect their own site, architecture, and owner and designer preferences, the basic characteristics of the modern California garden can be summed up as an artistic, functional, and social composition, each part considered in the context of its time, place, and people.