Category Archives: Garden and landscape visits

Two gardens in Massachusetts

Last summer I spent a few weeks in the United States, travelling round seeing friends and family. We visited Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Boston and the Berkshires, where we went to a delightful wedding. While we were there, we took in a couple of interesting gardens.

‘The Mount’ viewed from the garden behind its serried ranks of conifers
The very green-looking garden

The first was Edith Wharton’s house from 1902-1911, ‘The Mount’ in Lenox, MA. Although delightful, this was in many ways what you would expect a New England garden to be: derivative of European Gardens, but with the scale and confidence of American sensibility. Wharton reputedly designed the garden (and the house) herself, living there for only about a decade, but ploughing much of her earnings from her books into it. However, what is interesting about the differences between this and European gardens is the use of plant material. It is distinctly North American – the use of rank upon rank of spruces and other conifers in particular. In fact, one of the distinguishing things about the garden is its sheer greenness – we went there in late June and it felt really fresh, despite the high summer temperatures.

The main avenue cuts assertively through the garden parallel to the house.
Interesting layering here – very American in style and plant choice (and noticeably C20th) but European in influence
The interesting (but slightly scary) change in level between the main avenue and the formal gardens below the house.

I also like the arrangement of the formal elements, the way in which the main avenue cut through the design, masking sharp changes in level. The house sits on high ground and has a commanding view over the garden, as you might expect. Plenty of flowers here, surrounded by pleasant rolling park and woodlands. There is also a stone plaque, with a delightful inscription which almost serves as mantra for life: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.’

Naumkeag – actually a far more homely place than it appears here. Although grand, it did have the feel of a family house.
The Oak tree under which Joseph Choate picnicked as a child is the main feature of one of the terraces.

The second garden we visited was Naumkeag, in Stockbridge MA, just a few miles from The Mount. The name is of American Native origin, although it was originally the name of a people rather than a place. The house and garden have an interesting history. It was originally designed for a prominent New York lawyer, Joseph Choate and his family, although it was later much added to and changed by his daughter Mabel. Choate had a deep emotional involvement with the place, having picnicked as a child under a large oak tree whilst on summer vacation nearby with his parents. He later acquired the land and set to building a house and garden for his own family. Interestingly, the commission for the garden design was originally offered to Frederick Law Olmstead, but his designs were rejected after he suggested locating the house where the oak tree was situated – a lesson in ignoring a client’s brief perhaps! The tree still stands and forms a focal feature in the garden. Although the early gardens were laid out by Nathan Barrett in the 1880s, they were considerably expanded and altered after Choate’s death by Fletcher Steele over a 30-year period from 1925-1956 under the guidance of Choate’s daughter Mabel.

Not quite sure what the influence here is… Gondolas?

As with other New England gardens, Naumkeag draws deeply upon the European Well although there are also several very unusual features in the garden. The house sits high up on the lower shoulders of the hillside, with spectacular views over the valley. The ground falls away beneath it in a succession of levels down to the valley floor. Away to the left of the house (looking out) sits a curious eclectic garden a small parterre, and carved timber poles which could have come straight from Venice.

I really like these riveted slate steps.

 

From this, beautiful riveted slate steps lead down from one side to a terrace, with the oak tree sitting away to one side on the ‘picnic lawn’. A rill runs from this level right the way down through the garden. It is an interesting feature – the water first begins to flow over several regularly spaced steps.

The beginning of the rill
This rill takes the water on the first stage of its long journey through the garden.

These set up a pulse in the water which is still evident several metres further down the rill. However, it is the feature beneath this that is Naumkeag’s (and arguably Fletcher Steele’s) most famous feature – the ‘Blue steps’.

The famous blue steps. Note the logarithmic step riser and treads.

A central rill runs through the feature, with a series of arched grotto-like spaces with landings above. One of the things that make this such a fascinating feature is the logarithmic steps which descend sideways from each landing to meet at a lower landing below each grotto; ‘blue’ because of the concrete used (itself an unusual feature).

The pleasantly understated planting that is the setting for the blue steps

The setting is admirably restrained with simple undergrowth and Aspen trees. It is in stark but playful contrast to the ebullient delphinium beds beneath.

Naumkeag’s other famous feature is Steele’s last piece of work at the property – the rose garden, although to my mind this does not quite work. Although the shapes are interesting, the roses seem at odds with the design – indeed all the various elements feel at odds with one another.

The rose garden – Fletcher Steele’s final addition

A much more pleasing feature is the formal garden below and to the right of the house. Here (as at The Mount) the interplay between European design and American plant material is at its most obvious. Steele plays skilfully with the serial views and perspective. Above it towers a ‘thunder house’ very reminiscent of the one at Hidcote, although if anything rather better – certainly grander. It was supposedly a place for ‘assignations’ which could be both observed from the house but private at the same time. Finally, a (for me) disappointing Chinese garden – a mish-mash of imported ideas and titbits from the Far East.

The view form the thunder house – supposedly used for ‘assignations’.

The curious thing about Naumkeag is that Steele was actually at his best when he wasn’t trying too hard. The picnic lawn, the formal gardens and the thunder house all have a comfortable elegance which is confident but accessible. The Chinese Garden, the Parterre and the Rose Garden on the other hand, all have a very self-conscious character which gets in the way of one enjoying them. The great exception to this is the blue steps, which is not only a masterpiece, but strikingly inventive and original.

If you are in Western Massachusetts at all, I would recommend a visit to both gardens, but particularly to Naumkeag.

Have you heard of the gardens at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon? You should have done.

On a recent trip to Lisbon we visited a couple of really interesting sites. I know I probably bored you all silly with my pictures on social media of amazing paving patterns, but that has already been much written about elsewhere. The Gulbenkian Park however, was a revelation. According to Wikipedia, it was originally designed in 1969 by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreiro in close collaboration with Alberto Pessoa, Pedro Cid and Ruy Athouguia who were architects of the buildings of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation erected in the park. For me, it was almost like all the design books and manuals I had read in the late 1970s had come to life. A wonderfully cohesive mix of large boulders, large slabs of in-situ concrete and a simple but effective planting palette give a very pleasing experience which has weathered exceptionally well. I am used to visiting – and being disappointed by – iconic C20th landscapes (read my piece on Parc Citroen: “The whole life cost of a Citroën”), but this was reverse: an understated and little known piece of work that really deserves more attention. This was the first thing that interested me, it is very little written or known about outside Portugal. I can imagine that if this site was in London, or New York, it would have become one of those iconic landscapes that people would visit and write about. It certainly deserves to be written about and visited.

The large lake, Park Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

The second thing that struck me is the completeness of the vision. It is not a large site – about 7.5ha (19 acres), but the design has a coherency and the relationship between the brutalist architecture and the naturalistic landscape works very well, as though they are different parts of the same musical piece. The slab-like buildings sail gracefully over the water and the softness of the trees provides the perfect calm note to counterpoint the concrete. Nearer the building there are also drifts of orange Strelitzia, which although they don’t quite work with the parkland, do make an interesting contrast to the concrete.

The smaller lake, crossed by a stepped slab path

The layout of the park is relatively simple, with a large lake in the northern part of the gardens and meandering paths through glades of trees. Like much modern architecture of its period, it borrowed much from both European brutalism and American modern architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright amongst others) which in turn borrows from Japanese design. So common is this language in design now, that the stepped bridges and panels of concrete seem entirely comfortable to us. At the time however, this must have been a bold but also incredibly comprehensive piece of design – and what a commission! The planting also has a slightly oriental feel, but uses an eclectic palette adapted to the local climate – Papyrus reed, grasses, Brazilian pepper tree (Schinnis terrebinthus), oak, eucalyptus and poplars.

Calm restraint and elegance (if one can ignore the rope-and-posts!).
Pleasing use of water, boulders and bamboo.

Finally, it is a landscape from a much under-represented period; it reminds me of some of Preben Jacobsen’s work or some of the better pieces from the English modernist landscape movement of the sixties and seventies.
Sadly, like many C20th landscapes it is suffering a little, although not as much as one would have expected. There is a steady income from other activities on the site and there is good support from the Gulbenkian foundation. So, I urge you – go there; visit! You won’t regret it.