An invisible hand is at work in successful naturalistic landscapes. Nature gets all the credit in the eyes of the beholder, but there's plenty of hard work behind the scenes.
That human hand -- well-concealed -- shapes visitors' experience of Fallingwater, the magnificent home in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s as a weekend retreat for Edgar Kaufmann and his family. The home and property are now managed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Every year, thousands of people come to see the house, an architectural gem poised like an ark precariously at rest over dramatic waterfalls in a stretch of Bear Run. The home itself is a marvel, and the meticulously managed landscape offers many lessons that gardeners and designers can take home with them and put into practice in their own backyards.
Fallingwater's landscape is "not designed; it is enhanced," says the director of Fallingwater, Lynda Waggoner, who first came to the property as a tour guide when she was a high school student 50 years ago. It looks natural, but nature had plenty of help: Views are carefully framed, and the palette is tightly controlled. At Fallingwater, the context is spectacular, but even in a city garden or on a suburban plot, views can be framed, shaped, blocked out and improved with plantings. Identifying the prospects within and around a garden and taking proper advantage of them is something of an art: These perspectives, exposures, sudden revelations and subtle concealments are fundamental parts of the context of your home.
In the Kaufmanns' day, the woods around Fallingwater were manicured by numerous gardeners. Today, with a significantly smaller staff, the look is less controlled but perhaps more exciting. "We promote the richness of the native landscape," Waggoner says. The lines and layers of trees and shrubs seem part of the home, "a seamless experience between inside and outside," Waggoner says. The plant selection and the plant palette are skillfully edited to bring visitors close to nature without feeling overawed by it. "The wildness is just kept at bay," she says.
Home gardens can capture this same sense of the harmony between a structure and its surroundings. Neighborhood trees are a great gift to a gardener, and plantings can be arranged to take advantage of the striking backdrops they provide, changing constantly through the seasons. When you study your landscape and frame the views, both from your windows and from the outside approaching your home, you're working on what Edgar Kaufmann Jr. described as one of the great successes of Fallingwater, bringing "people and nature together in an easy relationship."
Frank Lloyd Wright, who grew up in Wisconsin and is well-known for his interpretations of prairie style, found nature rejuvenating, says Rick Darke, an author and garden designer who takes a special interest in the interactions between culture and horticulture. "The house is in sync with the forest with each step, in every passage, in every season," he says. At Fallingwater, there are no traditional flower beds, but the outdoor spaces, Darke says, are nevertheless "carefully choreographed." Quite a dance can be staged, even in a small urban garden. The key is to get the eye and the feet moving through the setting.
Wright celebrated seasonal changes and provided opportunities to experience them from different vantage points -- ranging from a terrace outside a bedroom to what Waggoner calls the "bug's-eye view" of plants along a stairway to the guesthouse, up the hill from the main house at Fallingwater. Changes of level, even just a few steps up or down, affect the mood of a space: You may step up onto a porch with a sense of arrival, or step a short way down into an intimate little patio sheltered by close-by plantings.
Kary Arimoto-Mercer, a landscape architect who wrote her master's thesis on Fallingwater, compares the landscape to New York's Central Park, where Frederick Law Olmsted's design also evokes nature but controls it carefully. "Many visitors tend to believe the site evolved on its own," she says, that "nature took over and, in its godly way, made everything beautiful." As she researched her thesis, she says, "I came to realize that Fallingwater's landscape was and is as much a construction as the house itself."
So you can strike out for the wilderness, or you can get to work in your own backyard. Even on a city lot, nature is all around: Construct yourself a garden that embraces your house and draws you outside into your own natural little piece of the environment.
-- Fallingwater is open for guided tours from March through December. Advance ticket purchases are required; see www.fallingwater.org.
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