Edited by Rebecca Falzano l Photography by Sarah Beard Buckley
Landscape architect Tony Cowles on capturing the essence of a site
Q.What role does nature play in your work?
A. Although a designed landscape should be respectful of its environmental context, interestingly enough, there is nothing “natural” about constructed landscapes. Attempting to replicate nature often falls short of what a designed landscape can be. We are consistently inspired to develop dynamic design solutions; however, we encourage clients to consider the creation of a landscape that initiates a relevant dialogue between proposed elements and the existing landscape.
Q. What role does landscape play in architecture?
A. Ideally, a landscape should create a complementary setting for great architecture that expands on the site’s unique qualities. In addition to taking our cues from the architecture, it is important to be mindful of spatial definition, edges, scale, light, and proportion, as they are all critical elements in creating a landscape that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The most substantive collaborations are with architects and clients who are open to new possibilities and share a willingness to entertain and explore design interventions that challenge conventional landscape treatments. As practitioners, we should also question the validity of hackneyed elements such as foundation plantings, kidney-shaped garden beds, and sprawling lawns. Instead, we should consider how our landscapes can provide us with useful, meaningful, outdoor living spaces, regardless of a project’s scale. It’s always exciting to work with clients who appreciate updated landscape typologies, especially those who have an open mind for new forms, materials, and expressions.
Q.What types of media do landscape architects have at their disposal?
A. The media of landscape is earthform, structures, plantings, and water. These very basic elements can be developed in a multitude of creative ways to add spatial definition to ground planes, edges, and overhead canopies. The challenge is to develop innovative solutions that respond to a particular lifestyle, activity, or function.
Unlike architecture, landscape architecture employs media that often change with time. As trees and shrubs grow and change through the seasons, they bring new qualities and dimensions to the garden. This can lead to ephemeral qualities in the landscape, or create elements and impressions that last for generations. We like to use materials in new and innovative ways, with the goal of creating outdoor environments that are elegant, well crafted, and enduring.
Q.What do you find to be the greatest challenge in creating a successful outdoor space?
A. Landscapes almost always present complex constraints or limitations, so the design challenge becomes how to capture the essence of a place while simultaneously addressing the site issues. Rather than introducing more ornamentation to a landscape, we believe the most successful design solutions are achieved through a subtractive process wherein a landscape is distilled to an aesthetic of purity and minimalism. In our office, a typical design process will undergo several iterations of study to yield the most successful results. Although the end result may not always reveal the underlying “science” of landscape architecture, ideally the “artfulness” is always evident.