This week, Architectural Record profiled a pair of family residences in Michigan’s Harbor Country for which we designed the landscape. Not surprisingly, the feature highlights photographs of the architecture, designed by Margaret McCurry, more than the landscape design, so I thought I’d show a few images of the landscape element that links the two homes.

This portion of the site sits within a 6-acre landscape originally designed by Jens Jensen. As Peter Schaudt commented, this landscape is every landscape architect’s dream – it consists of a ravine, creek, two bridges, ridge and bluff to the shores of Lake Michigan. The architect beautifully framed a vista to the lake with two houses on the high point of the bluff. Here are before/after views of it looking to the lake:

It was important to keep this central view to the horizon line of the lake open, so plantings along the sides of the house and the central path frame the view. Low, horizontal elements like limestone slab steps and cedar-capped retaining walls offer no distraction as the eye looks through the space. The overall effect is subtle, not overpowering.

From below looking back, the effect and the intent is different. Here are ‘before’ and ‘after’ views:

The homes were built for siblings and their families and the terraced garden between them is designed to knit the entire space into a common area. Gently-stepped retaining walls connect the houses and visually reinforce their relationship. The result is a space that follows the natural grade and feels like a terraced courtyard.

Peter says that conceptually, he thinks of the houses like two boats at a dock: “The central path visually anchors the buildings while the wood-capped retaining walls act as tethers, keeping the two structures together. The zipper path honors the central circulation but softens the space and makes it less formal, allowing plantings to come in to the space in a more naturalistic way.”

At the base of the stair, a sculptural fire ring is cut out of the slope. When walking down the steps from above, or looking through the space to the lake, the ring is not immediately visible. It is a surprise element, something to be discovered. The ring is a deliberate re-interpretation of Jens Jensen’s frequent use of council rings, which were simple circular stone benches:

In this circle, the ring itself is created out of negative space, carved out of the slope that descends toward the lake. Minimal and modern, this reinterpretation is sympathetic to the architecture while honoring Jensen’s intent for a council ring to be a place for people to gather with others in nature.

Jens Jensen favored a naturalistic planting design and the use of materials that are native to the area and much of the site is in this style. Within the courtyard, however, it was appropriate to combine natives with ornamentals to create a garden environment that is featured in views from inside the two houses. The design of the terraced stair brings the contrasting styles of naturalistic and modern together cohesively, distinguishing the area as a homestead within the larger context of the native southern Michigan landscape. “I think Jensen would have probably run a sweep of natives right between the houses,” says Doug Hoerr, “this design lets the landscape run through the space, but controls it to some degree in response to the architecture of the homes.”

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