A Word About Landscape Architecture and Garden Design

Archive for July, 2012

The base Isokern “Magnum” outdoor fireplace, before stone facing is added



The 50th Anniversary of The Century 21 Idea House By Seattle Landscape Architect Brooks Kolb, ASLA


In 2010 I had the opportunity to design a garden terrace for an intriguing mid-century modern house in Inverness, a north Seattle neighborhood.  Designed in 1962 by renowned architect Jack Morse, who was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a University of Washington professor of architecture, the house was sponsored by Georgia Pacific Corporation as the “Century 21 Idea House” for “House & Garden” magazine.  Publishing in the August, 1962 edition of “House and Garden,” Georgia Pacific, Jack Morse and the magazine all clearly intended to ride the tide of publicity raised by “Century 21,” the 1962  Seattle World’s Fair.  Now as Seattle celebrates the 50th anniversary of the fair, it’s timely to unveil the house and garden renovation.


The original house featured pyramidal skylights over four quadrants of the nearly square floor plan:  the living room, bedroom wing, kitchen and garage.  In subsequent years, the garage was converted to a family room and an independent garage was built near the southwest corner of the house.   Moving the garage freed up the original driveway to be converted for landscape use, and the south garden area was created.  By 2010, this space needed a sensitive landscape renovation.  Working closely with the new owners, I created a design that embraced both the confident modernism of the house and the Northwest Japanese flavor of the existing garden. 


One of the best features of Jack Morse’s original house design was a flush concrete perimeter band framing the entire structure, inset in places with a band of river rock.  We kept this striking feature and introduced new paving of Abbottsford  “Texada” pre-cast concrete pavers in a striped pattern with two colors.  The garden features a Coral Bark Maple and a candle oil-fueled fire table from Restoration Hardware.


The landscape installation was by Performance Landscape Company.















House From the Garden Terrace (Photograph by Holly Johnson)


Garden Terrace viewed from the family room (photograph by Holly Johnson)


Detail of the garden terrace (photograph by Brooks Kolb)


Restoration Hardware Laguna Fire Table (photograph by Restoration Hardware; location shown is not in the Century 21 Idea House garden)

Volunteer Park Landmark Designation Wins Historic Seattle Preservation Award By Brooks Kolb, ASLA

At the Fourth Annual Historic Seattle Preservation Awards Ceremony, held at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood on May 15, 2012, The Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP) received the Community Advocacy Award for the Volunteer Park Landmark Designation.  One of eight awards given by Historic Seattle in 2012, the Community Advocacy Award commemorates FSOP’s hard work first to prepare the Landmark Nomination document for Volunteer Park and then to lead it through the review and approval process by Seattle’s Board of Landmark Preservation. 


The Landmark Board applauded our presentation of the nomination in September, 2011, voting unanimously to approve the nomination and later to designate Volunteer Park as a Seattle landmark.  As a board member and then president of FSOP from 2008-2011, I led a 5-year long committee effort to research and write the nomination and submit it to the Landmark board.  The other three committee members contributing to the nomination are past FSOP treasurer and chief author Charlie Sundberg; past FSOP vice president and co-author Sue Nicol; and current president and editor Jennifer Ott, who graciously received the award on behalf of FSOP at the May 15 ceremony. 


In a beautifully produced booklet for the awards ceremony, Historic Seattle wrote:  “The Community Advocacy Award goes to the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP) for the arduous work involved in preparing a complex and successful landmark nomination application for Volunteer Park.  The organization’s documentation of this complicated and highly significant cultural landscape serves to insure the preservation of Volunteer Park and fosters the on-going recognition of our unique citywide Olmsted legacy.  Realizing that Volunteer Park was the most comprehensively designed and faithfully preserved component within the citywide Olmsted-designed plan for the Seattle Park system, FSOP board members prepared…an impressive 110-page document that provides a thorough description of the park’s landscape features and elements as a whole, as well as specifically documents various component buildigns, structures, monuments and water features and small-scale design elements.  It includes in-depth contextual information regarding the national, local and neighborhood significance of the Seattle work of the Olmsted firm and the history and evolution of the park itself.”

Preserving and Removing Trees in Your Garden

As a Seattle residential landscape architect and garden designer, I am always consulting with homeowners about whether to remove or preserve large trees on their property.  Many times on a first visit to their garden, people will tell me, “That Cedar is going.  I’ve already called to have it removed.”   Among the candidates for removal, large specimens of our native Western Red Cedar and the exotic Deodar Cedar seem to top the list.  And the motivations for the planned removal are certainly understandable.  Mainly, they boil down to four basic reasons:

  1. I’m afraid that tree is going to fall on my house and power lines.
  2. It’s so messy, I’m always cleaning my gutters and it drops leaves and seeds all over my car.
  3. My back yard is too shady – I just want a sunny garden.
  4. Those trees are blocking my view.

But should a towering Cedar automatically be removed because one of its limbs fell in the last wind storm or should a giant Oak tree be removed because grass won’t grow under it?  I have often counseled people to remove a tree or trees due to crowding or disease – none more so than mature Cherry trees, which are highly susceptible to many diseases — or to open up views.  But unless that Cherry tree looks like it’s rotting from 30 feet away, I also encourage them to consider the other option, to preserve the tree. 

Why should you think twice before removing a large tree?  For three main reasons:  First, because Seattle has lost over 30% of its tree canopy since the 1970’s, and you can clearly see the effects of this change by comparing current and past aerial photos of the city.  Second, because there is enormous value to individuals and society in the urban forest that we are losing.  The evidence is overwhelming that trees moderate heat gain on hot summer days, mitigate climate change by storing carbon dioxide, and provide desperately needed wildlife habitat.  

But if these two reasons seem abstract and altruistic to you, consider the third reason:  as I always put it, trees are a gift to the neighborhood.  What attracted you to your neighborhood in the first place?  Wasn’t it at least partly the leafy streets and the tall backdrop of greenery surrounding the houses?  Sometimes a giant tree can even be a neighborhood landmark. Seattle’s most attractive neighborhoods feature lush front gardens and towering mature trees. Neighborhoods in surrounding communities such as Mercer Island,Bellevue and Redmond are appealing because they still feel like they are nestled in the native forest.  When too many of these urban trees are cut down to make way for larger houses that “maximize the lot,” the net effect is to lose the landscape appeal of the entire neighborhood.

With that in mind, I often encourage people to consider four reasons to preserve their tree(s), each corresponding to one of the four legitimate reasons for considering removal:

  1. The entire tree is much less likely to fall than one or more of the limbs.  Why not hire a consulting arborist to assess the tree’s hazard and consider removing a few limbs rather than the entire tree?
  2. Trees can be messy.  I know, because I live under Bigleaf Maple trees, and you can’t convince me that there is any messier tree in existence.  But why not park your car in the garage and hire someone to clean out the gutters on a regular basis?
  3. Sometimes the only way to obtain a nice sunny patch for your morning coffee or afternoon wine is to remove a tall tree, but many times there is another part of your property, say in the front yard, that is sunny and with new landscaping can be converted into a private sanctuary.  Meanwhile, ground covers can be planted under that Oak or Cedar to create a beautiful shade garden.
  4. Views are actually enhanced by trees, which provide the foreground interest and framing for the most beautiful Pacific Northwest vistas.  Panoramic views without foreground trees can feel somewhat bland and two-dimensional, like a painted theater backdrop. Often to create or enhance a view, it is enough to open a “window” in a tree by removing a few key limbs that block Puget Sound or Lake Washington and the mountains.

Cass Turnbull of Plant Amnesty (www.plantamnesty.org) has made a career out of tree preservation and teaching proper pruning techniques.  Currently, Plant Amnesty is lobbying city officials to pass a stronger Seattle tree protection ordinance which would make it illegal to remove residential trees in many instances.  However, voluntary tree preservation can go a long way toward protecting the landscape beauty and value of our Pacific Northwest homes and neighborhoods.  If everybody did it, we wouldn’t need that pesky ordinance.