Sarah Lake, Stephen Fox and Cameron Armstrong talk Landscape, Place and Design

Excerpts, February 2000.

Cameron Armstrong: To start out, I thought I'd mention a conversation I had yesterday with Jim Grater, the composer, about what he calls "semi-static textures." This was in connection with a project he's doing for some museum in Florida, in Tampa. At the beginning, there's only one note, representing one of the figures in the story, and at the end there are 11 notes, each one a different character. So at any moment you have a chord of a certain texture, with a certain meaning and feeling, but which changes as new elements are added or subtracted… just as the seasons add and subtract different colors and textures in the natural landscape…

So, Sarah… I was struck by how similar Jim's plans for this piece must be to planning a garden of flowering plants so that certain combinations of colors and smells reoccur as the seasons repeat themselves.

Sara Lake: Actually, it's rather hard to control. There's a garden I did recently that is mostly naturalized natives. We worked to a certain point, but then the owner decided to stop at six acres and not do the full 25. So, now when you look at the part that we planted, you see something full of detail and diversity and just very lush and glamorous - it really feels more like the native landscape than the part down the hill that we didn't touch. Eventually, all of those things on one side of the driveway will be migrate over to the part that we didn't improve. It can be a lot of fun to start an unauthorized seed lot like that - pretty soon those plants are just going everywhere, in everybody else's yard.

Cameron Armstrong: Well, it's a real intervention. When I was working on Marc Gordon's house, we thought of using the native hill country plants to direct geometry of the landscape. You wouldn't notice it… at first. Then, once you had caught on, you'd have to wonder where our landscape plan stopped and the real, untouched landscape began - which is the state of mind we wanted to inspire. Your gardens are like that - you put a certain frame around whatever happens in the landscape, but completely in a language of native plants.

Sara Lake: I do spend a lot of time trying to incorporate tension and contrast and get the right mood. Paradox, as a structure, is very useful in any kind of writing: emptiness and activity and apparent chaos and form. The clients, of course, have no idea that this is what I'm thinking about.

Cameron Armstrong: No kidding… I guess we're talking about how someone without visual awareness might suddenly grasp that the landscape around her is not natural - even though it appeared to be, in fact claimed to be.

Sara Lake: I often try to make it seem as though I was never there.

Cameron Armstrong: I understand the temptation to let things disappear, to make something that has no rhetorical punch whatsoever - "not in sales." On the other hand, you might as well just be throwing some seeds around because…

Sara Lake: Just doing a reclamation project.

Cameron Armstrong: Something like that. But I'm still interested in that moment in which a person might become aware of the leverage you've exercised.

Sara Lake: It's psychological -- that sort of liberation depends quite a bit upon the client perception of space and the way they collect things and how they arrange objects around themselves. It can be quite difficult helping people who have not thought much about their environment.

Stephen Fox: Do you design with a narrative in mind? Do you develop some narratives which could apply to any given site, or as you design do you realize that you are developing a narrative?

Sara Lake: Well, just diagramming movements through a space can begin a story. From having grown up primarily as a student of music, and with classical training, I learned not to impose my own character on the work. The ability to execute a certain style responsibly was one of the ways you were measured, and so I don't come into a project with my own aesthetic goals really foremost…

Stephen Fox: You don't? But what about the element of surprise? I've been thinking lately about how landscape can relate to the architecture of buildings. If you look at the Rice University campus, which is a complete environment created from basically nothing, a flat prairie, you can see how shaping space and projecting the buildings' symmetries out into the landscape depended on a total redundancy of landscape technique -- the repetition of the same plantings and hedges over and over. In itself, this rhythm could have been deadly, but it's punctuated and brought to life by having the most remarkable surprises embedded in it: sudden vistas, views framed in unexpected ways, strange juxtapositions. This is my question about surprise: in the midst of such a formal plan, how do you decide where to place the experiences that bring it all to life?

Sara Lake: I think a lot of this has to do with the human need to have things be comprehensible. An endless plain is hard to comprehend. Music has bars, repetitive rhythmic patterns, and we like that. An allee of trees is a sequential experience that yields some sense of achievement and some sense of place. It's not just what you are taught in school -- for instance, that Versailles was simply an exercise in control. Now, rhythms like that can take you from one place to another, but fractal geometries are another matter altogether - quite bewitching. There is a flowering plant that grows in California called the Tide Plant, or something like that, whose seeds are literally sown by the tides. They are swept to the line of the high tides, so you get this foam of white blooms on a coastal hillside at the level where the tide deposits the seeds and recedes: a perfect contour of white flowers.

Cameron Armstrong: So where does your vision reside? All these ideas seem like tools for you, but how and where (and why) do you get started?

Sara Lake: Well, it has to be an intersection of interests. Ideally, you can make something doesn't require a lot of maintenance, and also fills an emotional need. That's what causes people to spend money -- most people won't spend money on landscapes just because they have erosion problems, not even corporate entities. They just don't.

Cameron Armstrong: So, they want some kind of a thrill, at least sometimes. But it's ironic -- a paradox or something - that the more foreground you make, the less foreground there is. Right now designers seem to have an irresistible urge to just go with whatever shapes the computers can easily make, because they'll stand out. But the blobs and slick curves are already redundant - there's so much around. Ultimately, I think we'll be completely without a foreground, which is like a meltdown of visual rhetoric. What will survive will be something very much like the landscapes you make. One of the difficult things about finding the margin between what you design as a gardener and what would ordinarily be there, is the question of where the surprise ought to come -- in the person, in the landscape, and/or in the narrative, whatever that means.

Sara Lake: I don't have a theory of where that margin is. Speaking personally, I get most of my moments of feeling absolutely okay from some landscape stimulus. I get an unexpected view, or a whiff of some fragrance - and then suddenly I can just feel absolutely a part of things and comfortable. I'm not sure it's universal, but so many people expend so much effort on finding that feeling -- on making it or getting to it. My personal inclination, which is for the work to become very abstract, is balanced against the idea that permanence depends on how it will engage with nature. Only things that are in harmony with nature are permanent, though not necessarily static or unchanging. I think one of the reasons that natural landscapes have such a power to draw us, is that they reveal the processes of creation more clearly than man-made gardens do. You can see the progress of time and can see what the climate did - and it's a challenge to make a landscape that can participate fully in that, stand up to it in the long term. This is very complex.

Cameron Armstrong: So, how do you put time into your gardens?

Sara Lake: Well, it can come down to just being grossly specific. Sometimes I'll say, "Okay over here we are going to plant things that colonize, and you are not going to use herbicide in this corner of the garden." Or, "You are going to let these things fill the space at their pace. We are going to plant a few things and let them alone." That's one way. But then you can also just count on the seasons, and the plants' natural growth patterns to change things. Some people are involved enough to want to have gardens that are in tune for the evening, for enjoyment at night - they might want to have things that are fragrant at night. Or, maybe they would want plants that flower in the morning, for breakfast. Most everything about planting design has to deal with time one way or the other.

Stephen Fox: Time… but what about space? I've always thought of your work as being very involved with the plan, and with movement.

Sara Lake: Well, I've been criticized as being too architectural in my approach, but I don't know what that means. Maybe it's because I don't like to fill up a space just with objects. To me, the ultimate in a small-scale work is to have the pattern of emotions coming out of one's experience be expended on the landscape, and that it's not just a matter of making a setting for the building. And whatever those feelings are, along with whatever generates them, is either uninterrupted or else somehow heightened - through contrast or pattern -- but is considered and dealt with properly out in the landscape itself.

Cameron Armstrong: We had talked about narrative, but the completion of the landscape by the building is different. Presumably, in the ideal case, the landscape makes a statement that extends the building's program. In design, the building would respond to the potential for gesture existing in the landscape, and the landscape would mirror it back.

Sara Lake: There is potential for environments being created with that kind of checking back and forth, but it doesn't often happen -- there doesn't seem to be a lot of time left to work that through, usually.

Cameron Armstrong: No, it's usually about setting up the big foreground statement, something that conveys order or hierarchy. Except, with the foreground as cluttered and noisy as ours generally is, there's little chance of…

Stephen Fox: …a clear hierarchy. You can't have that when everything becomes foreground, which is now a whole other way of organizing society. Now, we have the perverse democratic ideal which says that you can simply buy your way into whatever club or church, and then signal your new group identity through conformity to some code. There is a consensus formula that, once you attain a certain station, you can buy…

Sara Lake: …big Hollies…

Stephen Fox: …and there's no sense of being forbidden from doing that just because you weren't born to it. And you obliterate what you used to have, partly just because it was what you used to have - and architecturally speaking that includes a lot of what is local and traditional.

Cameron Armstrong: I've often thought that Houston's pseudo-historical buildings, what I think of as retail styles, have been an expression of an inadequate background. I think they've demonstrated the lack of a sufficiently redundant backdrop - natural or cultural -- against which local things could stand out. But now they're so ubiquitous, they actually seem provocative to some people. Some people just seem to have to respond to this pseudo environment by building large, modern-looking objects - the situation empowers them to do something that they might not otherwise have done. I see this in the desire for natural landscapes, too.

Stephen Fox: Except that people who do things out of the ordinary do them because they're basically just extraordinary people who trust their own perceptions, their own judgements. So, I don't think that the kind of fabric that exists plays a large role, particularly when you consider a place like Houston where, when it comes to architecture, people just buy housing. It is all about speculation and real estate. The place doesn't seem to grow out of local cultural needs or yearnings.

Sara Lake: Certainly, many people who come to me have had conventional suburban gardens and struggled with them - have had to deal with the unnatural and unhealthy things that happen when your garden is addicted to sprinkler systems and chemicals. Often, they're just fed up trying to keep evergreen plants all around their house and keep it all looking like "postcard Houston." I get phone calls now from people in brand new tract subdivisions, wanting help with their gardens, and they want native plants. Now, the plant environment from Houston all the way to Georgia is very similar, but as soon as you go west, it fluctuates a couple of times on the way to California. One of those shifts happens right here, where we are, and people are constantly moving from one side to the other of this divide. Designing a garden can sometimes seem like conducting an experiment on the comfort level of using local plants in places that people want to be "native" according to quite another kind of image. They want something native but not local, or local but not native.

Cameron Armstrong: In certain areas, the natural landscape has been so obliterated that the "real thing" must almost be a matter of pure theory. Right? One of the problems we have in Houston is the obliteration of the old historical landscape by a new "historical" landscape. We see design which seems historically rooted, but actually has little relationship to the actual history of the place. Like the little town of Kemah became "Old Kemah," but to become Old Kemah all of the original buildings had to be demolished or removed. I wonder at what point the original landscape, if we could recognize it, gives way to a new original landscape. How do you respond when people want native West Texas plants in East Texas?

Sara Lake: I'm at the point where I occasionally say to people: "Can we just mark this off and leave it alone and see what happens?" They say, "What?!" and I point out that the least expensive thing would be to let nature plant here whatever she needs to plant. Given that these are sometimes quite large sites, I generally get a good reception once they understand what I really mean.

Cameron Armstrong: …to just see what happens. So, what is your definition of an authentic natural landscape? Do you think it's okay to bring in an African plant that just grows well here? Could such a plant be a part of a "natural" landscape?

Sara Lake: Well, the jargon for that is it is an adapted plant. Say, the plant is native to Africa, but not native to Houston.

Cameron Armstrong: So, an African plant could be a native plant?

Sara Lake: It is a native plant, but native to where? A botanist will tell you that there are very few native landscapes left, because almost everything has been grazed by domestic animals or had man-made topographic change causing erosions, causing plant changes -- so that there are very few places where you see what a landscape looks like without man's involvement. There really is no way that I can imitate nature successfully, or even find a way to compare my work to the real thing. But I can move people to look at something that is an imitation of nature, or a manipulation, and I can touch them and make them feel a certain way. Then, due to this feeling they have gotten, due to favor or circumstance, that landscape can take on a life of its own.