The harmonious marriage of water and stone is a trademark of landscape architect Garett Carlson. A redwood dock, granite boulders, and a pavilion with a thatched roof give this Carlson-designed pool the feel of a natural pond.
There’s an air of comfortable asceticism about landscape architect Garett Carlson. In the small, white studio where he designs his gardens, two drafting tables stand near two stereo speakers, a tiny kitchen, a table with a slender, cylindrical glass vase of flowers, three chairs, a Japanese paper lantern, and some Buddhist figurines. This same simplicity applies to Carlson’s working style. Designing for an atmosphere rather than a particular look, he spends his time walking a landscape, standing in the midst of it, listening, and watching before he puts pencil to paper. “A garden should give you a feeling,” he maintains, “and a well-designed space will actually give you energy.” For Carlson, what that feeling might be is intricately bound up with the site. “I’m always trying to design something that looks like it was always there,” he says. “And that means considering the whole space, how a particular garden site ties into its surroundings.” The results are verdant landscapes that often feature naturalistic ponds and pools, artfully placed stones, and mature trees.
Energetic, rarely in his office, and rarely seated when he is there, Carlson plainly enjoys the careful consideration of space. Working with three associates — his firm is called LandArc — he supervises between twenty and thirty projects at a time, gliding through a schedule that might leave others gasping for air. By day he meets with clients, consults with contractors, and oversees jobs in progress. By night, “to relax,” he designs — from 9 pm to 2 am. For vacations, he does projects out of town.
Carlson graduated in landscape architecture from Cal Poly Pomona in 1973, and, after a careful survey of California landscape architects, sought as his mentor the late Dudley Trudgett — whose work ranged from city masterplans (Diamond Bar, Westlake Village) to local residences to urban planning projects for new villages outside New Delhi, India — had what Carlson calls “a real magic to his spaces. He had an amazing grasp of a site, a real ability to key into a whole space.” Carlson not only worked for Trudgett for five years but, like other students before him, rented a room in Trudgett’s house. During the same period, Carlson studied architecture for a year at UCLA. And over the course of his association with Trudgett, which lasted until the latter’s death in 1985, he absorbed his mentor’s strong conviction about creating gardens that are whole, rather than assemblages of parts.
Not surprisingly, Carlson feels that the site plan — which shows how site and architecture are integrated — is the most important drawing in the design process. He makes hundreds of sketches before presenting five or six alternative lans to his client “I really feel there are always multiple design solutions for a site,” he says. “There’s not just one correct answer. I think presenting several ideas helps clients get more actively involved in the design process. They may like one thing from one drawing and something else from another. It’s that interaction that makes it fun. After all, they’re the ones who will live in the garden.”
Fostering this idea — that a garden should have personal meaning, that it should be much used and cherished — is central to Carlson’s practice. One of his favorite activities is taking clients to select the trees for their garden, because it frequently sparks a personal connection for them with the landscape. Indeed, this client involvement is so rewarding to Carlson that he forsook a lucrative commercial practice to concentrate on residential gardens. And with a client list that includes Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Peter Guber, Dolly Parton, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carlson certainly has not regretted his choice. The intimacy of residential work allows him both to learn from clients and to provide them with a valued service. “For many of my clients, time in their garden is therapy,” he says. “And there’s a real satisfaction in giving that kind of pleasure.”
Not surprisingly, Carlson feels that the site plan — which shows how site and architecture are integrated — is the most important drawing in the design process.
Varying as they do with the particulars of site and architecture, Carlson’s gardens don’t lend themselves to generalization. Still, he has a marked preference for softscape over hardscape. “I’d rather put the money in a garden into a big tree than a fancy driveway,” he says, and he regularly softens driveways and motor courts with abundant planting between paving and buildings. Lush, almost jungly plants such as alocasias, ferns, fuchsias, agapanthus, Olivia, and doryanthes have an important place in his palette, but if the feeling requires it, as it did in a recent modern garden in Brentwood, he may restrict himself to horsetail grass in a dry creek bed. For a Tudor home close by, Carlson designed a formal entry garden, complete with box-edged rose beds and a stone fountain. But for a Benedict Canyon hillside, simple railroad-tie steps connect a series of terraces that contain everything from vegetables to a swimming pool.
Carlson admits to favoring such, abundant planting — to a degree other designers might call overplanting — with the aim of creating “instant” gardens. “I learned from Dudley Trudgett,” he says, “that if you pack plants together, they’ll compete with one another and actually become dwarfed. It’s a Japanese technique. And the effect is of greater density and diversity.” He also stresses that while a garden needs at least a year to mature, it doesn’t really stabilize for about five years. “You should expect certain plants to predominate and others to disappear. Things have to reach their balance.”
In this Carlson garden, natural elements such as such vines, shrubs, and time-worn stone complement the clean lines of the home’s architecture.
Still, a frequent misconception about landscape architects is that they are simply plantsmen, and Carlson is the first to admit that horticulture is not as interesting to him as the overall process of shaping space. “Almost every project is an education for the client, who learns to see what’s actually involved in designing a garden,” he says. “And there’s no way a landscape architect can make himself expert in all the areas that his field encompasses. If I need a specialist, I get one.”
As for Carlson, his own emphasis is on the technical aspects of bringing landscape alive. Almost all his gardens include a water feature, and his swimming pools, fountains, koi ponds, and cascades are inevitably special. While he prefers planting to paving, his hardscape designs are nonetheless striking, innovative, and economical. By saw cutting, sandblasting, and sealing plain concrete, for example, or by rolling pebbles into a standard asphalt mix, he creates richly textured but inexpensive driveway and motor court surfaces. In his own hillside garden in Beverly Hills, paths and terraces of stone, wood, and rock blend harmoniously into the natural land form. Indeed, there is always some form to the land in a Garett Carlson garden: a soft mound, a gentle hollow.
For a residence in Trousdale Estates, Carlson modified an existing pool and landscape to take advantage of a panoramic city view.
Such a sensuous appreciation of nature seems critical to the Los Angeles-raised landscape architect. “The level of stress has soared in this city in the last ten years,” he maintains. “I think that gardens have really become imperative.” This conviction is evident in Carlson’s landscapes, all designed with a strong sense of the garden’s original purpose of enclosure. Whether it is the cleansing rush of spilling water, the aimless drifting of a leaf in a pool, or the flickering shadows of foliage on a green lawn, poetic images abound in his work, inviting contemplation and offering solace from the fast-paced world beyond the garden wall.