Departures Magazine

Departures Magazine, November/December 2002

California Gardens
For two decades, landscape architect Garett Carlson has been quietly changing the look of Southern California.

By Virginia Campbell

sahrodian coastal occurrences
for this mediterranean-style house on the california coast,
carlson planted cascading lavender, geraniums, and salvia.

This is how great landscape architecture works. Imagine you have just turned into a driveway in the most beautiful neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles. Shadows cast by twisting sycamores draw you up the quarter mile that curves one way, then the other, a slice of the Santa Monica mountains visible at first glance, a deep-blue horizon at the second. A moment later, you pass a flowerless garden where a dozen different shades of green seem to blend in accidentally perfect compositions. Just ahead is the house, its wrought-iron doorway softened by Mediterranean fan palms, but you'd rather wander awhile than knock. The scent of wisteria blossoming on the pergola becomes apparent as you stroll past a waterfall that empties into a cool, dark koi pond. A giant bird-of-paradise leads your eyes up into a lush assortment of branches, and when you look past them, an unexpected vista is revealed—the glimmering Pacific, its broad expanse framed by eucalyptus. You feel pleasantly suspended in time, as if this place had been waiting all along for you to find it.

Shocking as it may seem, this setting was nothing but a barren, muddy bluff just a year and a half ago. "The key is to design something that feels as if it's always been there," says landscape architect Garett Carlson, who created this passage of garden poetry. A 52-year-old whose built-for-speed looks seem at odds with his calm manner, Carlson is prized in Southern California for his ability to perform natural makeovers on a grand yet personal scale. With clients that range from movie stars to corporate and political figures, he has worked for two decades as something of an iconoclast at the refined edge of landscape architecture. for lack of more inspired phrasing, Carlson calls his design approach "site planning," a generic term that involves thinking of a piece of property—the land and the structure intended for it—as a whole.

departure aquatic moment
the lush atmosphere of a monet-inspired lily pond in los angeles.

In Carlson's hands, site planning is a mix of science and art. He uses grading and structural solutions to produce a combination of hardscape (walls, courtyards, pools, driveways) and greenery (trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers) that "make the space come together and create a particular feeling." The mysteriously balanced, private little worlds he dreams up are exactly why he's in such demand.

"Garett is an artist with a magical touch," says one Hollywood writer who has worked with him on several projects. "All he has to do is look at a piece of land and he knows exactly where to place things in order to make the most of its natural beauty. Everyone who comes to my ranch says, 'My God, how old is this place?' It's new, but it looks like it's been here for 100 years."

To hear Carlson describe it, his goal is deceptively simple: "When you walk into a space you should feel good without knowing why." Crucial to his particular approach is the "complementary" role of the typically omnipotent architect in a project. Carlson prefers to collaborate with an architect on a comprehensive plan. He flinches at the mention of the Getty Center, Richard Meier's architectural tour de force that crowns the hills above Brentwood and houses libraries, research centers, and the galleries of the J. Paul Getty Museum. When asked what's wrong with the Getty he shoots back, "What's right with it? I don't feel the buildings were integrated with the site." Carlson is hardly a renegade in this opinion, and indeed has had clients who, when he has suggested ways to frame their view of the museum, have said, "Could you please block it out?"

Carlson, whose point of view was honed doing graduate work in architecture at UCLA, sees the landscape architect and the architect working together to determine where a building should sit on any given plot of ground. "Architects are not great site planners," he says.

Of course, few landscape architects have this level of influence. "Most often the building the architect has designed gets plopped on the property, and the space that's left over is given to the landscape architect to make the best of. The game is already lost." Needless to say, architects don't generally see it that way. "A lot of architects say they look forward to working with landscape architects," says Carlson dryly. "Mostly, they are lying."

massman shangri-la style
a rustic swimming pool is lined with boulders on one side, creating
a retaining wall for flower beds gently shaded by birch trees.

The original American site planners were Easterners, such as the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed (with Calvert Vaux) New York's Central Park. But Southern California, with its extraordinary landscape that provides year-round beauty, is where site planning makes the most dramatic difference. There is really no one season, for example, during which a house stands out starkly, nakedly, against its setting. Carlson was born and bred in this environment, knows every tree, shrub, vine, grass, and flower in it, and has always thought of its possibilities in a playful and holistic way.

Fresh out of college, he studied the work of every landscape architectural firm in California and turned down offers at two of the more prestigious in order to apprentice himself to the man he considered the master. "One day i visited a special garden. The minute I walked into it I knew I wanted to work for whoever had designed it," he says. "The energy in the space was magical."

The landscape architect was Dudley Trudgett, a Harvard-educated designer who had practiced as the quiet but critically creative half of the venerable firm Phil Shipley and Associates. Carlson started working with Trudgett after shipley, the marketing and business genius of the firm, had retired and Trudgett had almost been forgotten.

"Dudley was interested only in design," says Carlson. "He didn't care about money. After he died, I found $15,000 checks that were a decade old that he'd never cashed."

Dudley cared about magic, though, and Carlson did, too. But it was after actress Lee Grant struck up a conversation with Carlson on a sidewalk in Santa Monica that he began to assert his own creative talents. Upon learning he was a landscape architect, she convinced him to get in her car and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to a property she was about to begin building on. She had specifically wanted advice on a grove of sickly eucalyptus, but when Carlson looked over the architectural drawings, he was soon advising on a good deal more. Carlson, in fact, ended up completely redesigning the site—and the house as well. The architect never forgave him ("I was young and gung-ho and naïve, and i never thought of running it by him"). The project transformed Carlson's career.

"The reason that i like Garett so much is that he has a sense of organized confusion," Grant says, who recommended him to her pal Goldie Hawn. From there he moved to some of the biggest names in show business, people with the resources—and the imagination—to sponsor brilliant work. While working for a well-known entertainment powerhouse in the mid-'80s, Carlson resurrected the European concept of the infinity pool, also known as the horizon pool because one side of it seems to merge with the distance.

Carlson prefers a predominance of garden over hardscape. His approach may be sometimes even less expensive than more grandiose approaches, but, he admits, there is little question that creativity is enhanced by resources. "Landscaping is always more money than people expect. you come up with a sketch and the client says, 'Oh, I like that. How much will that cost?' And you say, 'Three hundred thousand dollars.' And there's complete silence." The rule of thumb about landscape architecture used to be that the costs should run about ten percent of the value of the property. Carlson believes in 20 percent. While banks remain fixated on the square footage of a house in determining the value of property, he points out, actual buyers respond to the bigger picture.

"When clients hire me for one project and later sell the property, they quickly realize how important the landscape is to the overall value," Carlson says. "The second time they say, 'Hey, do whatever you want.' " He cites a case in which the math speaks for itself. The owner bought a property for $2 million, put $4 million into the renovation and furnishing of the house, another $2 million into the landscaping, and sold the place for $12.5 million in a bad market. Still, Carlson maintains that money is neither the solution nor the point. "You don't need a high budget to create magic."

Many of Carlson's clients are "serial homeowners." they like to buy houses, immerse themselves in transforming the property, and then move on, only to do the same thing all over again. he has done five or more houses for some of these people. it helps that he is particularly adept at near-overnight transformations.

"The conventional wisdom used to be that you designed for maturity in twenty to twenty-five years," he says. "But who is necessarily going to be around in twenty years? And who wants to wait, anyway?"

Carlson's strategy is to plant heavily with the idea of thinning out later. "You create it to work from the beginning, and in five years you come back to balance things out and then it's good for the duration." Because he values big trees as a primary element of design ("the vibration of a space comes through the trees"), he knows exactly which ones grow fastest (California sycamores, ash, pine, and eucalyptus) and what it costs to transplant fully grown trees (counting cranes and labor, a mature palm can run as much as $60,000).

"we gutted and totally redid our house, but it was the landscape garett created that made the real difference," says los angeles client lynn cohen. "it's all a matter of where he places things. he sees space completely differently. he's a true artist. i'm from the east coast, and i like shade and privacy. i told garett i wanted it to feel like i was in the east. so he gave us deciduous trees and actually created a fall season for us. the leaves turn orange and red and we have to rake them up."

It would be difficult to imagine Carlson's Los Angeles home if you were only familiar with his famous projects. There are no pricey palm imports on his steep, intimate compound high up the side of a Beverly Hills canyon. The informal cottages that tier down from a modest walled entrance bring to mind the rustic mountain retreats one finds in Ming-dynasty landscape paintings. It's low-key and serene. This was, it turns out, Dudley Trudgett's place. The alterations since then have obviously been done in his spirit. Nothing stands out as contrived or even remotely new. Stone paths wind here and there, past a waterfall, pond, and gazebo, all half-hidden by vines and branches. The trees overhead filter the afternoon light and heat, and hanging flowers—pale orange, pink, and yellow chinese lanterns—bloom in the shadier spots. Carlson both lives and works here. A number of years ago, he scaled back his practice and now works in a small studio on this hillside, choosing his clients carefully.

"It always comes down to the same thing: how will the elements come together to create a feeling? how will the sun and shade interplay? how do you tie what's close to what's distant? it's all a puzzle you put together. it's just a game."

Those willing to put a leash on their architect, and even some who aren't, gain the benefit of working with a man who understands people as well as he does landscapes. Once Carlson has a basic sense of a client's practical concerns, such as whether or not they want a pool, or just how frequently they entertain, he administers his own brand of Rorschach test: "I always do a series of sketches that go from simple to crazy, and I can tell right away how conservative or adventuresome people are by how they respond."

Not everyone thinks as highly as he does of having diving rocks instead of a diving board at the end of the pool, but so be it. There are those who insist upon a wet bar in their gazebo. Some people will listen to him when he recommends a less expensive, washed-concrete driveway that looks like old-fashioned gravel, while others will opt for the drama of high-priced cobblestone. Having had that moment of epiphany in Trudgett's magic garden a quarter century ago and followed where it led, Carlson finds himself, metaphorically speaking, in that same garden to this day. "It always comes down to the same thing: How will the elements come together to create a feeling? How will the sun and shade interplay? How do you tie what's close to what's distant? It's all a puzzle you put together. It's just a game."


Beverly Hills, CA