A Plane Garden

Modernist gardens are sparse in Virginia, but Charlottesville landscape architect Gregg Bleam designed one with a Tuscan twist.

photos by Scott Smith

When Richmond clients charged Gregg Bleam Landscape Architects of Charlottesville with designing an Italian terraced garden reminiscent of the ones they had admired on trips to Tuscany, they had one more request. It needed to be a minimalist interpretation.

 The resulting design—The Garden of Planes—won the prestigious American Society of Landscape Design’s National Honor Award, one of only 11 residential designs selected from across the nation in 2005 and the only one sited in Virginia. This landscape, deemed “remarkable” by the ASLA National Awards jury, garnered high praise for its enhancement of mid-century modernism and scale, creating a space that feels “so much larger” than the 60 x 60 feet it actually is. This inspired design, elegant in its simplicity, displays geometry that is anything but plain.

When Gregg Bleam, an alumnus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who taught for 10 years at UVA’s School of Architecture before founding his firm in 1990, learned his Richmond project’s residents were interested in minimalism, he realized he had found clients sympathetic to his philosophy of light and the layering of space. He loves having clients who value a modern design aesthetic. Not everyone understood immediately, however, when freestanding walls started going up to establish spaces; the owners remember, “People did not know what to think.”

Bleam wanted to use the three-terrace concept of a typical Italian villa but not be literal to it. “I was trying to do something unique to central Virginia, to break out of the boxwood tradition with layers and transparency,” he explains. “I wanted to be dynamic and still tied to the area with native plants and natural indigenous materials.”

Tennessee sandstone with exquisite veining was selected for its tan color, reminiscent of the hues of Tuscany (literally selected—the pinker pieces were culled). The stone was laid in long horizontal cuts with “shadow set joints” to form the two vertical planes that flank the entry to the garden while a third sandstone wall stands perpendicular at the terminus of a plane of water, the first thing you see upon entry. This plane at ground level is part black slate, part reflecting pool, which Bleam conceived as a mirror, artfully dividing the space into light and dark while “inferring movement amid stillness.” A similar play of light and dark projects through metal bands woven among the bronze gates, creating a mood reminiscent of Japanese shoji screens. Bleam notes, “They allow you to choreograph the entrance, to make it dynamic and changing.”

Leave the entry level, constructed of Buckingham slate with honey crushed quartzite, and stroll in one of two directions: to the left up to the bocce lawn, or to the right, stepping onto the two planes of slate that offer passage (and a Japanese sense of space) across the reflecting pool, and then a step down into the secret garden for sanctuary, repose and a nice glass of wine. On this lower terrace, concrete edging defines a crushed-stone surface upon which serviceberry trees are planted in a 5-point geometric pattern called a quincunx, similar to the form of Tuscan olive groves. The delicate trees’ branching pattern disguises the path to the secret garden, and the light stone surface provides another plane upon which Nature can trace her shadow of leaves, a pattern that changes throughout the day. The owners selected serviceberry for year-round interest in the grove—early white flowers that change to red berries, good fall color and a silver multi-branched trunk. Bleam favors this type of “rigorous structure with delicate and changing and diaphanous” materials filling in around it, a theory that also manifests itself in his restrained planting palette. His maxim is to reduce: “Gardens usually have too much going on. The best gardens exercise restraint, especially a small garden.”

He suggests resisting the urge to include many too many varieties. Instead, pick three outstanding ones and repeat them. Such restraint proves cohesive in the strong framework at the opposite end of the Garden of Planes, where the fastigiate form of European hornbeam is repeated in a stately upright row next to more hornbeam, but this time clipped into a hedge for variety. Such formulas reflect an elegance when “making spaces and places for people to live.” The clients attest, “The more we live in this space, the more appreciation we have for how well-integrated it is.”

From the lower terrace, where people like to linger, the view to the upper lawn is surprisingly long-range due to the ingenious design and translucency of another major plane dividing the garden—the vine scrim. Here, Villard grapevines from Afton’s “Edible Landscape” form a living wall that separates the space yet leaves it visually light. The interplay of sunlight and shadow is mesmerizing on this expansive plane of grape vines in all stages of development—from corkscrew lines in early bud to broad, serrated leaves to opulent clusters of grapes. This organic screen travels along bronze supports spaced regularly the length of a foundation that is cleverly designed to serve as a retaining wall for the entry level but to disappear on the upper lawn level it supports. Dedicated to achieving the most in the least amount of space, Bleam incorporated a cedar bench the full length of the wall, using the scrim as the back of the seating to make the entire garden room divider “sittable.”

Says Bleam, “We didn’t have the luxury of space, so we had to make everything work.” This feature works well practically because in summer it allows an open-air flow and is not claustrophobic in Richmond’s heat and humidity. It pleases aesthetically, too, because of its openness—Bleam designed special brackets to suspend the cedar bench for this unusual element and worked with the metal company to produce them. No wonder the project was cited by the ASLA Awards jury for being “extraordinarily precise,” a comment the firm particularly relished.

Working with the metalworkers and the stonemasons was pleasantly collaborative, according to the homeowners, as it became clear that this special project would be a showcase for craftsmanship. Virginia Industrial in Waynesboro crafted the 38-foot-long tank for the pool out of naval brass and “pre-patinaed” it for its dark color. Stonemason Wayne Floyd at Empire Granite of Richmond laid the sandstone walls with great precision. The open end of the walls reveals stone only the width of a brick on each side of the long plane, showing the care given to achieve delicacy of form and movement.

After six to nine months of design work, the group spent a year looking for a contractor and a year in construction. In Stuart Cary, they found a contractor who had great enthusiasm and an appreciation for the uniqueness of the project, which came in handy since at every step this job was “special.”

Even in getting the building permit, the question arose of what to call the structure—it was not a house or garage but a garden, yet it was a major building project. The long time involved in the execution of the plan did give each member of the collaborative team “opportunities to make adjustments and hone it.”

Bleam considers the interaction essential: “We strive to tailor-make the space to their needs while aspiring to beauty and something higher, but the client edits and transforms it in a wonderful way. The best compliment is that they love it and care for it.”

 Bleam and firm partner Nathan Petty have worked on gardens from Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. In Virginia, they have collaborated with modernist architects W.G. Clark, Mark McInturff and David Jameson. Info at GBLA.net.

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