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By — Ted Cleary, ASLA / Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture
Guest Blogger

When it comes to creating a period landscape for your Midcentury Modern home, it’s all about the garden geometry and the hardscaping. Plants are plants; they don’t care whether they’re part of a “French Chateau” garden design or an “MCM” garden design . But it’s in the shapes of constructed elements of wood, concrete, masonry, metal, that a design vocabulary asserts itself. One such component, all the more visible because of its three-dimensional qualities, is fencing.

Freestanding panels proposed to create depth and interest, and to screen backyard neighbor; translucent fiberglass with blocks of solid color. Design by SCLA; inspired by a Garrett Eckbo design, which was in turn inspired by painter Piet Mondrian.

otherwise-plain pool fence becomes dramatic statement with simple addition of bold blocks of color

When you think of a fence, what definition comes to mind? You probably see it as a practical way to keep someone (or Fido) in or out. But I urge you to think of it in broader terms. When it comes to creating enclosure for outdoor “rooms”, the subject can be interpreted anywhere from the actual physical security provided by a high fence surrounding a property’s perimeter, to just a subtle suggestion of privacy screening that doesn’t lock anything out except curious eyes from certain directions. It can be a work of art rather than just a utilitarian means to an end.

“Fencing” can mean screening just as much as enclosure. At left, a simple freestanding panel of gridded 2 x 6s helps create subtle sense of privacy from street views into outdoor dining courtyard (design by SCLA); at right, a curving free-form fence adds flair while screening pool equipment (design by Robert Royston).

The midcentury landscape architects, notably people like Garrett Eckbo and Bob Royston, used fences and other vertical elements to great effect to create this infinitely-varied range of enclosure. They found inspiration from the Expressionist painters of the early- and mid-20th century, which they translated both on the ground plane and vertically. And, just like their counterparts designing homes, they were driven by a basic premise of using off-the-shelf materials to compose inventive, bold, but affordable design suitable for the explosion of the post-war middle class.

These wavy panels above were a popular material....but since they’re made of asbestos, it’s a no-no today! Design below by SCLA uses Cor-Ten steel, a popular choice for contemporary garden design, in this proposed 5’ ht. fence/retaining wall with sedums to grow through some of the slotted cut-outs.

Note that there’s no rule that says you have to limit a fence to the property line; fences and walls can likewise be used to delineate outdoor spaces in whatever form a design theme, and circulation through and around it, suggest. A landscape architect should approach the task thinking not solely “Where does the property line run?”, but rather “What kind of subtle geometry is going on in the house that we can take inspiration from?”

Landscape plan at right (Garrett Eckbo; Harvard graduate project, 1937) shows influence of earlier French Modernist garden device of zig-zag patterns that effectively camouflage linearity of narrow city lot. Similar idea employed below (plan and perspective views), with overlapping pool fencing (design by SCLA) which adds subtle layering and depth, especially when grazed by night lighting, to otherwise flat property edge. (An existing tall brick wall, in a Classical style, had been nearly pushed over by huge beloved shade tree to be saved; cost to repair masonry presented the opportunity to propose a more-MCM-appropriate replacement.) Repaired wall would have to detour around tree; here, the stepped-back panels (connected unobtrusively in the gaps, for complete enclosure as well as to provide stability) achieve same result in a more design-deliberate manner.

In subsequent blog posts we’ll explore more aspects of fences and enclosure for Midcentury Modern gardens: appropriate materials; the different spatial experiences created by varying fence heights or amount of ‘transparency’; when you might want fences or walls to be an extension of the house’s own material vs. a design that stands in dramatic contrast. But for now when you realize you need to contain Fido in the backyard, after you’ve spent untold energy making your Atomic Ranch or International Style home perfect, outfitted with that cool Eames lounge chair you scored on Craigs List, realize that you don’t need to just accept the standard choices from the fence aisle at the orange big-box store!

— Ted Cleary, ASLA / Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture

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