Guest Rant: An Architect Among Us


It may simply come down to the difference between doers and
planners. In a previous post Amy
referred to “garden” as a verb. This it
seems is what tends to unify  gardeners, your passion for doing it. There’s much discussion about getting your
hands dirty and trying it. Pick up the
plants that appeal to you, the more the merrier; plant them, and let the
experiment begin. You’ll learn soon
enough what works. I recently visited
the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard and heard from Polly Hill’s
almost cult-like following that her improvisation and devil-may-care gardening
attitude is what set her and her garden (now arboretum) apart. I see no problem with that. I loved her arboretum.

Nor do I see a problem with a more studied approach, one
that we planners enjoy, which is to imagine the possibilities with the aid of a
drawing before acquiring any materials. Anticipating the future, how we might shape it (and to what effect) is
our stock and trade. We take great
satisfaction is setting the overall stage, the big picture, and in the
resolution of the design in the details. We judge our success by how the project comes together, how it: flows,
builds anticipation, frames an experience, creates moments of stillness and
moments of exhilaration. We test it for
legibility, balance, and of course, ultimately, we aim for it to be beautiful.

This, I think, is what we have in common, the desire to
create something beautiful. The end
goal is largely the same for you doers and we planners; it’s simply the
approach that’s different. The tension
comes into play, though, when we start to consider who we deem more successful
at creating beauty.

As an architect I have often railed against the slap-dash,
ill-considered products of many builders blithely working without architects,
builders who are looking to make a profit as quickly as possible, so that they
can create the next abomination. I
lament their lack of design training, lack of expertise, and the disservice
they are doing their customers who have squandered an opportunity to create
something sublime. I judge such work
inferior. Of course, that’s not to say
that the works of all contractors building without architects are
abominations. Some are perfectly
benign, but still short of their potential. Others, however, are truly inspired.

That’s just it. I
don’t object to all contractor-designed projects, just those that are poorly
designed. In fact, I object to poor
design no matter who produces it. I
think this is similar to your gardener vs. landscape designer fracas. Gardeners, understandably, object to
poorly designed landscape plans, plans that don’t allow for improvisation
and/or evolution of the garden over time. The landscape designers simply object to poor design. The thing is that you’re both in it to
create something beautiful, one with more of a hands-on approach than the
other. So can’t you just get along?

Easy for me to say, I know. Still, I suspect that the landscape designers do not intend to imprison  gardeners in static plans. Nor do I
think  experienced gardeners, when left to your own devices, will create a
haphazard mess. Perhaps the beginner
gardeners will, but where’s the harm there compared to the harm of constructing
a misguided building? Sure, we all
learn from our mistakes, but it’s certainly easier to tear out a small garden
and start over, than to tear down a small building and start anew (of course
the bigger the garden and the bigger the building, the more the burden). It’s even easier yet to get started in the
right direction in the first place. I
think Susan’s posting about how she used a professional’s landscape plan as a
launching point for her garden, makes complete sense.

If only architects and contractors could come to a similar

Katie Hutchison is an architect and design writer in Salem,
Massachusetts. She owns Katie Hutchison
Studio and produces House Enthusiast, an on-line magazine exploring house,
garden, and related creative arts in New England. Visit her website for more information.


  1. Katie: Your persuasive argument is well stated and I agree with its’ concepts. I don’t think it really comes down to the difference between doers and planners so much as the love of planning versus the love of in plants and how they grow and then the individual attitudes towards the designers from the gardener’s perspective and the gardener from the designer’s perspective. If both would start from a point of mutual respect all could be well but so often the human ‘ego’ comes into play. If you are a gardener who is a designer, you understand the earth connection and you may also understand that if you are a Landscape Architect but, in my experience, most very successful LA’s are not hands on gardeners and see that as just a job for migrant workers and people who like to get their hands dirty. As a student of landscape architecture I remember a professor teaching the basic principle that the design must come first and the plants are secondary. I know this is true but since I love the plants more than the drawing board I have pursued the horticultural end of the spectrum.

  2. Nicely worded Katie, I appreciate your perspective.
    Poor design is poor design no matter what your background.
    If we could all envision the fine details while creating the big picture we would all find ourselves in a better place, but alas, that ability is rare and is why the truly successful designers are as successful as they deserve to be.

    You mention the that if we all ‘start from a point of mutual respect all would be well but then you diss the successful ‘ LA ‘ [ landscape architect] in your next sentence by saying that they are not hands on gardeners and reserve that task for migrant workers and the like.
    Tsk tsk tsk.

    My circle of peers and friends include many well known and respected Landscape Architects and I can assure you we get our hands just as dirty as a migrant worker.
    We also understand the premise that Landscape Architecture encompasses more than just horticulture and gardening, we get the big picture… and if we are successful we get the fine details too.

    Good design holds the potential to be an equal opportunity endeavor across the trades and throughout the classes.

  3. Yes, let’s not have class warfare here. I find myself sometimes resenting people who have degrees I don’t have and make money doing what I mostly do for nothing but it got harder to do that after I’d gotten to know a few whose work I admire. Now let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbayah.

    And btw, I notice HUGE differences between various brand-new gardeners I work with in whether or not they have an eye for design or any feel at all for working with plants. WHAT a difference it makes when people have those innate abilities.

  4. Good design holds the potential to be an equal opportunity endeavor across the trades and throughout the classes.


  5. I agree that good design makes a huge difference to an aesthetically successful garden. That said, I don’t see why one can’t argue that the reverse might not also be true: that good gardening knowledge can make a huge difference to successful landscape design.

    Art school students, in their first basic classes, don’t pick up a paintbrush and start to render still lifes. Instead, they take classes called things like “2-D Foundations” where they pick up a brush and many tubes of paint and begin to work on a grid of paint combinations and relationships… acrylics, then oils, then watercolors, and so on.

    Similarly, landscape designers could really benefit from knowing their plant materials through the intimate interaction that comes through growing them personally.

    Granted, everyone can’t grow everything. But basic knowledge of how variables (light, moisture, nitrogen, etc.) can affect growing things can make a difference. Will that doublefile viburnum turn into a strongly horizontal, visually heavy landscape element… or a more open, light and airy element in a garden? Depends on the variables.

    Good artists (and good gardeners who are artistically minded) selectively use design to convey a concept. Do designers use art? Do they take the time to create a mood in the garden, and try to lure visitors inside? Or do they just chop up the space as best they can in order to hide the grill, provide benches in an expected seating area, etc.?

    I’m not saying either gardening or design is more important… I think that I personally need both to be satisfied. For me, what it boils down to is this: Is whoever created this garden successfully creating a magical place?

    I think that anyone is more likely to create something magical if they 1) know their materials, 2) have a concept in mind, and 3) apply design considerations while creating the space they envison.

  6. I disagree with the premise of this guest rant. If there is an between gardeners and landscape designers I don’t think has anything to do with doers vrs. planners. Most of the gardeners I know are both doers and planners and I’ve have seen professionally designed landscapes that obviously were done by a “designers” who was neither.

    If there is this contentious relationship between ‘gardeners’ and ‘designers'(which I doubt), I think it rests primarily with the Mclandscaping that has engulfed this country: e.g. So-called landscape designers who haven’t met a daylilly they didn’t like or those who promise clients low or no maintenance gardens. Sorry, but a low/no maintenance garden is usually referred to as a weed patch.

    Also, I don’t think one has to be a gardener to be great landscape designer. My all time favorite landscape designer Matt James (City Gardener program on HGTV/BBC4) doesn’t have and never had a garden, but he has a wonderful eye for design and a what appears to be a real passion for plants.

  7. Michelle: I have been to your site and your blog and your work speaks for itself! I love all of what I have seen there. I did qualify that statement concerning LA’s with ‘most’ and that is, perhaps, wrong and I should have said many or even some. It may also be unfair to project what I think is in their thoughts so thank you for tsking. Good design is imperative but a garden can just be a garden and still be lovely with plants as the architecture.

  8. Well designed gardens can be beautiful but are not always to our taste. I want a well designed house but I want a garden to grow plants and interact with the earths other creatures. I don’t care if others find it beautiful. Gardens can be delightful,witty,,thoughtful,inviting etc…a designer is not always needed to bring this about in a garden.
    This is not to say I find designers or landscape architects distasteful. Quite the opposite. I adore the work of Piet Oudolf, Dan Pearson,Alain Idoux,Nancy McCabe.
    This perspective of design or even a general idea of beauty being the goal is not universal…

  9. Of course there are instances where a professional must be consulted. If you live in a bowl, at the foot of a hill or any place that will need to be bolstered or excavated you will need engineering skills.
    Even when running water from downspouts to a rain garden you might want expert opinion.

  10. I’ve been giving this article and the responses that it has provoked some thought.
    Perhaps one of the reasons why some believe that many of the more successful and prominent Landscape Architects do not get there hands dirty comes from their current standing in their professional careers.
    .. let me try to theorize:
    Most well known , highly regarded and respected Landscape Architects do not hit their professional stride until they are well into their late 40’s and 50’s. ( think present icons such as Peter Walker, Topher Delaney, Martha Schwartz, Andrea Cochran and Past Icons such as Roberto Burle Marx and Thomas Church )
    Previous to their middle age success they have spent many years in the field ( getting their hands dirty ) and in the office building their practice, their experience and body of knowledge.
    By this time in their late careers they now have earned the luxury of having a small staff who work in ‘the field’ as they once did.

    I have known and worked with some of the Landscape Architects that I mentioned above and can say that about 20 years ago when we were in our 20’s and 30’s that I saw these LA’s get their hands plenty dirty .

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