From the Landscape Architects:
Rediscovering our value proposition, shovel in hand

BY: MATT DONHAM AND PHOEBE LICKWAR JANUARY 31ST, 2019

It did not matter that we were ankle deep in mud with 50 more trees to plant to reach our quota for the day. The assistant to the Directrice of the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire would not accept another postponement. This afternoon we would have to submit to an on-camera interview about the meaning of our garden.

It's not that we hadn't had the opportunity to prepare; acceptance into the Festival International des Jardins requires a carefully constructed argument of how your garden speaks to a thematic prompt. The challenge—or perhaps it was an opportunity—in reflecting about the garden at this moment was that we were at peak anxiety. Would the garden impact visitors in the ways we imagined? Were we going to finish in time to make our flight home? Was the evening rain going to prevent the sealant from drying by morning? Why, again, had we signed ourselves up for this madness?

The team only had a week to complete the installation. The wood beams were blackened using the Japanese Shou Sugi Ban technique.

Our entry, "Into the Woods", responds to the call for 'Gardens of Thought,' by drawing on Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 adventure in interconnected realities, “an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times.” In The Garden of Forking Paths, the narrator journeys beneath tangled branches, confronted with a series of crossroads, finally arriving at a poplar grove in which he discovers that the life’s work of his ancestor is not a garden at all, but a disorienting novel, “a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.”

We thought the jury might appreciate the humor in creating an actual garden out of this bait and switch. We had been inspired by the notion of moving through life without a complete map, of making decisions with only partial knowledge of where they might lead. We were excited to create a miniature woodland designed to mirror the story's spatial and temporal disorientation. We would call it "Into the Woods."

How were we going to plant 400 trees on another continent?

The Festival’s requirement that designers build their projects came into sharp focus as soon as our proposal was selected. How were we going to plant 400 trees on another continent? Unlike most of the other teams at the Festival with the option to build in phases over a period of months, we realized the budget wouldn’t allow us to fly back and forth to France through the spring. We needed to build our project in a single trip. We were relieved that friends, former classmates, and one spouse were able to take a week out of their lives to assist in the effort. But it was going to be a challenge.

With only a single entrance for access, we had to build our way backwards out of the garden. From the rear to the front of the plot, our team planted the dense groves of juvenile trees, positioned the skewed grid of blackened balance beams, and laid out the curves that would bound the sinuous gravel pathways. The back of the garden was more or less finished and ready to experience on the afternoon of the third day, the afternoon of our interview.

In the moments before the interview, we started to feel glimpses of our design intent coming into focus. We could, in fact, lose orientation within the garden. We felt with our bodies the distinction we had imagined between wandering on the path and balancing up on the beams, deep within the trees. We could see the shadows of other people moving on a different path in another moment in their journey.

As we walked to the administration building, we had the reassuring feeling that our creation might just come together. In the video, we appear tired but deeply engaged in the work. Rather than distracting us from our goal, the interview became an opportunity for a mid-construction reevaluation of the experiment at the core of our experimental garden: We were making a landscape which actively resists (mere) visual interpretation.

Not that the garden isn't visually delightful. It highlights bright green leaves against charred black timber. It contrasts straight lines with elegant curving ones. Light and shadow play against varying shades of green. But, these visual cues are not primary. They are meant to engage and beckon visitors to go deeper into the space where the garden begins to play with deeper human emotions: Uncertainty, doubt, a touch of fear, surprise. The heightened emotions rely on a subtle loss of orientation, a letting go of control. At no point can visitors see the garden in its entirely.

We succeed when people are drawn into mystery, awe, and delight within the landscapes we design.

And here, this is why we signed up to build a temporary experimental garden on a distant continent! Free of the typical project weights of programmatic goals, functional requirements, and political landmines, we had the opportunity to uncover our interest in heightening human emotion. We succeed when people are drawn into mystery, awe, and delight within the landscapes we design, when those landscapes reconnect people to the incomprehensible scope and complexity of the natural world.

And herein lies our value proposition; When people become emotionally connected through landscape, when they fall in love with the places we make, the underlying land value increases. Conversely, when changes are made which reduce a landscape’s emotional impact, the land becomes less valuable. We are advisors, guiding our clients to make landscape investments which will help their land offer more to humanity. Through this process, we create financial value.

We’re beginning to gain traction with clients on this point. Viewed from the perspective of the potential financial upsides of a well-conceived landscape, it seems much less sensible to squeeze the design fees, construction costs, or ongoing maintenance budgets to the bare minimum. These expenditures are investments. And you get what you pay for. The best part for us is that we have a value proposition which makes room for us to focus on the human and ecological upsides where we find our sense of purpose.

Photos by Raafi Rovero


Matt Donham is the Founding Principal of RAFT Landscape Architecture and is a Brick & Wonder member.

Phoebe Lickwar is the Founding Principal of Forge Landscape Architecture.