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Picture Space, Landscape Space

The source of these formal manipulations lay, once again, in modern art. While the landscape architect rarely mentions specific influences, the Eckbo gardens of the late 1940s and 1950s, are so close to certain works by Wassily Kandinsky as to beg comparison. In his quest for the "spiritual in art," Kandinsky examined the relationships among nonobjective elements within the space of the picture. Like his contemporary and Bauhaus colleague Paul Klee, Kandinsky often relied on primary visual signifiers such as lines, dots, circles, and planes to create compositions with metaphysical aspirations. He believed that "the more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal." Yet he


Eggers garden. Axonometric view. Pasadena, 1946. Ink on tracing paper.
The garden's fragmented or curving profiles contrast with the orthogonal box
of the house—shown here only in outline.
[Documents Collection ]

Shulman garden. Nighttime view. Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, 1950. Raphael Soriano,
[Julius Shulman ]


admitted that the average person "does not probe the outer expression to arrive at inner meaning"—as one should.[81] The strong V composition created by two powerful diagonal lines locks the circle between them; arcs reinforce the position of the circle, but only indirectly. Alfred Barr published Kandinsky's Composition I (1921) [see figure 19] in Cubism and Abstract Art , a publication with which Eckbo was familiar even during his Harvard years.

For Kandinsky, the idea of composition comprised both the work as a whole and the "various forms, [which] by standing in different relationships to each other, decide the composition of the whole. . . . Singly they will have little meaning, being of importance only in so far as they help the general effect." But as a group, "they have to serve as the building material for the whole composition."[82] In all, the construction is simultaneously anchored and yet dynamic, appearing predominantly two-dimensional, yet opening to a spatial reading in which the nonobjective shapes are held in dynamic suspension.

Diverse sources inspired Kandinsky's paintings and led to his triad of types: impressions, improvisations, and compositions. Indicatively, Kandinsky stated that "reason, consciousness, purpose" played a central role in the series termed "compositions." Composition VIII (1923) developed from a far denser concentration of lines, dots, and triangles, and yet the linear wedge and circle remained predominant [figure 41]. In his Pedagogical Sketchbook , Paul Klee postulated "a harmonization of elements toward an independent, calm-dynamic, and dynamic-calm entity. This composition can only be complete if movement is met by counter-movement or if a solution of kinetic infinity has been found."[83] The goal was to cast dynamic elements in dynamic equilibrium. In certain respects, Eckbo seemed to share this intention, modified in its application to spatial design.

It is Kandinsky's compositions that constitute the closest parallels to Eckbo's southern California works of the late 1940s and 1950s. Like them, Eckbo's mature gardens relied on circles as termini or places of stasis, defined by benches, lawn, or the white line of a concrete mowing strip. The most exuberant of these designs was the unrealized 1945 landscape design for the estate of Mr. and Mrs. William Burden in Westchester County, New York [figure 42]. The architects for the house were Harrison & Abramowitz, and Eckbo credits Isamu


Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII , 1923.
[David Heald , ©  Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York ]


Burden garden. Plan. Westchester County, New York, 1945. Harrison & Abramowitz, architects. Ink on tracing
[Documents Collection ]


Noguchi as sculptor on the project, although his contribution is unspecified. The scheme was vintage Eckbo: a circular swimming pool enclosure complemented the circular opening in the roof; flower beds slashed diagonally across the site, linking a second circular court to the garden proper. The garden became a world of spatial fragments and planted set as particles within a chemical suspension—there is a sense of the whole, although each part remains identifiable, true also of several others projects from this period [figure 43].[84]

Bay Lido Building. Pocket park.
Newport Beach, 1958.
[Julius Shulman ]

Certain aspects of László Moholy-Nagy's works also resonated in Eckbo's gardens of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In several series of prints, the artist used packages of skewed lines to energize the surface of the works [figure 44]. In the project for two adjacent houses, Eckbo used wooden strips set obliquely in the concrete terrace to expand outward the sensed limits of the house [figure 45].

Klee described the circle as the trace of the pendulum, suggesting a development in time.[85] The plan for the unexecuted 1944 Nickel garden in California's Central Valley played a circular lawn against the house's L-shaped plan [figure 46]. From this central living area in stasis, the garden dramatically expanded, a powerfully centrifugal design that integrated within its radiating geometry the children's play areas, a polite zone of lawn and shade, and the pasture that allows cattle to become a part of the activities. The auto court was positioned on the far side of the house, isolated from the central garden, set within a zone assigned to vegetables, court games, and swimming. The circle was most clearly witnessed in plan, but a more careful reading of the design reveals that the garden was to be composed of angular segments arranged within a circular superstructure—there was little except the heart of the scheme that could ever be perceived as a circle. The insistence of the geometry gave way to the use of the garden's areas, defined—in Eckbo's now-signature manner using lower hedges and wooden fences and higher, more insistent curving planes of trees.

In its use of a pure, circular organization, the Nickel garden was quite rare. The site's confines pressured the circle of the Firk garden in Los Angeles [preliminary plan 1952] into an irregular oval, the pergola and other walls pushed to the patio's perimeter [see plate VII]. More


László Moholy-Nagy. AXL II , 1927.
[David Heald , ©  Solomon R .
Guggenheim Foundation

Garden project for two neighbors. Los Angeles, mid-1950s.
Ink on tracing paper. Convolution of the property line wall
extended the sense of limit in each garden.
[Courtesy Garrett Eckbo ]


Nickel garden. Site plan. Los Banos, 1944. Mario Corbett, architect. Ink on tracing paper.
[Documents Collection ]


commonly, in Eckbo's compositional strategy, the circle anchored the dynamic thrust of the diagonal line and was rarely left undefiled. Instead, elements such as a planting bed or pool on the ground, or trellises or roof planes above, overlapped the circular perimeter. Like the painter's use of elements such as the point, the line, and the plane, the landscape architect used the usual elements of path, hedge, singular plant, paving materials, water, wall, and trellis. Although these were reformed by a modern vocabulary, it was less the redefinition of any singular element (except perhaps the shape of the pool or planting bed) than the correlation of planes and forms in space that distinguished Eckbo's compositions.

The 1959 design for the Sudarsky garden in Bakersfield summarized both the social and formal aspects of Eckbo's manner, combined to effect a modern landscape for living [figures 47, 48]. Since the house faced north, the auto court occupied the southern part of the site, the preferred exposure for the garden. As a result, Eckbo positioned the principal outdoor living areas to the west. The circle appeared modified as a stellate entrance feature, as a smaller northern patio with ornamental pool, as the basis of a recreational lawn area, and as a cusp enclosing the swimming pool. The various zones of activity merged, however, undermining the rigidity of the geometrical shape, as did the preponderance of ornamental planting.

After the landscape architect's removal to Los Angeles, Gregory Ain and Eckbo had become frequent collaborators. Many of their projects concerned multi-family developments and apartments in addition to single-family houses. With Ain, Eckbo furthered his ideas on the relation of the community to the land and the relation of the house to the community, stressing that "the front yard is the direct physical connection between the private home and its neighborhood." His personal social contract addressed the role of the individual in society, and that role as expressed in the built environment:

Thus the relations between each private home and its neighborhood involve continuous choices between social and private living, sociability and privacy, community services and self-sufficient labor, what portions of life can best be handled individually and what portions can best be handled through some form of co-operation within the community .


Sudarsky garden. Site Plan. Bakersfield, 1959. Pencil on tracing paper.
[Documents Collection ]

Sudarsky garden. View over swimming pool, looking east. Bakersfield, 1959.
[George Reineking, courtesy Garrett Eckbo ]


Various projects, discussed in the following essay, demonstrated Eckbo and company's test developments for the several cooperative groups. On flat sites, the layouts were often unabashedly geometric, with alignments of tree planting used to provide the spatial superstructure that links individual dwellings. "The over-all pattern of trees in a neighborhood of detached houses," Eckbo wrote, "is the single most important visual element."[86] His regard for this precept is apparent even today in the 1948 Modernique homes in the Mar Vista district of Los Angeles [see figures 124–28; plate III]. Here, plantings of magnolia, melaleuca, and ficus prevail, offering a homogenous canopy for houses that have taken various guises through remodeling over the year. Landscape design continues the neighborhood as that point where the limit of the individual house and site ceases. Landscape architecture thus integrates the suburban community almost as the wall creates contiguous urbanity [figures 49a–c, 50].

As illustrated in this sketch, and on succeeding right hand pages, Eckbo advocated the development
of the suburban landscape through judicious planning. Carlos Diniz, delineator.
from Garrett Eckbo , The Art of Home Landscaping]

For individual clients, the process was often the reverse, seeking to create a domestic paradise within the tight limits of the suburban lot. The intention was to maximize the potentials of the given area and to magnify the sense of space, once the conditions of the program had been met. If the front lawn, with its "structural" use of trees, was intended as a link between adjacent properties, then the design of the rear yard or garden tried to eradicate the insistence of neighboring houses and unwanted views [figures 51, 52, 53]. Given the tight confines of many of these sites, the living zones of the gardens were forced to overlap, almost always spatially, and often in terms of function [see plate VIII]. Only rarely was there a singular grand vista: a motif such as the zigzag itself prompted movement and the revelation of views through time. Although his garden designs tended to be internally oriented, within their own world, they also magnified the possibilities within their limits. Of course, the design depended on whether or not the site was bounded or open. But unlike Thomas Church, whose garden designs tended to lead the eye outward, capturing the surroundings as a part of the composition, the constrictions of many Eckbo gardens made masking logical and an internal focus necessary. The designs set the scene for outdoor living—which included increasingly popular swimming pools for those who could afford them—and choreographed movement and vistas internally and externally.


Taub garden. Entrance court looking north. Los Angeles, 1957.
[Courtesy Garrett Eckbo ]

Koolish garden. Fountain court. Bel Air, 1952.
[Julius Shulman ]

Harryman garden. Los Angeles, mid- 1950s. Banked earth,
reinforced by plantings, screened unwanted views.
[Courtesy Garrett Eckbo ]


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