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Landscape architects play key role in creating safe and functional spaces By Harold Bubil Published: Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
If you have visited the courtyard at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, or Sarasota's Bayfront, Disney World or any number of other public gardens, you may find it difficult to believe that the goal of landscape architecture is anything other than beauty. "A lot of people think of landscape architecture as making their yards and parks look pretty,"
Landscape architect Michael Gilkey, below,
says Sara Katherine "Kay" Williams, an
created footpaths to that lead from smaller private gardens to a fountain and created the
associate professor at the University of Florida's
feeling of a courtyard at a home on Casey Key.
College of Construction, Design and Planning. "The licensure for landscape architects has nothing to do with making things look pretty," continued Williams. "You are judged by whether you are competent to protect and enhance the health, safety and welfare of not only the people, but the environment." Environmental concerns are paramount on a barrier island like Casey Key, where one of Williams' former students, second-generation Sarasota landscape architect Michael Gilkey Jr., recently designed the landscapes at neighboring houses -- one a modernist landmark by architect Carl Abbott, the other a renovated Spanish Mediterranean house by Clifford Scholz. Stormwater must be strictly controlled as it passes through the landscape; regulations prohibit the drainage of rain onto the beach. Plant material must stand up to wind, salt air and sandy soil. And it must all come together in spaces -- private or public -- that encourage safe and healthful human interaction. "I love my clients to engage the garden," says Gilkey. "I want something that will catch your eye and make you get off the porch chair and walk and see what we have." At the Abbott-designed house, Gilkey renovated the landscape with new plants, stepping stones and lawn sculpture, including a piece set atop an imposing block of coral stone. Gilkey said the house's angular design is contrasted "with a lush abundance of greenery, which is great. But after 10 or 15 years, things get a little hairy and a little messy. Carl Abbott did a fabulous job; I'm not saying anything other than it was time for it to be updated and renovated. "For me, it's wonderful to be able to work on a house like that. It's a visual piece of art with the lines that they have, the shadows that they cast. The starkness of the house really makes all my greens pop." The Scholz-designed house has a larger site -- more than an acre.
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With a fair amount of land at his disposal, Gilkey created a half-dozen garden spaces that are separate, yet geometrically arranged and connected with hardscape. A large stone fountain provides one centerpiece, an elevated dining platform another. A resort-sized pool has a clear view of the Gulf, while the house addresses the landscape through a portico with multiple columns. "You could take a picture here," says Gilkey, making a sweeping movement with his arms, "and not be able to tell where we are. This picture creates an emotion, and that is what I am trying to do. "A lot of times on these projects, you are given 10 feet on each side of the house and 20 feet in the back. It is very had to create emotion with that." Gilkey starts a project by looking for the site's problems and constraints. "Then I use good design decisions to solve those problems. Within a small yard, I don't have a lot of space to fix those problems and create a specific emotion. A lot of times all I have to do is make it look pretty -- and pretty is OK, too," he says. "But within a site like this, I've got maybe six gardens around the property, and now we interconnect. It gives me a lot more room to create emotion." Field study When he's not designing, Gilkey often drives around town, noticing which plants are thriving and which aren't in various landscapes. Such field study informs his work and saves clients money. The wrong plant in the wrong place can dent a landscape architect's reputation -- especially when a client is spending many thousands of dollars on trees, shrubs, grass and "hardscape." "It comes down basically to horticulture. You have to understand the plant material," says Gilkey. "It is forever growing. It is a living element. "When an architect places a wall, he knows with a great surety that it is going to be there for a hundred years. We plant trees, and every year for the next 50 years, that tree is going to change; that space is going to change. So you have to understand how those elements work together. That is the true magic of being a landscape architect." Defined roles The profession is subject to some misunderstanding. A landscape architect is not a landscape contractor, gardener or horticulturist. But he must have knowledge of those skills. Of all the design trades, the landscape architect must have the most knowledge of living things -- the natural environment. "We have to have not only a strong sense of the social sciences, dealing with psychology and behavior, (but) we also have to have an understanding of ecology," says UF's Williams. "It is becoming clear that no one discipline can work alone. It's going to have to be interdisciplinary work with the complexity of the problems we have today. The landscape architects have the generalist's knowledge of this. They know some of the ecology, some of the civil engineering, the social sciences, they know design -- and the good ones know when they don't know what they need to know. They call in someone else. "Most of the very successful landscape architects tend to find areas that they are very good in. You don't find landscape architects who do everything. We are finding that with the issues of sustainability, it really does need to be collaborative. The codes, the laws, the complexity." Teamwork
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Working with architects is a key to successful design, say Williams and Gilkey. Carl Abbott stresses that a successful project stems from communication among architect, landscape architect, building contractor and owner. The landscape architect, says Abbott, "should talk with the architect and say, 'I want to understand what your concept was here, so what I do will work with what you are doing.' Most any architect will be willing to do that, at least one who cares about the building." On Casey Key, Clifford Scholz cared. He and Gilkey worked closely on that project, completed a year ago. "We spend a lot of time and go over our design drawings," says Scholz. "We tell them what we are trying to achieve. We walk the site and tell them what existing things we want to preserve or don't want to preserve, and we go through iterations. That process gets repeated and refined until we are at a point where everyone is happy, and we feel we have done the best we are going to do. "Michael listens. His installation ... goes beyond our expectations." Even though these neighboring houses look much different, the landscape design rules are the same. "The basic design principles are scale, balance, symmetry," says Gilkey. "The way I like to do modern design is mix the forced with the soft. You have some hard edges. You have some perfect geometries -- things line up. Whereas in a Mediterranean garden, you really want big, fluid lines, beautiful curves. But if you look, the geometry is still perfect. All the radiuses go from one to the next. There are no loose, sloppy curves. Everything is still clean." Architects emphasize the importance of the client in the design process, and Gilkey is no different. "I take a look at the existing house or the proposed architectural styles, then I have a long interview with the owners and get to know what they want. I tell my owners all the time, 'I want you to use me as a tool.' My father told me a long time ago, no matter how great the design is, if the owners don't love it, we failed. Our designs are never bigger than the project and never bigger than the client." A video tour of the Casey Key landscapes and a brief history of landscape architecture are online at heraldtribune.com/realestate.
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Published on Apr 8, 2014