Damn The Torpedoes

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

Today I helped an architect friend of mine design the landscape for his recently remodeled midcentury ranch home. A few weeks ago, I also helped him construct a deck he had designed for the home’s front door. The deck was maybe the most interesting one I’ve seen in person. A long cantilever, intersecting volumes, slats, all the details one might expect from Mies van der Rohe. He did a great job of expressing the design language of the home, and I was excited to be a part of finishing up his vision, not to mention the enjoyment of working with a friend and frequent collaborator.

In my market, the opportunity to work on projects with an established and well-defined design language is rare. During the 1950’s-1960’s, modernism came roaring in to my city and many gems were designed and built here. Many of them still remain, albeit in increasing states of deterioration. We have Frank Lloyd Wright’s only built residence in Florida (Spring House), single-family homes designed by notable architects, and several fantastic Brutalist structures (the most prominent being the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University, which was sadly demolished earlier this year). Modernism came in fast, and then all but vanished just a quickly.

North Florida, my market, is also known for its many historic plantation homes and Victorian mansions. Cracker houses dot the landscape, as well as a surprising number of Midwest Contemporary homes constructed in the 1980’s. We have a few Art Deco, and our fair share of classic colonials. However, starting sometime in the 90’s, someone came up with the idea to mix and match the iconic elements of the different movements and throw them all together into a slurry to create what I like to call the Late Frankenstein movement.

My guess is that the brains behind this new movement desired to create a class of home that would appeal to broadest amount of people possible. They must have been on to something, because for 25 years nearly every new home and building was built in ‘Late Frankenstein.’ In the other markets I’ve worked in, and according to colleagues around the country, this movement is not isolated to North Florida. Humorously, the architect friend I mentioned earlier calls it Non-Architecture, a description with which I wholly agree.

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

A vast majority of residential landscape projects are designed long after the home is constructed. In my experience, landscape is not given much thought during the home’s early planning stages. Typically, landscape design should normally respond to the existing architecture of the home. But here’s the rub – what exactly are we supposed to be responding to? Under Late Frankenstein, with no clear design language, design decisions are often left up to whimsy or the latest trends on network television.

Several years ago I decided to tackle this quandary in my own practice. I began doing a little R&D on my own time by experimenting with forms and textures that would best ‘respond’ to a Late Frankenstein home. As I worked through the problem, all roads appeared to lead back to the same place. A sense of the generic and mediocre kept surfacing in the finished products. It was then that my mindset towards these kinds of project changed and I decided to make a hard choice, one that proved to have unexpected consequences. I decided to stop trying to respond to Non-Architecture. I quite frankly started doing my own thing, and damn the torpedoes.

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

When I moved past attempting to put a square peg in a round hole, I expected my practice to suffer, at least for a little while. But what began to happen surprised me. New clients came out of the woodwork. In their eyes, I was pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo. These were the type of clients that I loved to work with, that allowed my work to feed my artist’s soul. They gave me the space to be creative, and meet their needs and goals in new ways. Yes, some prospective clients were turned off by this new direction. There were probably more than I know of who saw what I was doing and decided to go another direction. And that’s OK! Because the inquiries and commissions I began to receive far outweighed what I had let go in my past work.

We all have to put food on the table and it’s unrealistic to expect every scrap of work we do to be stimulating and interesting. Sometimes we do what we have to do. The reality is that, for the most part, residential landscape design follows after construction. Most of the home’s design decisions were made long before we even met the client. For me, I decided to stop trying to respond to something that was unrespondable – and damn the torpedoes.

by James Hughes, Affiliate ASLA, Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair

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