Harmonic Emergence

Near Stowe, Vt., architect Susan Susanka collaborated with landscape designer Cynthia Knauf. Low, projecting eaves, corner windows and broad terraces fuse indoors with out, even in a cold climate.
Near Stowe, Vt., architect Susan Susanka collaborated with landscape designer Cynthia Knauf. Low, projecting eaves, corner windows and broad terraces fuse indoors with out, even in a cold climate. (Grey Crawford)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Eight years ago, architect and author Sarah Susanka urged us to rethink the modern house, to consider the advantages of smaller spaces. And although the mansionization of America continues, Susanka believes her message is resonating with a large number of people who value design over sheer scale. "As a culture, we are waking up to the fact that quality matters," she said.

Susanka now turns her attention to the landscape -- actually, the relationship between house and garden -- in a new book co-written with landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. This is Susanka's fifth title since "The Not So Big House" was published in 1998, and the cynic might see parallels between the ballooning house and the number of "Not So Big" titles. But as any landscape architect will tell you, the vital link between indoors and outdoors is rarely considered in the dynamics of house building. Who better to ponder it than Susanka, the eloquent radical, and Messervy, an established designer and author and original thinker in her own right?

"Outside the Not So Big House" (Taunton Press, $34.95) doesn't necessarily mean the garden is small. In the 20 case studies the two designers have selected, some of the properties have expansive views of the surrounding country; others are shoehorned into city lots. The focus, however, is on designing a landscape as you might a house, emphasizing quality over quantity, and then linking the two in an artful combination.

This may seem a rather obvious thing to do, but the land around a home is usually what's left after the ever-larger house is put up on the ever-shrinking lot. For sure, more people are seeing the potential in the yard, and hiring landscape companies to design and build living spaces, some with full-blown outdoor kitchens. Susanka said you can make the same mistakes outdoors as inside. She calls expensive elements "gizmos" that cannot compensate for a lame design. What's important, she said, is that homeowners play an active and critical role in dealing with design professionals.

"Quality" is a ubiquitous term that has been dulled by overuse, she said. "You can go to any builder, any architect, contractor, and they'll say they're doing quality work," she said. "What I'm trying to help people understand is that quality has a tangibility to it. You have to start listening to your intuition: Does [a professional's work] make me feel comfortable, or is it paper-thin? It's not just about how it's built but the character of the design."

For many people, Messervy said, that design deference is coupled with a total paralysis when it comes to creating and nurturing a garden. "People are terrified of moving outside from their homes," she said.

Part of the design "tangibility" is in the features that play off each other. On one property, in rural Vermont, Susanka worked with landscape designer Cynthia Knauf to produce a house whose deep eaves form a porchlike transitional space between indoors and outside, and the low-slung rooflines are echoed in the stepped terraces. A corner of the house features a window seat, a convergence of window panes and a dropped soffit to form a cozy perch to view the outdoors. The indoors feels outdoors and, with the deep overhang, vice versa.

This blurring is taken to a sublime level in another featured property, the minimalist beach house of owner-architect George Suyama on Puget Sound. The property is small and on a narrow, hilly site, but clean walls form vertical planes for both interior and exterior spaces, while a series of cascading water terraces creates horizontal surfaces. Some of the living spaces are outdoors, some indoors, and some exist in a zone where the separation is no longer apparent or even relevant. One imagines sitting on the sheltered balcony during a heavy rainfall and enjoying the theater of a downpour.

Another property was created from a derelict urban site in Raleigh, N.C., by its owners, one an architect, the other a landscape architect. The result was a boxlike, contemporary house given seclusion with the construction of a six-foot tinted concrete wall. The house features corner windows in both the living room and the kitchen, and a two-story wall of glass.

With the garden walls, "the house walls can be a lot of glass" without compromising the family's privacy, said Susanka, who also lives in Raleigh. But the house isn't all openness. Sometimes the view is a long one through rooms into the garden. Others are limited. Ceiling heights vary. "Human beings need contrast; they need to experience difference in order to experience anything at all," Susanka said.

Messervy, based in Saxtons River, Vt., concedes that the most successful marriages of house and garden occur when they are designed together at the start. But elements that cement a link can be retrofitted, especially when a house is enlarged or the owners overhaul the landscape.

"Good design doesn't have to be expensive," Messervy said, pointing to a modest bungalow in Austin that the owners, both architects, converted into a duplex whose front doors are now embraced by a front porch sheltered by a corrugated roof. The tenant's unit is oriented to the front of the property, the owners' to the rear. Features include rectilinear patios and lawn panels that repeat the geometry of the roofs and appear to float. "They edge things so they look clean," Messervy said. "I love the whole idea of living lightly on the land."

Messervy and Susanka say the test of good design is its ability to create a sense of ease. The typical elevated deck, by contrast, makes you feel exposed and disconnected, and hence uncomfortable. Better to put the deck on the ground floor. Better yet, she said, consider the way the designer of a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard put rudimentary posts and beams on the deck around the house to give that key transitional space an implied volume and to frame views of the water. "It makes it three-dimensional," Messervy said.

Another of her favorites is a modest property on a hilly site in Berkeley Hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay. Here, the owner-architect and the landscape designer, in renovating the property, took advantage of the upward slope next to the house to frame garden vignettes. "Like a huge canvas propped up on an easel," writes Messervy. The windows were reworked to make them both higher and lower, creating a bigger frame for the outdoors.

In another small house, in the Boston suburb of Brookline, the owners have stayed far longer than anticipated because they have created a jewel, an intensively cultivated cottage garden that plays off the feel of the cozy, shingle-sided house.

For Messervy -- who once collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on a three-acre garden in Toronto influenced by a Bach cello suite -- the garden's form can be reduced to two elements: paths and places. "Flow, to me, is the most useful concept," she said. "My music garden is all about flow, but the flow comes from the music."

The garden has always been the poor relation to the house, but it is the landscape, Messervy said, that reaches people on a deeper level. "Gardens are all about longings, fulfilling longings," she said. "There's something about a garden, because it's nature that brings us back to a very elemental place in ourselves."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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