Updated: Dec 20, 2019
From 1987-1988, I worked for Daniel Urban Kiley (1912-2004), the most important post modern Landscape Architect of this century. Dan worked with the most influential modern Architects including Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei and Harry Cobb, and many others.
To talk with Dan was to hear him reminisce on his life and his childhood and to hear stories about the Kalahari Desert, native American Indians, a poem from William Wordsworth or primordial thinking that he would weave into the poetry of his spaces. There was such a range to his conversation, he was so interested in movement, people and nature. Dan recounted how ‘the picnic on the lawn’ with his parents had inspired him from his earliest days, those words were like a dream to Dan. It is evident that his summers spent on his Grandma Baxter’s farm in New Hampshire imprinted on his young mind, for he has many times said the apple orchards of his youth inspired his use of geometry in future designs.
When I think of how I came to understand landscape architecture intuitively, I can point to a handful of teachers: growing up on the pre-civil war farm ‘The Riggory’ in Albemarle County where I worked with my father in the gardens every summer, working in the vineyard and kitchen at my cousins castle in the Anjou region of France during my college summers, studying for my masters in Landscape Architecture from Virginia Tech, working 25 years with my business partner and husband architect/landscape architect, Scott Fritz, and from Dan Kiley, the greatest Landscape Architect of the post modern era. It is hard to say what or whom has been more important for the teachings have all gone into the cauldron and made for a fine, delicate and fragrant broth.
One of the great design elements Dan would employ was to use deciduous trees (Upright European Hornbeam, Littleleaf Linden), evergreen shrubs (Yew, Boxwood) or green borders with ground cover and plant them as you would see in a public park in Paris, that is in straight rows with a clear avenue or promenade between for driving or strolling. We call this an allee. The avenue or promenade would be a permeable material such as pea stone or scree (tumbled granite shards). He used these lovely allees frequently. At the Irwin Miller house and garden in Columbus, Indiana, the allee along one side of the house so that from the interior space, you are looking through the allee to the lawn and garden beyond. (https://columbus.in.us/miller-house-and-garden-tour/) He used this particular allee not to direct your view to a focal point, but instead you look through the trees, so that you see the trunks of the limbed up trees immediately beyond the footprint of the house. Such a clever and surprising use of the allee. We use allees (a long avenue, path or lawn lined with upright trees or shrubs or even a long perennial border) in our designs, either to guide you to a focal point as Dan used them, or as a way to see through and catch glimpses of the hedges, lawn or fountains in the distance. It is a way to heighten your senses, to create anticipation.
Don’t forget, Dan was an architect too. His spaces were wonders of geometry, lines, volumes and masses, as in the Chicago Botanic Garden he designed (photo on left, 2017). He felt that before you could design a space you needed the architecture of the space to work in relation to the garden. Underlying his great designs was a strong framework that appeared effortless, simple, elegant and well conceived. He loved Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda; he said that with Villa La Rotonda you have your architecture, the architecture of the terraces and steps and then the plantings are loose and billowing around the edges.
We also feel an architectural framework is tantamount to garden design success. Scott is a trained architect as well and he gives our gardens the architectural framework that is needed to tie our gardens to the house and then into the landscape. That means that we study the architecture of the house, the lines, volumes and masses and build out from that, reiterating and making the move to the garden effortless. It means, we use field stone and pea stone as you transition from the house to the garden and it means we need to know our plants. The seamless transition from the house to the garden is something we are known for, so at the edges of our hardscapes and terraces, we might introduce color and texture with soft, spilling Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ combined with Leucanthemum ‘Becky’ another favorite. At the edges of our gardens, we keep our plantings very loose and spilling, so the natural, loose plantings are highlighted.
I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Dan, in his barn office in East Charlotte, Vermont. I made it my goal to visit as many of the gardens that have inspired Dan as I could. Scott and I have seen almost all of them and will see the Alhambra and Generalife garden this spring when we visit our daughter in Granada, Spain. Gardens the world over have impacted our problem solving, our understanding and our ability to achieve a beautiful garden. Travel, literature, art and music have inspired us just as they did Dan and so many artists before and after. Dan helped shape my opinions, my fortitude, and my eye. Dan was my boss, and he was the best boss ever. After Dan, I could have no other better boss, and I would need to start my own business. He has very much shaped my thinking about my profession and my work. We have taken his expertise and applied it to our business but with our own flair.