A modern approach to creating place

Uber-modernist house and grounds, in “Mon Oncle”

Jacques Tati was a master of poking fun at hyper-austere modernist homes, their accompanying landscapes, and their followers. The infamous scene in “Mon Oncle” of his accidental pruning of two espaliered trees that had been depressingly planted along a blank wall is so pleasantly memorable in its deadpan-slapstick critique of modernism. It pokes fun not only at the excessive austerity and fussiness of the landscape, but also at the generic placelessness of it – particularly when juxtaposed with the rather hodgepodge, roughhewn landscape of the older part of town. In part what we love about “Mon Oncle” is not simply how funny it is, but how prescient it was. To this day, card-carrying modernist designers continue to create prototypical Mon Oncle landscapes, apparently unaware of the comically uncanny similarities they hold with the landscape of the film.

New Mon oncle landscape outside modernist house in Minnesota

Our beef with the modernist landscape of gravel, concrete, and a few toped-out arbor vitaes, extends beyond pure aesthetics, however. It is rooted equally as much in modernism’s insistence on erasing the sense of place within a landscape. The landscape shown above could be almost anywhere; there is simply nothing flora- or material-wise that gives any indication of where it is, other than that it clearly isn’t located in the tropics, which doesn’t give us much to go on.

Custom-designed/-made trellis by PRAIRIEFORM, with accompanying plantings

In the era of the mass-production of cheap thrills, it simply does not seem a virtuous goal to take a similarly generic, mass-produced approach to landscape design. People are increasingly longing for signs and indications that what they have from where they are from is special. In the case of the work we do in Minnesota, the approach is very much to embrace all four seasons and to create landscapes whose forms endure across these very distinct seasons. That being said, summer should be about botanical pyrotechnics, and thus a gravelly, modernist three-arbor-vitaes-and-a-yew aesthetic simply won’t cut it for us, nor does it for the vast majority of the people who live here. As an example, the trellis we designed shown above, while modern in its form, is accompanied by a planting scheme that is simultaneously full, rustic, and formal. It contains a mix of cold-hardy perennials and natives of the Minnesota prairie. We weren’t throwing modern out with the bathwater with this one – a squiggly Baroque-y trellis wouldn’t cut it – but we were attempting to hone a style that is “modern” in the true sense of the word: one that responds to real, everyday conditions in the landscape, and is firmly rooted in its place.

John Kamp