Thomas Church and his Gardens for People

As part of my advice to look to other garden designers for inspiration, especially in the depths of winter as it is here in the Northeast U.S, I would like to pay homage to Thomas Church (1902 - 1978), one of the most influential American landscape architects of the twentieth century.

Church's ideas on the 'modern' landscape revolutionized residential landscape design and forever changed the look of the suburban back yard.

Born in Boston, Church came under the spell of California's climate and outdoor lifestyle when he attended U.C. Berkeley. He received his landscape architecture degree from there in 1923 and his Masters in Landscape Architecture from Harvard in 1926.  Although Thomas Church spent most of his time designing private residential gardens, his larger projects include Stanford University, General Motors headquarters, the University of California at Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz.

Church advocated viewing residential property as a single living space with the house and garden directly connected. This was an outgrowth of his love of outdoor living and was a dramatic notion for its day. Back then, most homeowners simply dressed up their yards with foundation and boundary plantings - the idea that the suburban backyard could be an extension of the house and used as an outdoor room was fairly revolutionary.

Church's greatest influence came from his 1955 book on residential landscapes, 'Gardens are for People.' His four design principles for a residential property are:

• Unity - Consider the house and garden as a whole
• Function - All areas should have a function including the service (trash can, storage) area, the family use area and the entry area
• Simplicity - a simple layout is more beautiful and effective than a fussy one
• Scale - Each part of the garden should relate to the others in a proper proportion, reflecting its heiarachy.

Thomas Church preferred a landscape that was flexible in its use of space and eschewed compartments and axial symmetry. For example, rather than imposing straight walks, his circulation patterns followed the natural movement of people through an area. His most well known garden, the Dewey Donnell Garden, featured curving, asymmetrical shapes flowing from one area to the next.

Above all, Thomas Church advised designing gardens in collaboration with the land. His words, "Gentle be the hand it lays upon the land," is a timeless and wise admonition....especially for those interested in designing serene outdoor spaces.....

If you want to know more, you might like the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation! Click on this link.


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