Thursday, June 14, 2012

Garden Dialogues: Pamela Palmer, landscape architect

The Horizon Garden at night. Photo by Jack Coyier Photography.

One of the byproducts of the research I've done into the life and career of Baldwin Hills Village landscape architect Fred Barlow, Jr. is the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. One of these wonderful people is landscape architect Pamela Palmer. I met Pamela through one of her oldest friends - that friend just happens to be the daughter of Fred Barlow, Jr.

Another of these great people is Charles Birnbaum. I’ve posted here before about the good work Charles Birnbaum and the staff at the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) are doing as advocates for the education and preservation of the country's historic landscapes. That advocacy includes the National Historic Landmark landscape of the Village Green. We are fortunate to have Charles Birnbaum as one of the historic landscape experts collaborating on the creation of our Cultural Landscape Report:

The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website ( explains that one of their missions is to educate, providing people “the ability to see, understand and value landscape architecture and its practitioners, in the way many people have learned to do with buildings and their designers.”

Pamela's ingenious design for the gate, which provides just a Cinemascope sliver of what lies beyond.

As part of that education, TCLF hosts many events throughout the year, all over the country. Something new for 2012 is a series of "Garden Dialogues," one of which took place last weekend in Malibu.

TCLF explains that the Garden Dialogue initiative “has received considerable praise from participants and the media, provides exclusive access to private gardens in the Hamptons, Chicago, Newport, Sonoma and elsewhere, and opportunities to hear directly from the landscape architects and their patrons about the design process.”

COR-TEN and Lucite fence, with espaliered citrus against wall.

“How do patrons and designers work together? What makes for a great, enduring collaboration? Garden Dialogues provides unique opportunities for small groups to experience some of today’s most beautiful gardens created by some of the most accomplished designers currently in practice.”

As one of several TCLF Garden Dialogue events in Southern California, on Sunday, June 10th I had the fortunate experience of seeing landscape architect Pamela Palmer’s glorious garden for the home of screenwriter Frank Pierson, his wife Helene, and their two charismatic standard poodles in Malibu.

I never wanted to leave!

Pamela Palmer and her husband, architect Howard Rosen, have an environmental design firm in Venice, Artecho. ( Pamela and Howard were joined by other members of their staff, Marisol Metcalfe and Catherine Burce, who were on hand to answer questions and share their experiences.

Pamela, who studied Art at UCLA and has a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has been featured in countless magazine articles, was in the documentary “Women in the Dirt,” ( and several of her landscapes are showcased in the gorgeous book “Private Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens,” by Charlotte M. Frieze, with an introduction by Charles Birnbaum (

The view as you enter the garden. Wow!

The garden on the tour, known as the “Horizon Garden,” is situated on a triangular lot high above the Pacific Coast Highway. The modest existing mid-century ranch house came with a spectacular view, a mature coral tree, and an otherwise shabby landscape. Homeowner Helene Pierson said that after working on getting the house in order, she and her husband began thinking of doing the same for the landscape. After several landscape designs around town caught her eye, she inquired, and they turned out to be the work of Pamela Palmer, and soon their collaboration began.

The horizon line, the inspiration for this garden.

The beloved coral tree was retained, and pruned to emphasize its sculptural quality. Under the dappled shelter of the tree Pamela created the functional focus of the garden, a semi-circular patio platform, paved in a blue-gray stone that blends into the horizontal blues and blue-grays of the sea and sky on the horizon.  Provisions for varied seating and lounging, and a marvelous spun stainless steel fire pit, make this outdoor living space a generous extension of the indoor rooms. The sparkling broken pieces of tempered glass in the fire pit echo the sparkling blues of the glittering sea below.

Helene's Jewel Box.

Just below the sweeping arc of the patio is a border of succulents, many of them chosen and cared for by Helene. She considers the vibrant colors of this succulent bed her “jewel box.”

The innovative infinity lawn creates an impromptu seating area.

Frank’s favorite spot in the garden is at the edge of another curved, sweeping horizontal panel - this time a panel of turf - creating an infinity lawn. A gravel path below, with a rusty COR-TEN steel retaining wall, gradually rises at the lawn’s edge, creating a seating area, from which one can contemplate the calming view just beyond. It would probably be my favorite spot too, to sit and watch the passing boats and helicopters below.

The labyrinth, with a marvelous retaining wall, created with different shades and textures of concrete.

Wonderful vignettes of color and texture are hidden all over the garden. Off to one side and behind the house is another circular space, enclosed by shrubbery and edible plants. The semi-circular panel of turf is embedded with a spiraling labyrinth of pieces of concrete.  

The landscape plan
"Garden Dialogues"

We all had a wonderful afternoon exploring the garden and all of its wonderful detail. There were "before and after" photographs, which showed how ingenious Pamela’s plan was. She had also brought the landscape plans and copies of the plant palette, which I found fascinating. During the discussion, and later in talking with Frank and Helene, it became obvious that these were very creative, dynamic and involved clients. I wondered - from the perspective of the landscape architect - how the collaborative design process differed with clients such as this (vs. the process if the client isn’t as creative or involved). I asked Pamela this question, and she said that at Artecho they enjoy working with both types of clients, though the “opportunities are different with each relationship.”

Succulents provide color and texture.

Pamela finds that “it is especially wonderful when we have the opportunity to work with clients who have flexible minds and great imagination (like Frank and Helene). When clients trust their design sense and mine, we enjoy discussing ideas and the resulting design is a true collaboration. I find that dynamic extremely satisfying. I want the client to be involved so that their garden truly is a reflection of their taste and design sense and incorporates materials and plants they love and spaces they will use. I listen carefully and bring my expertise to the table and we work to incorporate the ideas that will work together to make a unique and useful landscape that will flow and feel like it extends beyond the property so that a truly satisfying experience is created.  I am choreographing the landscape and I incorporate the moves that work for the space and program, and present the total design for comments.”

The mature coral tree, pruned into a living sculpture.

“As I think you know, I have at times worked alone in my studio, creating sculpture, prints, photographs, etc. which at some point later are shown and sometimes sold and placed in a landscape or collection. I much prefer working directly with the user and the dynamic process of putting our brains and experience together and coming up with a landscape scenario that speaks directly to the client, with the architecture on the specific site and is regionally and resource appropriate. We are working within boundaries, but our work must help the eye to travel beyond the boundaries to give a feeling of spaciousness so the mind can transcend the boundaries-out to the sea, above the treetops to hills, trees on a neighboring property, the sky. We are working on a piece of the puzzle and our design must consider the surrounding landscape and built environment.”  

The sweeping arc of the patio, protected by an old coral tree, which frames the views beyond.

“I also prefer the constraints of working within an environment to solve problems (environmental, circulation, spatial, other programmatic needs) while creating a new way of seeing space, rather then creating an isolated work.”

“The first afternoon that Helene and Frank invited me to their home, they told of a recent trip to Japan where they had visited Naoshima, a place of great contemporary architecture and art, which also considers the history of the place. Their thirst for exquisite beauty was established by that trip and I felt that set the bar for us all to strive for such beauty with a shared language; informed by the elegance of the experience they had on this trip.” 

The driveway with a glimpse of the Pacific beyond.

Bottom line is, I love the collaborative experience, and when others are into it, to collaborate with creative, can-do people - clients, architects, other landscape architects, engineers, contractors, artists, community stakeholders, maintenance people, etc. to create a landscape that is elevated because of the depth of experience brought to it results in a successful, long-lived project.”

It was a magical afternoon. The Cultural Landscape Foundation has more Garden Dialogues next month in other parts of the country - Connecticut, Indianapolis, Maine, Newport, Portland and Seattle. Check their website for more details.
What could be better?