Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Posted by Author on June 5, 2018 at 8:30 PM

Image: State Library of Victoria (colorized and cropped)

Imitation rock and faux boulders are not usually something to write home about. From seeing Rock City, putting around miniature-golf courses, and floating through waterparks, I know that manmade rockwork can be adequate at best and abhorrently tacky at worst. Knowing in advance that the namesake "buttes" would be in large part artificial and having only dubious precedents in mind, I was not sure what to expect when I visited Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.

Images: Sam Jacob, Michael Dupuy, and Sam Valentine

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a municipal park in northeastern Paris, France, which had celebrated its one-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday just months before I visited last June. Built on the rugged, abused site of a former gypsum quarry (among other things), the 61-acre park centers around a craggy promontory that thrusts from the center of a wooded lake. Elsewhere in the park, residents enjoy expansive lawns, hilltop vistas, a Gustave Eiffel-designed pedestrian bridge, and a partially obscured grotto. Tying all of this together are miles of elegantly swooping avenues, paths, and trails.

Images: Eleanna Kounoupa, Co Pa, and Magnus Franklin

Back in college, my professor had made clear that the craggy cliffs that define the park were largely concrete, but it required an actual visit to comprehend the extent of the faux-natural concrete work. Up close it becomes clear -- at least to a discerning eye -- that the "rock" walls and the stalactited grotto are surfaced with concrete.

Images: Coyau, Erica Allen, Becky Uline, and Laura Kloosterman

Walking other areas of the park, though, I found even "wood" steps, posts, and railings to be falsified. Further research after I returned home helped me to realize that "faux bois" is a recognized artisanal style and to appreciate its history in the context of Paris' historic 1867 World's Fair.

Images: Sam Jacob

The climax of a visit to Buttes-Chaumont is ascending to the Temple de la Sybille and standing still for a minute. If you have seen a postcard of this park, the Temple is undoubtedly in the view. Designed and sited as an homage to the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, this circular colonnade seems to almost overhang the precipice of the butte. From the elevated temple, viewers can consume a full panorama of the park and the city beyond. I was lucky enough to visit at sunset.

The park landscape plays host to active and passive users, and during my visit I sensed that it is a beloved part of the neighborhood. Venturing through the park gives a visitor moments of drama and surprise, but on the whole, the landscape is far more stately than it is flashy. Among designers, there is a quest for authenticity that conjoins with an often rabid rejection of counterfeit materials. Landscape architects hold a justified stigma against false stone, but -- for lack of a better word -- it was folly of me to carry that prejudice into Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.

Image: Philip Menke

Light and Shadow in the Tuileries Garden

Posted by Author on February 25, 2018 at 5:15 PM

Images: Bertrand Guay and Sam Jacob

One of the best demonstrations of dueling Parisian light and shadow can be found at the Tuileries Garden just west of the Louvre Museum. In basic terms, the Tuileries is a simple but successful composition of tree plantations over a carpet of stonedust.

Images: Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis and Sam Valentine

The history of the Tuileries is far more complicated than a visitor might detect. Before it was a garden it was a blackened ruin; prior to that it was a glistening palace for emperors and kings.

On the sunny summer day when I visited, as the stonedust crunched satisfyingly beneath my feet, I noticed that the allées and gridded bosques read like a diagram of where to sit and where to walk. Benches are evenly distributed through the grounds, but I observed only the tree-shaded seating drew people to lounge, socialize, and bring together family-style picnics. Meanwhile, hedged by strong allées, the wide, exposed promenades remained clear for strolling.

Images: Mr. Renart and Sam Valentine

The most fascinating moments of light and shadow occurred around the Tuileries' lawn quadrangles. Situated like glades in the gridded forest, these brightly illuminated rectangles of turf drew visitors right up to their edges. Even with the lawns bereft of action (ropes were standing guard), park users of all ages had situated themselves around these lawns in true theater-in-the-round style.

Images: Sam Jacob

The Tuileries Garden is a place of both expanse and intimacy, and even on a cloudy day, the landscape would be worth writing home about. On a sunny day, however, it becomes a compelling study in both visual contrast and the importance of microclimates to visitor comfort. With an onslaught of summer sun, the simple layout of trees projects order, structure, contrast, and thematic emphasis into the garden.

Image: Sam Valentine

A Town of Details: Prague, Czech Republic

Posted by Author on November 27, 2017 at 9:10 PM

Image: Sam Jacob


When speaking to a person who has visited this Bohemian capital, the name "Prague" is often said with a knowing inflection. Sometimes this change of pitch is misinterpreted as snobbery or arrogance toward those who have not been, and sometimes that is exactly what it is. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Prague, I carried high expectations along with my luggage.

Prague is renowned for a vibrant arts scene, its progressive culture, and a well-preserved collection of centuries-old buildings and streets. In just an hour of walking the city, I felt these promises had been met, but there was more to the story.

Images: Sam Valentine and Sam Jacob

Most of my visit was spent in "Old Town" and the still respectably ancient "New Town." In my first few steps, I found myself hypnotized by something as unassuming as a security gate. With dynamic geometry reminiscent of a wind spinner, the wrought-iron gates into the Franciscan Gardens dramatically change perspective as one walks between them. The next day, outside St. Vitus Cathedral, I looked underfoot and found that a utilitarian cast-iron drain had been crafted as a piece of modern art.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Tilting one's eyes a bit higher, a tourist will find Prague's architecture exactly as advertized. Picturesque stone bridges stitch the city together across the banks of the Vitava River. Ornate churches, soaring towers, and even "dancing" modern works line the city streets.

Images: Sam Valentine and Sam Jacob

By the end of my second day, my sneaking sense had firmed up into something more concrete. Patterned cobbles, carved stonework, manicured parklands: nearly every inch of the Prague cityscape has been painstakingly considered. Perhaps this "Old World" craftsmanship is more pronounced to the eyes of an American, in whose homeland asphalt, sheet-metal paneling, and plywood all too often reigns.

Images: Sam Jacob

To me, Prague creates an illusion that the city was "finished" being built hundreds of years back, and that the time since has been spent merely fine-tuning and perfecting the composition. Viewing Prague, both up close and from grand vistas, reveals a city that is not fussy but has been fussed over.

Image: Sam Valentine

Blended Details in Granada, Spain

Posted by Author on November 1, 2017 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (3102)

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Studying built environments outside the United States reveals differences not only in architectural styles but also in cultural expectations.

In my previous post I described the Alhambra, a hilltop fortress situated over the historic city of Granada, Spain. Given the city's past, finding buildings, streets, and plazas rich with historical character was anything but a surprise.

Images: Sam Valentine

As I walked through the gardens and open spaces of Granada, however, I did not expect to find such proud strokes of modernity. Only a mile from the Alhambra, Forum Plaza abstracts the Sierra Nevada mountains in sharp, contemporary weathering steel.

Images: Sam Jacob

A few blocks closer to the city center, tucked behind the Parque de las Ciencias, similar angular forms soften themselves into a park-like setting. Here, under a welcome canopy of shade trees, slices of plate steel form short retaining walls and the edging for lush beds of planting. The color palette of the Parque is decisively streamlined: the rich greens of the foliage play nicely against the silver-grays of the birch bark, metallic edging, and concrete.

Back at the heart of Granada, twin runnels flank the central promenade of the Jardines de Triunfo. Flowing quietly in the shadow of a dominating display of fountain jets and waterfalls, these tilted water basins are by no means the headliner, but the patterning on their floors -- crisp, geometric, and modern -- speak volumes about the culture of Granada.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

What I observed in Granada exemplifies what can be seen with relative consistency in developed nations beyond the borders of the United States. In two public parks only a thousand feet apart, stand two very different metal fences. One dates back at least a century, the other is less than a decade old, and their styles are anything but congruent.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Granada celebrates and preserves its medieval Moorish palaces as a testament to its historical lineage, but it is not afraid to plant its other foot in the future. As with many cities in Europe, the city unabashedly exerts its modern architectural might right alongside its heritage buildings and landscapes.

Enframement in the Landscape

Posted by Author on December 1, 2016 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (131)

Note: My next two posts will explore how "enframement" and "enclosure" are achieved in the landscape, with a focus on plant massing.

Image: Sam Valentine


Plants -- like all matter in the universe -- have mass. While mass means one thing to chemists and physicists, there is another type of mass that landscape architects and garden designers rely upon: "visual mass."

Visual mass, which can be created from wood, stone, metal, or -- often -- living plants, is one of the most important tools in a site designer's toolbox. It is through the perceived mass of trees, shrubs, grasses, and vines that a garden takes shape.

Image: Henry Vincent Hubbard, An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design and Bob Radlinski


To varying degrees of effectiveness, all plants can be used to enframe landscape views. Solid, opaque tree trunks can provide a vertical edge to a picturesque view. Lighter, billowy leaves and branches can form the top of a framed view as shrubs or tall grasses can make up the bottom.


Image: Humphry Repton


By selectively revealing pieces of a landscape and masking others from sight, a designer controls the composition. Modifying plant massing can provide visual balance to a scene and it also allows the designer to highlight key thematic features. Some of the clearest demonstrations of this idea of the controlled view is seen in the visuals of Humphry Repton.



Image: Humphry Repton


Humphry Repton was a British landscape designer who was masterfully framing landscape views over 200 years ago. He presented his designs to clients in signature packages he called "Red Books," and included within them ingenious overlay paintings. The overlays, a fine-art equivalent of "before and after" shots, documented an existing landscape condition and allowed the client to flip a panel to reveal the proposed composition.

Images: Humphry Repton


Enframing with plant material can be as simple as the addition of a new shrub or two, but in some cases, controlling a view can require much bolder design moves, including the removal of mature trees or regrading of the landscape. For the right view though, even extreme measures are worth it.


Image: Bob Radlinski







Holding It Together

Posted by Author on July 31, 2016 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)


Images: Ken Dodds, Hoot Nonny, and Frank Vincentz


They can be found in a diversity of shapes and sizes. They are a familiar piece of American Southern vernacular, and yet there seems to be no consensus on what exactly to call them: wall washer, star anchor, stress washer, anchor plate, and Charleston bolt are a few of the many names that one might hear.


Image: The Post and Courier Archives


While most would file these iron bits under "rustic decor," there is a noteworthy functional difference between a "star anchor" and a purely ornamental "barn star". These anchors have been used for centuries as a means to reinforce buildings around the world against settlement and collapse, but they burst into popularity in the American Southeast 130 years ago when Charleston, South Carolina was struck with a devastating earthquake. Reading descriptions of the 1886 earthquake, a geologically rare but particularly damaging event, is truly shocking, but it explains why these "earthquake bolts" are so commonly seen along Charleston's historic streets today.

Images: Paige Henderson, Marie Beschen, Grover Schrayer, and Ken Dodds

Both authentic anchors and replicas are ubiquitous in Southern antique shops and in the online marketplace, and working these into your garden can inject a bit of borrowed character. If your garden calls for something more unique than the generic star pattern, architectural historians have catalogued a range of Charleston bolts from which to draw inspiration.

Image: R. G. Lubischer


Experiencing Landscape: Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Italy

Posted by Author on October 29, 2015 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (112)


Images: Sam Valentine


Villa Lante is entered from the tight, archaic streets of Bagnaia near Viterbo, Italy. The grounds of the villa are split into a large, informal public park and a smaller, walled formal garden, but visitors to either destination cross through the same formal wrought iron gate.


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Arriving guests are presented with a conspicuous fountain (Fontana del Pegaso) and a choice - the fountain serves as a fork in the path to the public park or the walled garden. The fountain, elliptical and backed with a twenty-foot stone retaining wall, is centered around a pegasus and a small collection of other winged statues. Choosing the stairs to the left carries the visitor up alongside the foliated walls of the formal garden and, soon enough, to its entry.


Images: Sam Valentine


Passing through the walls of the garden between another pair of iron gates, visitors find themselves on a paved walk that quickly reveals itself as just one terrace of many; the garden at Villa Lante is an axial, stepped scheme laid over sloping topography. As it happens, this presents a visitor with a choice. To the left, downhill from the arrival terrace, the garden opens up into a flat, expansive landscape with forthright geometrical plantings overlooking the town. To the right, uphill, rises a series of stone stairs, crisscrossing hedge-lined paths, and more mysterious terraces shrouded in a dark forest canopy. I went right.


Image: Sam Valentine


There is an indescribable draw to climb the hill, and at the high end of the garden, I found what I was looking for. In a small courtyard surrounded by rusticated loggia walls, water crashes from elevated, mossy caves into murky waters. This, the Fountain of the Deluge (Fontana del Diluvio), is the upper terminus of the villa garden, but it is perhaps better understood as the "wellspring" of the entire landscape below.

Image: Sam Valentine


My next blog will trace the dynamic, downhill journey of water from this upper end of the Villa Lante to its conclusion at the garden's bottom. Looking back on my visit last year, I think of the path I chose through the garden -- first to the top, then to the bottom -- and am reminded of how one uses a waterslide. There is a scramble to the top of the ladder, a peaceful pause, and then a descent that carries one down alongside the flowing water.

Image: Sam Valentine



Meaning in Landscape: Villa d'Este, Tivoli

Posted by Author on August 5, 2015 at 7:10 PM Comments comments (98)



Image: Étienne Dupérac


In my last post I alluded to what I called "bold iconographic expressions of power" at Villa d'Este in Tivoli. As promised, I have come back to turn this stone over.


Perhaps the best way to discuss the symbolism found at Villa d'Este is to take a look at some of the landscape's general qualities and its more significant garden features:


Image: Sam Valentine


Scale and magnificence: As described in my last post, the gardens at Villa d'Este have conquered a small valley, spanning it with extensive terracing, paths, stairs, and rushing fountains. The scale and detail of the garden vanquish more than just the natural topography, however -- they also conquer the senses of each visitor that steps out the back door of the mansion. Forceful bursts of water, lush plantings, and intricate masonry exude a sense of power and seem to be dripping with wealth.


Images: Sam Valentine and Pirro Ligorio


La Rometta: Stepping out on to the palace's Gran Loggia is breathtaking and looking out over the landscape below lets a visitor quickly grasp its immense scale. The western end of the loggia allows more distant views toward Rome, and if one lingers at this manmade precipice for a bit longer he or she may spy this curious garden feature below, which is described in translation as "The Little Rome." To a native eye, La Rometta's various sculptures, miniaturized river, and boat-shaped island appear almost as a dollhouse version of the Italian capital city.

Images: Museo della Civiltà Romana, Étienne Dupérac, and Sam Valentine


Though the parallels have become a bit cloudier with time, the boat-shaped island in this section of the garden are a reference to one of Rome's more recognizable geographic features, Isola Tiburina (Tiber Island). From the vantage of the Gran Loggia and La Rometta, views to Rome are celebrated with a series of picture-window archways and railings.

Images: Sam Valentine


Location and context: The same picture windows that face Rome have another layer of significance - in the 1550's, when Villa d'Este was being located and first constructed, the town of Tivoli was best known as the home of a different, thousand-year-old garden: Hadrian's Villa. There is an unmistakable message in locating one's estate farther up the hill from one of the Roman Empire's most celebrated emperors.

Images: Sam Valentine and Robby Virus


Vatican influences: In all fairness, it was the distinctly recognizable features of the Dianna Efesina fountain and another ancient statue that triggered my larger recognition of "inspired" sculptures at Villa d'Este. I had the advantage of visiting the garden within a day of the Musei Vaticani, and though the homages, interpolations, and straight-up copies pose no real threat to the well protected original pieces, it sometimes seems that Villa d'Este has actually pillaged the Vatican.


The backstory: Being selected as pope in the 16th century was defined by much of the same religious veneration that the position holds today, but the position also carried immense political powers that have since faded. The man who built Villa d'Este (or, more accurately, had it built) was Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, son of a Cardinal and grandson of a pope. The garden was begun the same year that Ippolito was coming off a failed bid at the papacy, and it takes neither a historian or a psychologist to deduce that there was a bit of compensation at work in the creation of the gardens.


Landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes Villa d'Este as the product of "passionate obsession on the part of an owner willing to spend extraordinary sums of money and with the taste to hire the best design talent available," and the obsessive focus and ample resources are evident in every aspect of the garden. Like an example of "conspicuous construction" a bit closer to home, the fact that the motives may have been less than pure does not detract from the work's grandeur.


Image: Sam Valentine


Experiencing Landscape: Villa d'Este, Tivoli

Posted by Author on June 30, 2015 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (105)


After navigating tight medieval streets, entering this Renaissance garden from the stately house above was a descent into a valley of spectacle, astonishment, and moments of elegance.


Images: Sam Valentine and Charlie Chapman


Really, to use the word "garden" does not quite do this landscape justice. Joining company with the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru, and the pyramids of Egypt, Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy is one of only about a thousand historic sites recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a "World Heritage Site." UNESCO describes the landscape as "one of the most remarkable and comprehensive illustrations of Renaissance culture."


To gardeners, Villa d'Este -- or at least certain scenes from it -- might be quite familiar. As a visitor moves from the perched palace to landscape's heart, he or she passes through grottoes, terraces, and sloped walks before soon coming to one of the garden's most unique (and photogenic) features. The "Alley of the Hundred Fountains" is a long pathway measured off by a rhythm of many tiered water spouts. Each spout originates from a unique but congruent fountainhead set within lushly overgrown planted walls. I cannot say I counted all "hundred" fountains, but the visual impact of this space and the sensation of moving along it by far exceeded my expectations.


Images: Sam Valentine


The landscape configuration seen today is the product of a long string of declines, renovations, and restorations, but it is clear that hierarchy was never Villa d'Este's strong suit. However, what the landscape lacks in focus or organized movement, it compensates for with aquatic feats and bold iconographic expressions of power. (I will explore each of these concepts in a following entry.)


Image: Sam Valentine


After fully descending from the palace hillside, a visitor reaches the flat plain at the center of the garden. Here, at the geographic center of the estate, visitors finds themselves in the middle of another of the garden's celebrated views; the central axis of the garden steps from soaring fountains down to wide, reflective fish ponds. At a glance, these broad, formally framed pools are analogous to those seen in other Italian, French, and even American gardens, but its unique context sets it apart and it is really just one of dozens of powerful moments in this landscape. Perhaps another thing to keep in mind is its precedence: Villa d'Este was completed more than a hundred years before work began on French gardens like Versailles and two-hundred years before the United States was founded.


Image: Sam Valentine




Experiencing Landscape: Villa Giulia, Rome

Posted by Author on March 31, 2015 at 10:00 PM


Resisting the temptation to dedicate a third post to Sacro Bosco, this blog shifts focus to another villa garden of the same era. Unlike the rural Sacro Bosco, Villa Giulia sits just yards from the ancient Roman walls that mark the empire's center. The two villa gardens, which both came together in the mid-1500s, are vastly different in both conception and detailing, but their distinction goes far beyond a simple country mouse / city mouse dichotomy.


Located less than a three-mile walk from the Vatican, Villa Giulia was built as something of a papal way station. The garden is surrounded by and integrated with what naturally appears to be a residential structure, but as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes, the house serves "simply an accessory to the garden" and was built "not as a residence but as a place for papal entertainment."

Rogers' statement ranking landscape over structure is significant and also reassuring. To be honest, the garden is what brought me to Villa Giulia, and during my tour of it I was concerned I was missing something -- the "residence" consistently seemed like it was playing second fiddle. Villa Giulia is not a simple landscape, but to me it unfolded in five legible chapters.

Entering through a conventional, ornamental architectural facade, a visitor passes through a vestibule that gives way to a semicircular portico. Painted with intricate ceiling frescoes and faux-ancient murals reminiscent of those seen at Pompeii, these vaulted and column-lined walks sweep around an open courtyard.

The second chapter follows along the central axis established from the front door of the entry vestibule. Forward momentum carries a visitor from the dark, shady portico into a garden court with a clear sense of perimeter enclosure. The court tempts the eye of the visitor with five doorways and is otherwise encased above eye level. To the right and left, four openings offer invitations to side gardens, but these do not rival the allure of the formal, elevated loggia located on the central axis ahead.

Climbing a few steps to the columned loggia, one achieves a sense of arrival with a twist. Across an expanse, a Palladian porch comes into view, but the groundplane between the viewer and this feature falls suddenly away. Without a word of warning, the designer brings one to the edge of an unexpected two-story depression. Looking down from a stone balustrade, an highly ornamental grotto beckons.

Descending one of two flanking stairs, the fourth chapter is reached only by leaving the central axis. Stepping down over stone and herringbone-brick stairs, the increase in coolness and moisture is noteworthy. Even with a relatively recent algae-scrubbing that Rogers describes in her book, this grotto, or "nymphaeum," has a vibrant but constrained wildness to it. The grotto is the most iconic moment of the garden, and it is interesting that the designer chose the lowest point, topographically, to serve as the summit of the villa's dramatic sequence.


The fifth and final chapter is a courtyard beyond the Palladian porch. Not directly accessible from the main axis and partially concealed from view, my impression was that this space was envisioned as a secondary, semi-private courtyard. (If entrance to this space was supposed to be part of the sequenced narrative, I would assess that this goal was poorly executed.) The porch and the court beyond it overlooks the grotto from an opposing angle, and maintains a strong relationship to the loggia. Perhaps from this perch, experienced visitors could be entertained by the dropping jaws of new arrivals.

A quick comparison of the photos in this blog to those from my previous two posts demonstrates that there are pronounced ornamental differences between Villa Giulia and Sacro Bosco. Having visited the two only days apart, I was surprised to learn that it is not the presence or lack of carved-stone "monsters" that drives this distinction. Next to the carefully scripted sequence of movement through Villa Giulia, Sacro Bosco, and perhaps most other gardens, feel like an improvisational -- and perhaps less masterful -- performance.