Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

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

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.

Water from the Rock: Visiting the Alhambra

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 1, 2017 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Image: Salvador Fornell

Crouched atop a foothill of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Alhambra is many things at once: a castle, a palace, a fortified city, a museum, and a complex of gardens. Gazing upon the Alhambra's red-orange brick walls and stone ledges from an adjacent hilltop, the masonry emanates power, robustness, and beauty.

Image: Joaquín López Cruce

When a visitor breaches the Alhambra's tall, opaque perimeter walls, however, a different world is revealed. The sprawling gardens vibrate with life, movement, and verdancy. This world is powered and nourished by water.

Image: Working to Travel

From hundreds of spouts, the Alhambra's water jets bring action and excitement to the landscape. Arrayed in even staccato along linear pools, introverted around circular basins, and sometimes sited singly, jets of water arc through the Alhambra air, glimmering in the sun's rays and splashing pleasant sounds through the landscape.

Images: Adam Gimpert and Sam Valentine

At a visitor's feet, water flows within and across the dozen garden rooms in a deceptively simple network of runnels and rills.

Images: Sam Valentine

At moments, water is allowed to collect in large, still reflecting pools. The half-dozen of these mirror-smooth basins borrow sky into the Alhambra's courtyards and lay a calming atmosphere over the people (and animals) who occupy the spaces.

Images: Apostolis Giontzis and Sam Valentine

Perhaps most importantly, water supports life at the Alhambra. The jets, channels, and pools certainly add a layer of beauty to the majestic architectural complex, but the Alhambra's founders secured a generous supply of water for more than just aesthetic reasons. The hydraulic system is vast, and the landscape water features are just the visible components of a network implemented to irrigate vegetable gardens and fruit trees and supply buildings with fresh water.

Images: Sam Valentine

Here, atop an otherwise parched hilltop, millions of gallons of water bring life, elegance, and artistry to the Alhambra. From the top to the bottom of the complex, the same single drop of water cycles through many different personalities, but the landscape is much more than a scattered assortment of hydraulic moments. By walking alongside the water features, a visitor finds a carefully sequenced narrative of water features.


Image: Steve McFarland

Enframement in the Landscape

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

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 Sam Valentine 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


A Compelling Narrative: Water Features at Villa Lante

Posted by Sam Valentine on December 1, 2015 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Where we left off in our last post, we had climbed to the upper end of the walled garden at Villa Lante, were admiring a grotto fountain, and were about to begin a choreographed descent along the garden's axis..


During my visit, I experienced the journey of water from top to bottom, from south to north, and from wild to urban. Villa Lante offers a clear storyline in its water features, and the following are the six "chapters" as I perceived them:



Chapter 1: Fontana del Diluvio


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Briefly described in the last post, the "Fountain of the Deluge" is a mossy, fern-covered grotto. In its shadows and murky water, it holds an air of mystery, and it is teeming with life: the pool and walls are a verdant green, stone forms of dolphins swim its waters, and it was originally designed to attract songbirds.



Chapter 2: Fontana dei Delfini

Images: Rosalba Cantone



A few yards north, water emerges for a second time along the garden axis. At the "Fountain of the Dolphins" one finds perhaps the garden's most conventional water feature (at least to our contemporary eyes). A freestanding, tiered, and octagonal pyramid features a symmetrical array of dolphins. The dolphins here and on the Diluvio fountain are both allusions to a Roman allegory of water and nature overpowering mankind.



Chapter 3: Catena d'Acqua


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Similar to Villa d'Este's "Alley of the Hundred Fountains," Villa Lante is best known by a single water feature. The Catena d'Acqua, or "Chain of Water," runs like a billowing ribbon down Villa Lante's central axis. The organic form of these manmade rapids, actually an incredibly elongated depiction of a crawfish, is unlike much that has been designed before or after. It is a true work of art, and landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers observes that the Catena d'Acqua's "linked curves both create and echo the movement of swirling water." At its northern end, the water chain feeds the next fountain, with water spilling over the crawfish's abdomen and tail fins.


Chapter 4: Fontana dei Giganti


Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


As a visitor follows the water along its axial path, the water chain delivers us next to the edge of a terrace. Fed by the tail fin above, the semicircular "Fountain of the Giants" is rife with symbolism. The wild water has been physically and metaphorically tamed as it arrives to this fountain. River gods lounge prosperously, their cornucopias signaling a change in the water, from wildness to fertility and generosity.


Chapter 5: Fontana dei Lumini

Images: Rosalba Cantone and Sam Valentine


Another significant change in elevation is smartly addressed at the "Fountain of the Lights." Two tiered semicircles, one concave and one convex, reference an ancient building form but also seem to invent something new altogether. In these tiered semicircles I found Villa Lante's most interesting geometries, but none of this even touches on the water itself; one hundred and sixty jets shoot from sculpted stone "lamps" arrayed on the edge of the fountain tiers. When these airborne streams of water catch the right light, the whole space looks truly illuminated.


Chapter 6: Fontana del Quadrato o dei Mori

Images: Rosalba Cantone


Best viewed from the terrace above, the final water feature, "The Fountain of the Four Moors," is also Villa Lante's largest. Reminiscent of the "Maritime Theater" at Hadrian's Villa, the Fountain of the Four Moors either directly or indirectly evokes an ancient naumachia. Eight symmetrical boxwood fields flank the fountain on all sides, and this large formal water feature expresses and amply celebrates the end of water's journey at Villa Lante.


As you may recall, I found that the grandeur of Villa d'Este wore off as I began to realize that there was no overarching narrative or master plan to unite its amazing moments. Villa Lante does not have that problem.


As Rogers observes, water at Villa Lante is used "with the inventiveness of a choreographer directing the movements of the dance or the sculptor." The garden and its narrative is organized clearly along a central axis, but the "axis is aquatic and can only be traveled visually for the most part; one walks alongside it, perceiving it perhaps more powerfully for this very reason."


Villa d'Este and Villa Lante have a lot in common - they are only eight miles apart and were built in the same decades - but there is much that sets them apart. Compared to Villa d'Este, Villa Lante is half the size and seemingly less than half the budget, but I found it to leave a stronger imprint. Perhaps there is a lesson here for your own landscapes: there is immeasurable value in designing with a strong master plan.

Image: Sam Valentine




Experiencing Landscape: Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Italy

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 29, 2015 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (0)


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



Critique and Lessons Learned at Villa d'Este

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 3, 2015 at 8:10 PM Comments comments (0)


Image: Sam Valentine


To be fair, criticism was not the first thing to come to my mind when I visited Villa d'Este. As covered in my previous posts, this epic estate garden in Tivoli, Italy is a landscape of drama, force, and grandeur.


All that said, the more time one spends on the grounds, the more likely it is that he or she starts to notice cracks in the garden's veneer. The flaws only emerge after the sense of amazement settles down, but from the best I can determine, these defects are not the result of five centuries of wear and tear; rather, they are evidence of flawed design execution. As I describe the imperfections I found at Villa d'Este, the reader will hopefully consider each one as a learning opportunity to be applied to the landscapes experienced closer to home.


Images: Archi/Maps and Sam Valentine


Dishonesty - The landscape's largest imperfection is its spatial layout. The designer based the garden plan on a strong, hierarchical grid of axes, but in doing so he made too many compromises. Comparing the "drawn" and "actual" plans above, it is quickly apparent that the rectilinear concept was imperfectly forced onto the native topography.


There is certainly no blanket rule requiring a designer to flatten land and carve hills straight, and a short glance at contemporary landscape architecture projects proves that the orthogonal grid is anything but in vogue. However, when a landscape designer imposes a formal grid on landscape topography, he or she is setting unyielding expectations for straight lines and right angles. The misalignment of the upper terraces revealed itself to me not in plan but in perspective: looking up Villa d'Este's most significant axis to the palace proved that something was amiss.


Images: and Sam Valentine


Disneyfication - If you are not yet familiar with it, this term describes the tendency of some designers to create architecture or landscape that is tawdry, flashy, or otherwise best fit for tourists. To be sure, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este predated Walt Disney's theme parks, but from his miniaturized "La Rometta" to the discrepancy between interior and exterior treatment of the garden walls, the garden often seems to have all the authenticity of a movie set.


Images: Sam Valentine


Lack of a Master Plan - With only a few exceptions, Villa d'Este favors local symmetry over broad consistency. Walking the garden feels a bit like reading masterful literature had the pages been shuffled in the wind. While the landscape is technically arranged on an organizing grid, it lacks a cohesive master plan. In literary terms, there is no sustained narrative that ties the chapters together.


This blog hopefully will not lead the reader to believe that Villa d'Este should be looked down upon as a failure; the fact that this is my fourth consecutive post on the same landscape should serve as evidence of both the garden's importance and its greatness. A keen student of landscape, however, should analyze this garden and -- with the distinct benefit of 500 years of hindsight -- take lessons from Villa d'Este back to the landscapes of their own lives.


Image: Sam Valentine