Had thought I learned all I needed to know about geometry back in the 10th grade. Repeated visits to the Miller House over the past few years have forced me to further appreciate another aspect of the topic, with Dan Kiley’s use of the medium in creating his masterpiece of modernist landscape design.
Though much of landscape architecture involves the careful manipulation of spaces, the gardens at Miller House represent one of the best examples of the craft. Working closely with the home’s architect, Eero Saarinen, Kiley laid out a plan which closely reflects and reinforces the strict geometry of the residence. As with his many other commissions, Mr. Kiley used a limited palette of plants. This was not to be a garden of show-stopping color and horticultural diversity.
Rather, his use of hedges – mainly arborvitae and yew – served to create architectural “rooms”, not unlike the arrangement of rooms and ‘zoned’ spaces in the pavilion-like residence. The outdoor rooms are interconnected through corridors of trees – rows and blocks of honey locusts, oaks, horsechestnuts, redbuds, and even apples – as well as large expanses of paving, both hard and soft. These rectangular forms are further enhanced by the beds beneath, whether planted in spring bulbs or summer annuals, or simply mulched. Together, these elements and the extensive use of groundcovers provide a year-round structure, so important in shaping the spaces and giving clarity.
While this is all so obvious when looking down upon the blueprints and plans, it also comes across marvelously in a more subtle way when one enters the property on foot. Though Saarinen wished for his clients, the Millers, to enjoy the views into the landscape through his ample windows, that view is carefully and purposefully halted at the edges of the property. This is an inward-looking site, versus something like ‘Naumkeag’ in Massachusetts or Philip Johnson’s ‘Glass House’ in Connecticut, where the view to distant mountains and hills is extremely important. Tall hedges and carefully sited rows and clumps of trees prevent vistas into neighboring yards. Instead, one’s views follow a lower plane, usually beneath the limbs of trees, along the tops of low hedges, or along an allee. It’s all about the use of space, and what a space it is. What if geometry class had been as much fun as this!
I think what we’re talking about is the poetry of space, that’s what landscape design is all about. – Dan Kiley