Thomas Church, Landscape Architect: Designing a Modern California Landscape

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Marc Treib (Ed.), Thomas Church, Landscape Architect: Designing a Modern California Landscape (San Francisco, CA: William Stout, 2003), 283 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £39.25 (hbk), ISBN 0- 9709731-5-2

This beautifully designed book, produced on heavy paper, is a pioneering monograph of one of the best-known landscape architects of the twentieth century. From the 1930s, Thomas Church (1902–76) developed and led the relaxed California style under the slogan ‘gardens are for people’, which was also the title of his most famous book. Inspired by his European visits and a meeting with Alvar Aalto, his gardens were designed with flowing lines and kidney-shaped swimming pools. They also contained modern sculpture, pavilions and terraces that encouraged outdoor living. The garden that best seemed to represent the new style was El Novillero in Sonoma, designed for the Donnell Family in 1948. It was featured in publications even before it was finished, including Peter Shepheard’s Modern Gardens (London, 1953), and has remained an icon of modern garden design ever since. El Novillero is also the design for which Church is best remembered, yet his style evolved and developed, and over his long career he created more than two thousand gardens. While it may be difficult perhaps to claim originality in each of his designs, they were certainly distinctive.

The book is presented chronologically, with a chapter dealing with his early work by Dorothée Imbert, while the main aspects of his later career are highlighted by Treib. These chapters are interspersed by one about Church’s publications, while a most fascinating contribution is made by Daniel Gregory on the relationship between Church and Sunset, ‘The Magazine of Western Living’. Gregory, a current Editor for Sunset, who worked for Church as an office boy when fifteen years old, provides an objective and masterly analysis that reveals that the promotion of Church by the magazine was a matter of mutual benefit. A final chapter deals with the archiving of Church’s legacy after his papers were donated to the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California in Berkeley in 1997.

This publication provides a tantalizing resource for garden and art historians, with designs that will also continue to inspire landscape architects and it brings together a large amount of previously unpublished material. The book is primarily about style and it does this very well by providing some excellent examples. There is, however, a further story that might be told: what strikes a visitor to his gardens is that so many of them survive, that they are so well maintained and have owners who are proud to let you visit. Certainly, the Californian climate is kind to excessive weathering, but it is clear that the detailing in the gardens was also executed to a consistently high standard that would surprise any landscape architect who has practised in Britain for the last twenty years. This can only have been possible with a close relationship to one or a limited number of contractors, and it is this association that must have contributed to the success of his designs and would therefore have merited further analysis. It would also have been interesting, perhaps, to have explored one or two sites in more depth, with before and after plans or views — but it is clear that that would have been difficult to realize within the scope of this already very large book. This monograph, therefore, must be seen as an important first step in the serious study of a popular landscape architect, and will hopefully generate further interest, because there remain a large number of lessons to be learned and relationships to be explored.

Jan Woudstra

32:1 (Summer 2004)

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