Saturday, 14 January 2012

Thomas Dolliver Church (1902-1978)

With all this recent talk of influential gardeners and 20th century archives, I have decided to put forward one of my candidates for most influential garden designer of the 20th century - Tommy Church. 


Born in Boston, Mass., Church studied Landscape Architect at Berkeley and Harvard before establishing his own practice in California in 1930.  Influenced by two trips to Europe, and in particular the architecture and glassware of the Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto, Church rejected his Beaux Arts training and developed a wholly a new and original approach to the problems of 20th century garden design.  He re-evaluated Modernist principles, and pioneered an Abstract approach that became known as the ‘California style’. 

As a student I was given an assignment to prepare a lecture on Church and knowing nothing about him I dutifully trotted off to the library to check out his Gardens are for People (1955).


I remember vividly being absolutely blown away.  Beginning with the title.  Gardens are for people, whats that all about?  Being English I was of the belief that gardens were for growing plants!  And it just kept getting better as I eagerly turned the pages to study more of his works. 

Here was a designer who had thrown out the traditional concept that a garden should have a beginning and an end, most often arranged around a central, main axis and developed  his own, new idea.  Asymmetric and curvilinear gardens designed to have a multiplicity of viewpoints - no beginning and no end.  Garden that were both a beautiful place to be in and a functional space playing a central role in the way of life of the modern Californian family able to enjoy life outdoors.

The British certainly do not have the Californian climate, but we have one which allows us to grow a huge range of plants.  And it was John Brookes in 1969 who managed to wed  Church’s role for the garden as an outdoor space to be used for living in with the British love of horticulture.  The result, his influential book, Room Outside.  

"A garden should have no beginning and no end. And should be pleasing when seen from any angle, not only from the house"  Thomas Church
A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit El Novillero near Sonoma - and to take a dip in the famous pool with its abstract sculpture by Adeline Kent.  This garden is without doubt one of the 20th century’s most iconic, and the epitome Church’s style.  The perfect combination of site, man made and natural materials, and the freedom of art where ‘line plays against line, form against form, the whole uniting, with admirable restraint’.  And it is a joy to be able to report that the garden (and house) are maintained as they were originally designed - a testament to the owners and their sense of responsibility.

For more, this is a very informative article on Church.


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