December 1, 2008
A Piece of Eden
Three and a half acres of transcendent minimalism make one corner of Sonoma County just a bit more Zen.
Sonoma County is the sort of place where disparate visions of California utopias converge. Vineyards claim the landscape in vast, Mondrian-like swaths; farms overflow with heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, melons, and squash; and hippie communes, never far from the sun or, more important, cheap food, sprout up in bunches. Here, where agriculture and environmentalism are the common threads, the landscape architect Andrea Cochran helped one couple carve out a small slice of the ideal life.
The clients’ 11-acre estate, Stone Edge, was already an agrarian Eden in its own right, complete with an organic farm, a vineyard, and oil-producing olive trees. In 2002 the couple, who wish to remain anonymous, purchased an adjacent 3.5-acre deserted ashram, and hired San Francisco’s Studios Architecture to transform it into a Zen spa and observatory that respected the ur-naturalism of the property. Studios brought in Cochran, whose previous work has included landscaping the LEED Gold–certified Nueva School, in nearby Hillsborough, which the AIA Committee on the Environment named one of 2008’s top-ten green projects. With Stone Edge, Cochran could have mimicked the region’s iconic topography; instead, using sustainable techniques, she streamlined it. In her hands, heavy stones recovered from the earth form a privacy screen in the shape of a pyramid (and, it seems, in the spirit of a crop circle), and olive trees rescued from an abandoned orchard compose an allée along one perimeter of the parcel. “It harks to the agricultural aspect of the whole property,” she says of the allée, “but done in a very clean, simple way.”
The olive trees are perhaps the most obvious nod to the agricultural roots of the project, which was completed in the spring of 2007 and will make a cameo in a forthcoming monograph on Cochran’s landscapes. Recovered from a rapidly subdividing region of northern California, these three-foot-thick, 100-year-old trunks anchor the structures along an east-west axis. “This reinforces the precision with which the observatory building was placed on cardinal compass points,” Studios’ Darryl Roberson says.
To offset their bulk, Cochran laid down two acres of native grasses, employing an unconventional, pesticide-free planting method. Workers set grass plugs in layers of perforated cardboard that allow the meadow to flourish—not unlike a hair transplant—while staving off weeds. Eventually, the cardboard dissolved into the earth. “We wanted to do something that was environmentally sustainable, and to create something that had a mass of its own,” she says.
The meadow also serves an important utilitarian purpose. A few years ago, a violent rainstorm flooded a creek at the property’s edge, submerging the plain in 18 inches of water and devastating the estate. Consequently, the design team consulted a civil engineer who graded the area and added a swale to ensure that the land—and not the architecture—would absorb future downpours.
With such minimalist landscaping, upkeep would seem to be a breeze. But according to Lena Hahn-Schuman, the couple’s head gardener, the meadow calls for some occasionally rigorous care. Last year, crews had to sift through the stalks one by one, tearing up dead stems lest the blades thicken after repeated mowing. “It’s very labor intensive,” she says. As Cochran points out, “If you want it to look pristine and beautiful, it takes on another level of maintenance.” No one ever said paradise came easy.