I recently had the pleasure of roaming about the grounds of the Carter Center in Atlanta. It was an early Sunday morning before any of the buildings were open and I had the place pretty much to myself except for one lady who volunteers there and was fidgeting around in one of the small side gardens. I didn’t tromp over the entire thirty-five acres, but I covered enough to be impressed with the design and the number of large Oaks that provided much needed shade from the bright sunshine and heat.
The visit took me back in time to when I was giving hundreds if not thousands of dollars to George Washington University to get a certificate proclaiming me to be a landscape designer. As a student, I was most fortunate that many of my design classes were held at Dumbarton Oaks, the historical estate in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It was there in 1944 that a series of diplomatic meetings took place that culminated the next summer in the United Nations Charter.
It was the gardens, not the politics, though, that caught my attention as they have those of so many others. When I wandered through the grounds of the Carter Center, I felt in some ways as though I were back at Dumbarton. I am now in contact with people at Emory University in Atlanta to learn more about the architects and their vision for the Carter Center grounds. I want to learn how much overlap I can discover between the overall design of the gardens in Atlanta with those begun in 1921 when Beatrix Farrand started her transformation of Dumbarton’s existing farmland surrounding the house.
In reviewing a paper I wrote about the gardens, I was happy to reread how Farrand followed the guidelines of her early mentor Charles S. Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, who advised her at the turn of the century “to make the plan fit the garden and not twist the ground to fit the plan.” I believe I saw the same principle at play in the Carter Center landscaping.
Although Dumbarton Oaks was designed as a private garden for wealthy patrons, it shares much of the Carter Center’s desire to evoke a tranquility and restfulness not just for the privileged but for all who wander through. As such, there is a wholeness to both. Farrand believed in the importance of an overall design, where each part makes a contribution to the entirety and never upsets the carefully contrived balance. Her design, like that of the Carter Center, has a subtle softness of line and an unobtrusive asymmetry. No surface completely flat and no object balanced off against another of equal weight and position.
The Carter Center and Dumbarton Oaks both command impressive vistas and appear to be set off-axis. In each place, when one expects some kind of resolution from one spot to another, there is a sudden and unexpected turn in the path that leads to something new, some arbor, some unanticipated part of the garden to discover with its own wonders.
Another quality of the Carter Center I enjoyed was its low standing, contemporary curvilinear building design which complimented the layout of the grounds. Farrand also took the design as seen in the architecture to her gardens. She expressed the view that,
“the arts of architecture and and landscape gardening are sisters, not antagonists. The work of the architect and the landscape gardener should be done together from the beginning, not, as too often happens, one crowding the other out.”
Central to her interest in architecture was the mass and detail of the buildings and the relationship of the gardens to them. As we see at the Carter Center, the mature trees are of considerable importance and provide the cooling shade as well as a sense of containment for the smaller structural plantings that define various sections of the overall grounds. I suspect that the trees, like those at Dumbarton, are not incidental to the composition but dominate and form the central focus. Most of the Oaks and other varieties of trees also have good winter form or bark that gives them year-round interest.
What I saw in both places was an integration of architecture and landscape; a plan to enhance the existing topography; graceful and gradual vertical changes; varied focal points; well-defined edges; intriguing approaches, paths, and promenades; appropriate use of sculpture and fountains; a wide variety of places to pause; gradations in texture, color, fragrance, light, and shadow; a subtle manipulation of perspective and views; and an ever-changing overhead plane using trees, arbors, roofs, and the sky. As a result, both places provide form, texture, color and depth.
Each site also incorporates elements of the formal and informal in their plantings. Perhaps it is this contrast in plantings that lends a feeling of dynamic tension that underlies the sense of repose yet gives both places such vitality. The formally laid out, almost cloistered garden just off the parking area offers quite a different mood from the entry plantings of Bottlebrush Buckeyes that seemed riotous that morning in their shape and color, not to mention the butterflies and bees that swarmed them. They were the chick magnets street dancing while the monks clustered inside their enclosed garden watching all the fun. Farrand was a master of this kind of juxtaposition.
It goes without saying that I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit the Carter Center grounds. Like Dumbarton, it set many moods and allowed for various interpretations. Both have a beauty for all seasons. And both are bold and subtle at the same time. In reflecting on both places, I’m prone to think of what Thomas Jefferson, another southern boy who became president, said in a letter dated 20 August 1811 from Poplar Forest, his “getaway” second home not all that far from Monticello:
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,
and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety
of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure
of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of
one harvest a continued one throughout the year…But though an
old man, I am but a young gardener.”