A Modernist Patio for a Traditional Home

Ted Cleary, ASLAof Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture continues his contributions on midcentury modern garden design, here with the first of his “Case Study Gardens”. 

MCM enthusiasts will be familiar with Arts & Architecture magazine’s legendary design feature known as the “Case Study House Program”.  From its inception near the war’s end in 1945, through 1966, the CSH Program showcased innovative modernist designs, many of them modest, others more grand, meant to address the postwar housing needs of the typical American family. Like the CSH examples, some unbuilt, others still existing, these Case Study gardens strive to offer solutions you can apply to the outdoor spaces around your own home.

bar area--close-up

If you own a great midcentury modern home, it’s natural to want a landscape design that’s period-appropriate. But of course, MCM homes make up just a small percentage among a sea of traditional styles across America. What then if your heart really craves “modern” when your home says “neo-Georgian”? Do you have to accept either the typical suburban-y landscape look, or a more elegant version of it referencing Classical formal gardens? This is a design dilemma that I think is becoming fairly common among home buyers whose house style doesn’t really represent their tastes as well as they’d like; instead, it was just the only option because a home builder decided it’s what the “market wants”. I always marvel at how you can’t walk into a high-end furniture store these days without tripping over a Noguchi table or Eames lounge chair, and yet so many homes’ outward appearances seems to pretend it’s occupied either by the colonial governor of Williamsburg or an 18th-century French nobleman.

While I’m inclined to encourage that the architectural style of the building should drive the architectural style of its surrounding landscaping, there may be justifiable exceptions. Among modernist landscape architects practicing in the ‘40s and ‘50s such as Garrett Eckbo, I’ve been surprised to find that some of their clients’ homes were not your quintessential modernist design. When I’ve closely studied certain gardens I particularly admire, beyond their most iconic photographs other seldom-published photos from different angles reveal adjoining residences of quite traditional styles. When designing a garden, I believe the key is to seek out the essence of the architectural details, rather than slavishly duplicate them in a literal way.

exist back view


The owners of this large home are a perfect example; it might be best described as “French Provincial”, but their modernist taste was clearly conveyed to me both by her spoken desires and the collection of contemporary art throughout their rooms. When I first arrived, it was a bit of a head-scratcher to figure out how I might make these two seemingly incongruous directions “speak” to each other in some complementary way.

The existing lower level’s outdoor space was an inadequately-small bulbed-out patio, with a formless curving wall wrapping around one side of it to hold back the significant grade change. But the clients had an ambitious program, for both an active family-with-kids and for grownup entertaining: full outdoor kitchen and cocktail bar, and various bells & whistles that are part of many clients’ wish-lists such as pizza oven, TV, outdoor heater, and some kind of fire feature.  A pool was also mentioned as a possible future-phase item (seen here at the far-left of the Conceptual Plan).  The challenge was to accomodate this program, using a very modernist vocabulary, in some creative way that nestled a design between the traditional home and its abrupt grade change.

base of exist
existing layout
cncptl plan view
proposed new design

concept-view 1

The design solution is a multi-layered composition of orthogonal elements. The large Holly tree at the end of the existing patio, a nice specimen in an otherwise open yard, was worth saving and working around. That high curved wall is replaced by a comfortably-lower right-angled one, creating seatwalls that wrap around two sides of a stepped-up terrace. Family and friends sitting at both terrace and bar can enjoy the natural-gas linear fireplace.  Square planters step down and around the existing columns adjacent to the upper deck’s stairs down to the yard. Taken together, all these elements transition down to the lower level in a terraced, gradual fashion.

concept-view 2

The kitchen area becomes “defined” by its square, flat canopy overhead. This not only provides some shelter from sun or an unexpected rain, and a logical place for recessed task lighting (controlled by dimmer switches….always include dimmer switches!), but also a more cozy sense of enclosure, so the cook and his companions at the bar don’t feel so exposed next to the looming deck and three-story house. An “oculus” — a simple but dramatic circular opening in the roof — relieves some of the heavy dark feeling of the kitchen, located off to the side away from the cook. The flat roof is not wasted; it becomes a “green roof”, covered in an interesting tapestry of sedums that makes for a much more enjoyable view down onto it from the home’s occupants.

At the bar, a formed-in trough in the concrete countertop aligns with a simple “waterfall” on the wall (really, just iridescent tiles that mimic one), to serve as a place for chilled water or ice among beer and wine. One of the roof columns is larger, housing a pizza oven; at the other end, a “spider leg” column, an element devised and often employed by architect Richard Neutra, is for both interest and function, opening up the space and circulation.

concept-view 3

Could you envision integrating a modernist garden into your tradional home’s outdoor space? If you look beyond the obvious, and find fresh ways to reference the existing — in this case, with the same brick as used in the house, but assembled in a ‘cleaner’, less ornamental way, and with bronze-painted metal elements that echo the color & material of the house’s standing-seam metal mansard roof — it might just feel more “right” than you first thought.

All images credited to:  Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture.

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