Some Ideas for Midcentury Style Fencing

MidCentury Style welcomes Ted Cleary, ASLA, of Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture as Contributing Writer with this first in a series of periodic articles on midcentury modern garden design:

When it comes to creating a period landscape for your midcentury modern home, it’s all about the garden geometry and the hardscaping.  Plants are plants; they don’t care whether they’re part of a “French Chateau” garden design or an “MCM” garden design. (Although some plant species — and certainly, the fashion in which they’re laid out — may seem more suitable for particular styles……considerations which we’ll talk about in later blog posts).  But it’s in the shapes of constructed elements of wood, concrete, masonry, metal, that a design vocabulary asserts itself. One such component, all the more visible because of its three-dimensional qualities, is fencing.

I really would’ve preferred to address this topic as “Enclosure” rather than “Fences”, but the former might come across as too abstract.  When you think of a fence, what definition comes to mind?  You probably see it, first and foremost, as a practical way to keep someone in or out.  But I urge you to think of it in broader terms.  When it comes to creating enclosure for outdoor “rooms”, the subject can be interpreted anywhere from the actual physical security provided by a high fence surrounding a property’s perimeter, to just a subtle suggestion of privacy screening that doesn’t lock anything out except curious eyes from certain directions.  It can be a work of art rather than just a utilitarian means to an end.

The midcentury landscape architects, notably people like Garrett Eckbo and Bob Royston, used fences and other vertical elements to great effect to create this infinitely-varied range of enclosure. They found inspiration from the Expressionist painters of the early- and mid-20th century, which they translated both on the ground plane and rising from it.  And, just like their counterparts designing homes, they were driven by a basic premise of using off-the-shelf materials to compose inventive, bold, but affordable design suitable for the explosion of the post-war middle class.

otherwise-plain pool fence becomes dramatic statement with simple addition of bold blocks of color
Freestanding panels proposed to create depth and interest, and to screen backyard neighbor; translucent fiberglass with blocks of solid color. Design by SCLA; inspired by a Garrett Eckbo design, which was in turn inspired by painter Piet Mondrian.

“Fencing” can mean screening just as much as enclosure. At left, a simple freestanding panel of gridded 2 x 6s helps create subtle sense of privacy from street views into outdoor dining courtyard (part of an SCLA landscape design); at right, a curving free-form fence adds flair while screening pool equipment (design by Robert Royston).

These wavy panels above were a popular material….but since they’re made of asbestos, it’s a no-no today! (Galvanized metal roofing in similar shape is an affordable alternative that can look interesting, if given thoughtful detailing.) Design below by SCLA uses Cor-Ten steel, a popular, if somewhat pricey, choice for contemporary garden design, in this proposed 5’ ht. fence/retaining wall with sedums to grow through some of the slotted cut-outs

 Note that there’s no rule that says you have to limit a fence to the property line; fences and walls can likewise be used to delineate outdoor spaces in whatever form a design theme, and circulation through and around it, suggest.  A landscape architect should approach the task thinking not solely “Where does the property line run?”, but rather “How can we manipulate the sense of space?” and “What kind of subtle geometry is going on in the house that we can take inspiration from?”

Eckbo’s landscape plan at right (Harvard graduate project, 1937) illustrates this, influenced by an earlier French Modernist garden device of zig-zag patterns that effectively camouflage the linearity of a narrow city lot.  A similar idea is employed below with SCLA design (see plan and perspective views), with overlapping pool fencing to add subtle depth and layering, especially when grazed by night lighting, to an otherwise-flat property edge.  (An existing tall brick pool wall, indicated by dashed lines, in a classical style not suited to its MCM house, had been nearly pushed over by huge beloved shade tree to be saved.  Cost to repair masonry presented this opportunity to propose a more MCM-appropriate replacement.)  The repaired wall and its massive concrete footing would have had to detour around tree; here, the stepped-back panels achieve same result of stepping around treetrunk, but in a more design-deliberate manner.  Note that the panels give ‘floating’ appearance but are physically connected, both for true enclosure as well as stability of the fence.

In subsequent blog posts we’ll explore more aspects of fences and enclosure for midcentury modern gardens: appropriate materials; the different spatial experiences or amount of ‘transparency’ created by varying fence heights and many other details; when you might want fences or walls to be an extension of the house’s own material vs. a design that stands in dramatic contrast.  But for now when you realize you need to contain Fido in the backyard, after you’ve spent untold energy making your Atomic Ranch or International Style home perfect, outfitted with that cool Eames lounge chair you scored on Craigs List, please realize that you don’t need to just accept today’s standard choices from the fence aisle at the orange big-box store! 

Image credits: SCLA (Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture); Sunset Books (Lane Book Publ. © 1952, 1959, 1964)

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