How Creating a Magical Landscape is Like Telling a Great Story
Little Red Riding Hood was surprised to find her grandmother’s cottage-door standing wide open, and when she went into the room, she had such a strange feeling that she said to herself: “Oh dear! How uneasy I feel today, and how strange, since at other times I like being with my grandmother so much.” She called out: “Good morning,” but received no answer.
You know, I could have started with “once upon a time.” And that’s great for a four-year-old, but not us. Who are we? We are people who want to be entertained and mesmerized by things, including a great story. The problem when it comes to landscapes, at least as far as I can tell, is that most landscape design-builds (creations) seem to start with “once upon a time.”
Back in 2010, I was called to come check out a project by a contact (at the time they were just a contact, but now I would call them a friend as well) who wanted to see if I was interested in a project they had going on in the North Buckhead area of Atlanta. I said sure, so I dusted myself off and drove over, and when I arrived I found myself in the middle of a scenario I wasn’t quite expecting: there was the superintendent, the client, the client’s parents, tons of workers, three really expensive cars, and a huge magnificent mansion about halfway completed. Now a lot of these things are pretty typical for Buckhead, but I was just expecting to meet the superintendent; if I had expected the meeting to be with such an audience I would have freshened myself up, since about thirty minutes prior I had been driving a New Holland Skid Steer moving dirt over in the Tuxedo Park area.
After brief introductions we were ushered into the construction trailer, and there on the plan table was “once upon a time” (AKA the landscape plan), complete with many elements I was already so unexcited about even though I only got the broadest idea from five feet away. Since I never install another designer's vision, I sort of felt like Red Riding Hood must have felt when she found her grandmother’s door open, and I wished I could just somehow disappear.
It is next to impossible to create magic for clients using this method: using the same old recycled storyline, characters, and plot. I know I wasn’t there when the plans were drawn, nor was I there to interview the clients in the beginning, but I could just about tell how this story developed to this point and I wanted no part of the rest—other than to drive off into the sunset, like, right then.
I’m sure the authors of this landscape plan have a well-oiled machine, a great marketing plan, and somewhere, perhaps in the basement of their office, some sort of assembly line cranking out cookie-cutter designs just like this one rolled out on the table in front of me at that moment. From there the sequence usually progresses like most stories that have been told over and over in the usual ordinary way. The design is completed, possibly with a few revisions, and usually handed to several installers (the storytellers) who compete (hopefully not just on price) to wind up on their conveyor belt, to implement someone else's vision—all hoping that by doing so they can live happily ever after.
Now you may think I’m being overly critical, and that’s OK. But, like the young boy in the film The Sixth Sense who sees dead people, I see landscapes going in all the time that are just not sustainable or that could have been great, but just aren't. The really bad part about it is that if you say anything about the “dead people” you’re seeing then many people may think you are crazy (that is until they find themselves calling someone like me to redo their “once upon a time” a few years, or even a few weeks, later). I’m not saying that you can’t create something good using “once upon a time,” but to create something great, or even magical, it’s next to impossible.
For me, the landscape planning process does come in the beginning. But it is, at least from a sequence standpoint, more like the middle of an ordinary story and the beginning of an exciting one, where Little Red Riding Hood gets to her grandmother’s house and finds the door open. Now I know this is pretty radical way of thinking, and you might be wondering: why do I look at it that way? Because the plan is what gets everyone excited, including me, and no one gets excited about “once upon a time” (well, except for the children I mentioned earlier). Also because the plan should serve as a guide to get you where you want to go, and should not be considered to be Gospel, as it often is.
I know I’m not the best storyteller in the world, but I like to think of my landscape creation process as more like a really good story or piece of film. The planning is the rising action. It’s what you are hoping for; it creates excitement and anticipation. As a client you may begin to play things out in your head. How is he going to do that? What is it going to look like? What will the neighbors think? The installation process, however, is more like the beginning; it’s where the characters are introduced and the story begins to unfold. And later certain barriers may arise, like inclement weather or perhaps a crazy neighbor with objections, but the barriers are overcome and the story progresses.
More times than not, the story takes an unexpected twist. This is where the real magic happens, where someone who has the talent and the muddy boots to recognize an opportunity presents it to the client, even though it’s not in the plan. A new idea could possibly be born and the story may take a fortuitous turn for the better, yielding a result you may not have even expected. Or perhaps the twist is that something in your plans is just not possible due to unforeseen circumstances and things have to be executed in an even more clever way.
The problem with the “once upon a time” method is that no one wants to rock the boat. The client doesn’t want to say anything to the designer because the designer must know better, and besides that, he is really expensive. The guy in the basement rendering the CAD drawings doesn’t want to say anything either, because he is the lowest man on the totem pole. The installer surely doesn’t want to say anything, because he depends on the designer to feed him—and not only that, but he has ten other clients he has to keep happy, too, so whatever he’s told it looks great from his porch. Right? I think you get where I'm going.
I can’t tell you what happens in this version Little Red Riding Hood, but for some reason I found myself hoping that the grandma was somehow able to overpower the wolf and was tying him up out back and everything would be ok. If you guessed I turned down the job and drove away, you would be right. Even though it was a big job, particularly from a monetary standpoint.
I knew it wasn’t right for me. If you are going to be happy with your work, you have to be true to yourself. And sometimes being true to yourself means making the tough calls. But as I reached about the halfway point back to Tuxedo Park, the phone rang. It was the superintendent, saying the clients wanted me to come back. They said they wanted to work with me. It turns out they weren't too confident about the integrity of the design anyway. We went on to spend a little over a year creating one of the best gardens I think I have ever been involved with to date, and everything that was magical was not on the plan table that day in the construction trailer. And everyone lived happily ever after.