The Art of the Master Plan

Master Plan by JALA for residence in Winston-Salem, NC

So often it is hard for people to understand what exactly a Landscape Architect is.  Are we architects, engineers, landscapers, horticulturists, artists, sociologists, historians?  Landscape Architecture encompasses all of these and more.  To simply focus on one dimension sells the profession much too short.  Understanding that it is truly dynamic and multi-disciplined is the beginning of seeing and enjoying the fine art of Landscape Architecture.

It is extremely important for all of the connected facets of the profession to be just that, connected.  This connection is what brings fluidity to our spaces.  Whether they are public parks, a downtown corridor, or a private garden, it is vital to look at each site and all of the components that make it more than functional, but rather an extension of our life.  A good design contributes more than top-dollar materials or flashy components.  It reveals the true nature of those who immerse themselves in it, all the while fitting seamlessly in place.

Vaux-le Vicomte designed by Andre Le Notre

Historically, names such as Le Notre, Capability Brown, Jefferson, and Olmsted were masters of weaving all of the mentioned components together to form timeless spaces that we still observe with awe.  There is no denying that it is truly an art to be able to site a grand manor or palace in such a way that it was as if the earth had been waiting for such a building.

Hill Property designed by Frederick Law Olmsted

Alternative design for the Straight Residence by Beatrix Farrand

This core intellect still holds true today.  As designers, we must incorporate all of the disciplines as we put dreams and ideas into reality.  It is futile to only focus on aesthetics.  Can it actually work?  In the same regard, if focusing only on the engineering, can it be enjoyed?  Bringing together the different aspects all into focus helps create a space that we hope is meaningful and timeless.

How is this done?  Having a well thought out framework or guide is the starting point.  The Master Plan is the chance to put thoughts to paper.  Although the design may not be implemented fully at once, the master plan allows for cohesiveness no matter when parts and pieces are developed.  This cohesiveness is what sets a space apart from being more than an addition or an afterthought.  It allows the designer to explore how elements are connected or what gives them meaning.  Is there a need for a wall? Why and how can it be used beyond functionality so it looks purposeful?  Clearly it is important to understand the site and exploring the site in person is the best way to do that.  However, it is even more important to step back and let what you have discovered soak in.  Engulfing yourself into a master plan allows for the site to come alive on paper and to be captured just as it was imaged standing from the apex of a beautiful vista.  It allows us to pass the intentions on to the craftsmen.  Again, the master plan acts as a beautiful framework for which all of the decisions are made.

Design for Rynwood (Glen Head, N.Y.) by Ellen Biddle Shipman

It is true to say that the hand is the extension of the mind and soul.  In a world that is more and more technology driven, to us it is important to continue to be organic in our design.  Pencil to paper allows our thoughts to be tangible.  Efficiency is still important, but there is something about having to draw a line and connect it with another that allows the mind to slow down just enough to think through the purpose of that line.  As textures are added, you begin to understand the feel and look of your design.  Each layer of the drawing provides another chance for thought and creativity to sneak onto the paper.

Beyond the cognitive importance of a hand drawn concept for the designer, the master plan has a chance to become a work of art.  From the subtle smudges of eraser marks to the emphasized line work of the finished product, the thought process is revealed to any observer and becomes much more personal.  Ownership is taken and those who view it can say, “That is an Olmsted drawing”.  Just like the finished product that can be labeled a design by the Architect or the work of the craftsman, the master plan is another chance to put the personal stamp on a design that truly says, “Here are my thoughts, here is my vision.”

written by: Brent Skelton

Master Plan for the Waugh Residence (Scarsdale, N.Y.) by Loutrel Briggs


4 thoughts on “The Art of the Master Plan

  1. Great clarity and legibility occurs in preparing master plans…..similar to the gathering of recipes and settings for an elegant meal or the story board for staging wonderful theater. I am finding, however, that long before the master plan there is a shared time between my clients and myself where we discover what makes them feel open-hearted, free and alive!; what it is that provokes that response. We explore the stories of their lives and the stories of the place that will ‘receive’ the new landscape. It is in the intersection between these two story sets that the magic is found that will guide all planning and all design detailing. We detail and make room for the heart of the space first; amazingly the whole design unfolds seamlessly from this important beginning point. Much more happens than landscaping from this initial effort. A sanctuary is found. And, as the designer, I get to really understand what is at stake for these people in this place. Awesome.

  2. Elizabeth, thank you for your comments. I completely agree. It is such an amazing journey to get to know the clients and allow their dreams to become reality.

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