On the Fence

This “landscaped outdoor room” near Farrar Pond, Massachusetts, uses simple construction to create complex effects.

The fence designed by landscape architect and artist Mikyoung Kim for Bob Davoli and Eileen McDonagh winds its way through the woods of Lincoln, Massachusetts, like a serpent skeleton fished out of the adjacent Farrar Pond. It appears to have been there since Thoreau first decamped to the nearby Walden shores. Unlike most fences—–which follow rigid property lines in the utilitarian service of exclusion or containment—–it meanders like a weathered Andy Goldsworthy sculpture that just happens to keep the family dogs near home as well.


Kim describes the Cor-Ten steel fence as an “organic mechanism for creating landscaped outdoor rooms.” The mechanical aspect is an accordion-like design that allows it to expandonsite and then be fixed into place. Though it encloses a third of the three-acre site, the fence’s deceptively simple construction makes it feel more like a permeable element of its natural surroundings than an impenetrable boundary. Although others have had similar goals, Kim and her team went about achieving this one in an original, if counterintuitive, way.

“When I first walked the site,” Kim recalls, “it looked very flat. But it later became clear to me that there were a lot of undulations in the ground. I was interested in a fence that wasn’t just ornamental; I wanted one that moved with the ground and hugged it as much as possible.” Instead of simply aping organic motifs, which Kim feels is ultimately unfulfilling, she was inspired by the cellular logic found in nature and music that facilitates simple building blocks combining to form complex creations. “The entire fence is made using just seven lengths of modular, precut Cor-Ten steel bars, with widths being anywhere from two to five bars thick. Depending on the angle from which you see it, the fence can appear transparent or opaque.” Similar in concept to Bach’s piano compositions, the structure layers modular “voices” to create a fence that is at once structurally sound and environmentally adaptive.

Kim likes working with metal due to its surprising flexibility, an attribute integral to the design and aesthetic of this particular project. As the fence snakes its way over the landscape, the contractions and expansions of the pattern register as a kind of vertical interpretation of a topographical map. Due to the limitations imposed by the design on the acuteness of the barrier’s curvature, there are places where it literally has to stop and then start again—–or, in Kim’s words, “kisses.” She welcomes such opportunities to improvise: “I think limits are really nice in design projects. It gives one a sense of how much they can push something. And I think good design results from taking advantage of unexpected situations.”

Another limit often imposed on design projects is known more commonly as “the client.” But Kim describes Davoli and McDonagh as being “once-in-a-lifetime clients” and now fast friends. “There was no push back from them—–they were really excited about it and almost without hesitation said, ‘Let’s do it!’ It’s very rare that one gets an immediate—–and unblinking—–green light.”

Originally published

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