"And what’s known as ‘garden design’ rarely responds to the architecture. Instead, you get two powerful forces working against each other—like decorative, wavy gardens that trivialize the architecture rather than support it. Once you put a man-made object onto the site, you need to extend those geometries into the landscape."
It’s not that Coen, who has degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture, dislikes plants (although he jokes that "if a client wants five specimens, they’d better have five acres!"). If a person has a yen for, say, flowers, his response, rather than getting a cottage-garden mix of candy-counter colors, is going to be monocultural and architectural. He once planted 10,000 crocuses in a client’s lawn, which flares purple in spring before being mowed over. On another property, a 200-foot stripe erupts into orange flower every July. "We choose things with beautiful foliage, so there’s this luscious green texture the rest of the year."
While Coen undertakes public commissions, he loves the scale and intimacy of private work—"collaborating with a client instead of a committee." And it helps that the public’s perception about the landscape architect’s role has evolved. "We use to be shocked how late we were brought in, as if we were there to plant the shrubs." These days, Coen is just as likely to be hired first, to assess the land and site the house for maximum visual impact. His longtime collaborator, architect David Salmela, takes the unusual step of building landscape architecture services into his contracts. "That way," says Coen, "instead of someone coming along and throwing a bunch of plants at a project, you get real refinement."
"Our project designer, Travis Van Liere, made some 20 trips to the site to ensure that the house and land were one elevation," says Coen, describing the Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, dwelling of Kevin Streeter, which seems to grow right out of the surrounding plinth. Sitting on a slice of land between two wetlands, the building had to be long and thin to pull in views from both sides. Since Coen prefers to mess with the landscape as little as possible, only one tree was removed, while a procession of 20 mature white pines was added, each lending a beautiful irregularity. "These are great surroundings. The lines of the ponds, the rolling hills, maple trees. It’s more powerful to leave them alone and have really crisp edges by the house," which he achieved with a no-mow fescue meadow that grows right up to the plinth. "We can’t tell anymore where the architecture ends and the landscape begins," says Salmela. "And from inside, you feel as if you’re right outdoors."
Not a tree was disturbed at the Matthew Cabin on Gull Lake, in Minnesota, which sits on a small, skinny lot in an area dense with traditional woodsy houses and McCabins. Sited perpendicular to the lake, with glazing on three sides, the sculptural house is flanked by two sheltered courtyards that help buffer the house from its neighbors and direct views to the lake. "David never designs houses wider than 24 feet, so light can pour in both sides," says Coen. Another Salmela trademark is the detached garage, which compels one to experience the natural world on the trek to and fro. "We enjoyed working out that approach; there were so many options," recalls Salmela. "You’re guided to the front door not by logic, but by Shane’s walls and paths. When you reach the courtyard, the house relaxes, opens up, and you turn and the door is right there. But you can’t see it from the road. It confers some privacy from within, and the window acts as a kind of watchdog, because you know you can be seen walking up." A couple of lush rectilinear fescue meadows mixed with masses of wildflowers lend a sense of presence to the house, "as if it’s always been here," says Salmela. "They soften and sort of domesticate its abstract nature."