Eleanor McKinney  
phone: (512) 445-5202
Landscape Architect fax: (512) 445-3432
 

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The American Icon

As landscape designers, we are often confronted with an image of the American front yard held by clients and, even at times, architects. This image is evident in such unlikely places as the allocation of small beds of pink petunias in front of a twelve story glass office tower. Somehow people can understand a modern high tech structure, but as soon as they step outside all they can see are granny’s flowers.

On a residential scale, the traditional white picket fence with rose arbor bordered by multicolored beds of flowers seems to recall a simpler, less complicated time in our cultural history. Nostalgia for this idealistic icon tugs at our heart and purse strings as this concept begs to be repeated once again.

Modern designers are challenging this idea with new abstractions of the landscape. Notions that the landscape consists of growing plant material set off by wood or metal structures are being questioned. Couldn’t other materials form exterior spaces, set circulation patterns, provide focal points, etc?

“The American Icon”, installed in 1992, is a response to the traditional image of the front yard through the use of white PVC pipes as pickets and entry arbor, survey tape as vines, and multicolored survey flags as flower borders. These materials are commonly employed in landscape design and installation. PVC pipe is used for underground irrigation lines; survey tape identifies boundaries and trees to be protected or removed; and survey flags denote locations of sprinkler heads, plantings, etc. Also utilization of these inert materials instantly made this landscape into a “Xeriscape” not just low water use, but no water use.

Installation of the projects was supported through the combined efforts of members of Austin Women in Architecture and the American Society of Landscape Architects, Austin Section. The project was completed much like a barn raising with everyone pitching in to help. People meticulously followed the plan according to set height and dimensions of the structures.

The application of unusual materials to form traditional patterns struck many unconscious cords. During installation discussions broke out concerning the “proper” combination of the survey flags. Should they be placed in groups or set randomly? Was one color clashing too much with the others? Finally, we opted for the jumbled up cottage-style using all varieties of flags. Halfway through the evening someone laid a New York Times in a blue plastic wrapper on the newly created “walk”. Two days later we awoke to find that some stranger had added balloons to the fence. Obviously, he or she felt comfortable participating in the public domain on the street yard. Throughout the next few weeks, many people would drive by and stop with smiles on their faces and ask us to please keep it up. In the end, we felt fortunate to have unknowingly contributed to our neighborhood spirit in some small way.