Landscape Designer Louis Raymond Speaks Tonight

March 18, 2011

The next event in the Centerbrook Architects Lecture Series is tonight at Essex Meadows, 7 p.m. We are delighted at the onset of spring to veer gently away from building design to a presentation on garden design, specifically, formality in gardens by landscape designer extraordinaire, Louis Raymond.

Louis’ academic studies and artistic talents have yielded three baccalaureate degrees (in Chemistry, Voice and Piano), several years of medical studies at the University of Pittsburgh, a flourishing career as an opera and concert singer, and frequent assignments as a free-lance writer for New York glossies. Of course Louis Raymond loves plants. He’s a garden designer. For six years, he was the designer for the annual New England Spring Flower Show, and his firm, Renaissance Gardening, creates showstopping landscapes for residential and corporate clients.

In American landscape design at the dawn of the new millennium, “formality” is as slippery a concept as “wildflower,” let alone the ultimate nebulosity, the “English” garden. Some people will pronounce any garden with so much as a clipped hedge “formal,” while others need a hefty dose of symmetry, expense, smartly-defined rectangles and pretension to set off their own particular Formality Alarm. We don’t question why Formality Alarms should exist at all, and why we should avoid setting them off.

It’s always revealing to try to fathom why anything at all goes in or out of fashion, be it shoulder pads or salpiglossis, cigarettes or cannas. The current American allergy to landscape formalism is all the more interesting, however, because the rest of the known gardening world thinks formalism (however it’s defined) is truly swell, as did most Americans themselves for much of our history. With the exception of Japanese and most current American design, the wider world notion is that if one perennial border is good, a perfect pair (or even an entire perennial parterre) is that much better.

In “Putting Everything in Perspective,” Louis dissects some of America’s jitters that keep formality out of our landscapes and lives. After all, we don’t garden in a vacuum: there’s a lot of culture in horticulture. Pressures as diverse as native plant societies, the Arbor Day Foundation, advancing lawn-mower technology, anti-elitism and snobbism, automobile culture, sex roles and the prevalence of the putatively anti-city and pro-informality suburban life have all contributed to our Formality Phobia.