modern terrace

Modernism is all over our homes; witness our long, low sofas, pared back kitchens and iPads. But have you considered a modernist garden? Designed well, it can offer the same sense of calm as a Japanese courtyard or English flower garden.

The Modernism of the 20s and 30s was a radical shift in how artists and architects saw and treated their surroundings. The distrust of the first world war old guard prompted a pared-back aesthetic which celebrated functional honesty above all. Materials and engineering were exposed, forms streamlined and a sort of cold-water-shower rigour imposed.

Le Corbusier’s vision of landscape was as a naturalistic foil to modernist architecture. However the early designers who tried translating cubism into gardens included few plants; in fact the concept of nature was almost abstracted out of the pictures they created. They were interesting tableaux but not exactly restful spaces to sit in.

The later ‘California Style’ lent a more honeyed glamour we’d expect of LA architects. Gardens became extensions of cool, modernist lifestyles…and all the more covetable for it.

mondrian garden

Keeping that honest aesthetic but softening the rigour with a touch of LA glam and a little of our own English greenery will help us create a modernist masterpiece. Here’s how:

modernist pool1. Go square; Choosing a rectilinear layout (squares and rectangles) will start to give a modern feel, but position the shapes asymmetrically – it suggests tension and dynamism. Play about on graph paper until you nail your cubist classic. If you’re feeling brave, throw a disruptive, confident curve in there too.

2. Ensure there’s enough space for you. Modernist architects strived to create “machines for living in” and our gardens should aim for the same… design in generous terrace space and make linking entry points from the house wide and clear.

3. Shape up; thinking in 3d, add in three or four different heights for visual interest, ie; terrace, low planted cube with a ball-shaped plant, water feature, second higher terrace, higher planted cube with a pyramid-shaped plant. And consider modern sculpture as a focal point.

4. Keep it slick; modernist is a bye-word for uncluttered so keep it clean. Furniture is boxy or lean and low, or even avoided with seating built into the design. Materials – concrete, render, sawn stone, steel, hardwoods – should be top quality and expertly installed as, in this garden style, we can’t rely on blowsy plants to hide the occassionally sub-standard. Keep joints narrow and laying patterns long and straight.

5. Plants are bold in leaf or shape and predominately green; aim to pick varieties that will hold their form and preferably also their leaves. Use bigger numbers of a smaller range of plants and aim (this is my weakness) to keep pots to a minimum. Choose large containers in powder-coated aluminium or pigmented concrete. You could group and repeat them for strong visual harmony.

6. The future’s bright; don’t neglect good quality lighting fixtures to wash walls with light, create bold plant shadows and highlight height changes. Night-lighting lends modernist gardens a whole new set of interesting angles to appreciate.

modernist fire garden

Chelsea modernist yellow
modernist stone wall

Chelsea modernist black structure

Modernist water tankUraguay stone modern