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Shaving the Palm Trees...only in California
by Katy Purviance on 04/04/08 @ 08:35:40 pm
Categories: Articles | 529 words | 6764 views

I just read this article in the LA Times by Ann Japenga called, “More stark than the desert around them – Many midcentury modern enthusiasts are extending the spareness of home interiors into the garden, and wiping out natural habitat in the process.”

One neighbor ripped out the fig and lemon trees planted there 40 years before by the original owner. To the north, modernistas tore out a jungle of honeysuckle vines and asparagus ferns weaving in and out of an old fence.

All around my neighborhood, new owners are hacking off the blond skirts of the Washingtonia filifera palms and amputating tendrils of black dates. In the latest development, they are even shaving the rough bark of the palms, leaving a shiny blood-like surface.

Shaving…the bark? Excuse me?

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The giants of modernism wanted their open floor plans and walls of glass to bring the outdoors in. One of the pioneering modernist landscape architects, John Ormsbee Simonds, aimed to work with the “want to be” of the land, just as Alexander Pope – an 18th century English poet who protested an earlier wave of sterile landscaping – urged consultation with “the genius of the place.”

A man who understood the genius of the desert was Albert Frey, one of this region’s most famous of modernist architects. When I moved here – before the rediscovery of modernism – he was a somewhat obscure eccentric who lived in a house on the hill with a boulder in his bedroom He stood on his head daily, and studied the position of the sun for a year before deciding where to put his house.

Let me say that again.

He studied the position of the sun for a year before deciding where to put his house.

When asked his guiding design principle, Frey once answered: “The respect for nature.”

That is the beginning and end of what you need to know, architect or not.

But now new midcentury moderns are extending the spare aesthetic of their interiors into the garden, rather then letting nature work its way in. Vickki Schlappi’s yard has a lawn and two geometric rows of desert plants, topped off with a single skinny shaved palm. “I like clean, straight lines and I just wanted everything to pop,” says Schlappi, a real estate agent. “I feel like I’m trying to set an example on the street.”

Can you maybe stop?

My tree-stripping neighbor, Dan Bunker, has his main residence in the city – San Francisco – and was not aware of all the things that live in and around the palm trees.

“Being in real estate, I see a lot of newly landscaped yards . . . so I just went with what I saw as being fashionable,” he said in an e-mail. “That said . . . I wouldn’t have shaved the palm trees if I’d known they were bird habitats.”

This gives me hope. Maybe we don’t have to wait generations for another shift from minimalism to something more hospitable. Maybe one day soon I’ll look over the fence and see orange orioles again weaving nests in the unruly, unshaven, palm trees.

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