A Classic Garden Style Gets a Modern Update by Andrea Cochran

Classic garden style gets a modern update by Andrea Cochran.

Developer Stephen Ackley has built hundreds of homes on the Bay Area’s Peninsula, and most of them have gardens closer in style to English cottage than contemporary. When he decided to landscape the yard of his own house, a shingle-style home, Ackley chose to rebel against the suburban norm. “The majority of people in this area prefer a more traditional garden,” he says. “For my own house, I wanted a space that would prove modernism doesn’t have to be stark and cold, it can be warm and organic too.”

Ackley enlisted San Francisco landscape architect Andrea Cochran to make his dream garden—a stylish, low-maintenance space that could be used for living, dining, relaxing and play. “What Steve had was a lot that’s typical for that area,” says Cochran. “There was no pool, trees randomly dotted the yard and the circular driveway dropped visitors off right in front of the house. Together, we decided to take it to the next level.”

The new garden is one that relies more on architectural drama than colorful foliage and flower blossoms for beauty. Cochran, with a lot of input from Ackley, designed a contemporary landscape that works with the classic lines of the family home—it is rooted deeply in the formal gardens created during the French Renaissance and modern gardens from the 1930s and ’40s. “The gardens of those eras were very simple and very spatial, with trees that stood alone as sculpture and grade changes to define different areas. This garden is inspired by that cleanness and simplicity.”

The streamlined design is evident from the front drive, where guests are now greeted with the sight of a bold, stacked-quartz wall with water spilling gently down the sides. Walk around the wall, and an elegant allée of linden trees leads the way to the front door. Through the trees, you catch glimpses of compact boxwood hedges. The effect is more like that of a private courtyard than of a typical residential entryway. “By concealing the front door, we made an outdoor space that’s more likely to be used because it’s private,” says Cochran. “We also created an air of mystery which extends through the entire garden. The purpose is to make a garden that reveals itself slowly, rather than one you can see all at once from a single spot. This makes a person want to explore, to find out what’s around the next corner.”

The entryway also sets the stage for a landscape that relies on the soothing power of repetition. Instead of a patchwork quilt of plantings, this garden utilizes wide rows of a single species; besides the boxwood, there are rows of hebe, lavender and hedges of Carolina laurel cherry. The dominant color scheme is calming layers of green on green.

In the backyard Cochran created Ackley’s favorite garden area: an outdoor living room, complete with a monolithic fireplace, and dining room. “Before the remodel we used the garden, but very rarely,” he says. “Now that we have a comfortable place to sit, we use it so much more.”

With three children in the Ackley brood, the outdoor dining room and the new pool just beyond it are the scene of many family gatherings, and Cochran says the garden is tough enough to take whatever the sports-obsessed kids can dish out. But, just out of sight, she created a level space for games like soccer. “It’s great to have it right there for the kids, but not out in the open,” says Ackley.

Ackley’s garden may be changing the minds and yards of clients and neighbors. “I bring people to look at the property,” he says. “Once they see it, some of them are willing to try something more modern, too.”

A long fireplace anchors the garden’s outdoor living room.

An allée of trees leads to the front door while a stacked-quartz wall and water feature screens it from public view.

The family uses the garden more often since adding comfortable furniture.

The pool’s built-in fountain makes a pleasing sound to enjoy while relaxing in the garden.

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