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IAC Building, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios.
IAC Building, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios.
IAC Building, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios; Tom Bonner

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Back to nature

How our latest midcentury modern design obsession reflects our age of environmental anxiety

By 2016 it is obvious that midcentury modernism is the defining design influence of the decade, with slim, sculpted furniture and thin, minimalist lines now ubiquitous. But another trend has developed in parallel that revives a different aspect of the modernist aesthetic, just in time to also address newer anxieties about our looming environmental apocalypse: the use of plants as design elements. Plants today are the symbol of a modern, designed space in a way they haven’t been since the 1960s and 1970s, when architects like Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Brazilian architect Roberto Burle Marx made landscaping central to their work. The resurgence of landscaping is a significant shift; during the 1990s and 2000s, plants appeared in American public space most commonly as the odd, bland potted palm or box hedge, subordinate to harder, inorganic architectural elements.


Foliage began its return to the modern design palette in the early 2010s in the form of the succulent, which in its compact aridity embodies the decade’s enthusiasm for the desert and its associated spaciousness and minimalism. The opening of the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs in 2009 presented a kind of inhabitable showcase of this emergent aesthetic, its renovated 1960s motor hotel grounds decorated with spare succulents framing a view towards the succulent-and-rock-covered San Jacinto Mountains.

Ace Hotel Palm Springs
Ace Hotel Palm Springs.
Douglas Lyle Thompson

From stylish Southwestern hotels, succulents as decor spread to shelves and tables in cafes and hotels across the globe, as if to suggest that the desert’s sense of spare focus could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their distance from the Mojave. This happened at a time when the interiors of third-wave coffee shops were being converted to the urban equivalent of homestead cabins; their hard wooden walls called for some kind of contextual Western accent, which cacti readily supplied. As a design element, cacti accord with the vogue for minimalism and empty space, since desert plants tend to develop slowly and predictably, without wild growth spurts or transformations in shape. At the same time, their spines and hardiness even in drought evoke a self-sufficiency and durability that are especially appealing in precarious times.

The plants, in this case, become a beautiful, unruly introduction to our fate as a civilization overtaken by the nature that we once sought to shape and control.

But while succulent accents have already become a hallmark of the 2010s, the concept of plants as a major architectural focus is a feature of midcentury modernism that is only now being (grandly) explored. Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 1970s often featured large plants framed by atriums and other architectural elements in a manner approaching sculpture, which could be viewed from various angles within and without the building.

According to Los Angeles landscape architect Lisa Gimmy, who recently restored the gardens of Neutra’s landmarked Hafley House in Long Beach, "There’s always this kind of thrilling moment when you go into anything Neutra-designed, where you are really given this opportunity to experience your own body in relationship to the house and the surrounding landscape." At the Hafley House, this sublime moment, for Gimmy, is spurred by a "polished soffit that reflects the landscape design and light back into the house."

Newly renovated gardens by Lisa Grimmy Landscape Architecture at Hafley House.
Newly renovated gardens at Hafley House by Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture.
John Ellis Photographer

William Cody’s seemingly windowless 1972 Palm Springs Library similarly impresses with a foliage-sprouting koi pond at its skylit center, orienting an otherwise heavy concrete building around a surprisingly lush green centerpiece. And one can even find landscaping featured prominently in projects that are famed for their bleak brutalism, like London’s Barbican Center, whose courtyards and balconies sprout striking green ferns, vines, and other foliage to transform acres of tiered concrete into something like a giant planter.

As the decorative cacti trend reaches saturation, this larger-scale aspect of modernist landscape architecture is gaining momentum. At Platform, an outdoor mall that opened in Culver City this year, landscaping is the primary visual element, offsetting the complex’s Donald Judd-ish gray concrete walls with a series of drought-tolerant but still verdant gardens, complete with stylized lawn furniture for seating. The lawn furniture is sold along with a variety of other aestheticized versions of traditional garden furnishings—like a chain garden hose holder reminiscent of a Lanvin handbag—by Platform shop owner and furniture designer Ilan Dei, whose modern garden accessories mark a sharp transition from the Smith & Hawken garden aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s.

Platform, the outdoor mall in Culver City, designed by Elysian Landscapes.
Katie Gibbs
Ilan Dei Studio furniture at Platform.
Courtesy of Ilan Dei Studio

In place of the haute-suburban wood benches of the now-defunct chain, which ceased operations in 2009, new wave garden stores like Ilan Dei sell pieces that seem designed to compete with nearby plants for sculptural status, as if the garden is not in a backyard, but an urban gallery. "That desire for sculptural pieces actually transcends plants. We're noticing that our customers are looking for strong statement pieces like unique fountains and furniture," Dei says.

The rise of the sculptural garden has roots in another midcentury movement that is being revived alongside the return to midcentury architecture—1970s Earthworks artists like James Turrell and Robert Smithson deployed landscaping as art rather than mere accompaniment. Recent exhibitions of earthworks, like LACMA’s 2013 James Turrell retrospective and the museum’s 2012 installation of Michael Heizer’s "Levitated Mass" have widely influenced contemporary design, for example in the emerging popularity of patterned deployments of gravel and rocks alongside plants.

After a half-decade of arid, minimalist interiors, the recent plant profusion is freshly cooling and soothing, transforming interior spaces into strange, dank atmospheres reminiscent of subtropical caves.

Robert Irwin’s 1998 "Central Garden" work at the Getty Center—which was originally controversial due to Irwin’s status as an artist and not a gardener, and for his intent to create "sculpture in the form of a garden"—can be seen as another foundational text for this revival. Composed of circular plantings set in a pool surrounded by gravel paths and metal sculpture, "Central Garden" evokes the hedge mazes grown in the gardens of wealthy 19th century captains of industry, as well as the spiraling form of Smithson’s "Spiral Jetty" in Utah, and—to my eye—the hazardous waste symbol.

Xaman Bar, Mexico City.
©LGM Studio - Luis Gallardo

This transformation of public space into walls, wells, and copses of plants also has an interesting precedent from the 1980s that is scarce in the internet historical record (searches often turn up only one or two photographs of various examples from the period). In the 1970s and 1980s, hotels composed of many levels of tiered concrete hung with vines were all the rage, following on the success of John Portman’s 1967 modernist masterpiece, the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, as well as his Entelechy Residences, all of which made use of lush greenery appropriate to Georgia’s humid climate.

Today, the many atrium hotels influenced by Portman have mostly been renovated into plain, corporate spaces devoid of organic matter, but the atriums originally served as multi-level terraces for hanging vines, which fell in lush curtains from ceilings many floors up. Oddly enough, given Palm Springs’s reputation for midcentury desert chic, what is now the Palm Springs Hyatt was originally built in 1987 as a concept atrium hotel by Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer. Maxim’s de Paris featured veils of vines hanging from the hotel’s six indoor stories into a palm-shaded courtyard. Observed in the scarce few photos available online, the look is newly intriguing, a ghost example of the recent turn to overgrown foliage, sculptural shapes, and brutalist concrete.

Today, the ex-Maxim’s de Paris and its atrium brethren bear almost no documentation of their past as modernist jungles. At the Palm Springs Hyatt, the atrium foliage is gone and the only trace of Pierre Cardin’s cosmopolitan excess is an elevator blinking in golden lights, while the rest of the atrium has been redone in the vague minimalism of 2010s business hotels. Up the road, the Ace Hotel remains a by-now classic portrait of spare 2010s desert modern style. But the new, wilder turn to unrestrained indoor-outdoor plant overgrowth may mean that the next cutting edge hotel restoration will return a large-scale atrium space to its lush, post-civilized prime, perhaps with some innovative 2010s water-reuse measures.

The atrium at Maxim’s de Paris in 1988.
Leonora Enking

The connections between the resurgence of plants and our moment of environmental reckoning are palpable enough that they have become a subject for younger artists. Artist Zoe Crosher created a piece for the Los Angeles Nomadic Division in 2015 that depicts, in a series of billboards along the I-10 from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, a profusion of tropical foliage in various stages of health and decay. "There is definitely something ‘end times’ about the growing interest in plants in art and design," Crosher says, suggesting that the profusion of plants has become a medium to contain and express our anxieties about environmental disaster.

Most immediately, Crosher says, "plants are healthy, they clean the air," which has clear appeal in a time when pollution increasingly stresses the urban environment and global warming is making weather patterns go awry. In Mexico City, for example, the Vertical Greenway project has been encircling freeway columns with vines as a direct air-scrubbing measure.

Zoe Crosher, LA-LIKE: Shangri-LA’d, 10 billboards, Palm Springs, CA, 2015. A LAND Exhibition: The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project.

Public spaces in the U.S. are increasingly planted not just with modest, space-conserving succulents, but also verdant and uncontrolled walls of foliage, where plants stop being accent pieces and become the outlines of the structure itself, or even overtake it. In the new green facade designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios for the IAC building in West Hollywood, a trellis of more than 11,000 plants breaks with the original 1980s structure to create something like a wireframed slope that masks the plain building behind it. Runoff from an underground stream—which had for decades been a nuisance the building’s owners had to manage—waters the facade, keeping it from having to use any of the city’s water resources.

After a half-decade of arid, minimalist interiors, the recent plant profusion is freshly cooling and soothing, transforming interior spaces into strange, dank atmospheres reminiscent of subtropical caves. Even the newly renovated airport in Rio de Janeiro features full walls of greenery, a departure from the standard airlocked airport aesthetic that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago. As the green wall trend evolves further, one can imagine interiors eventually covered on all sides by vines, creating spaces not unlike the cenotes, or sunken subterranean pools, of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.

The trend for increasing volumes of plants indoors and out may be a kind of reckoning with our civilization’s eventual return to the water, when the buildings we now inhabit have been flooded by rising tides. The plants, in this case, become a beautiful, unruly introduction to our fate as a civilization overtaken by the nature that we once sought to shape and control.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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