Outside the Box

As homeowners rediscover the outdoors, the popularity of lush landscapes and indoor-outdoor living spaces is in full bloom

Related: Artist Fritz Haeg is encouraging Americans to rethink the iconic front lawn

The year was 1974, and Crosby Doe was a young real estate agent trying to sell his first listing. It was the Loring house, built in 1959 in the Hollywood Hills by the famed midcentury-modern architect Richard Neutra.

"It was out on a promontory, and it was surrounded by a lawn, and the pool, and the view, and lovely landscaping and all glass," says Doe, now of Crosby Doe & Associates and one of California's most sought-after brokers specializing in architecturally significant properties. "So as I sat there, just starting out in real estate, I would sit at open houses, and I would think to myself, 'Why do I feel so good in this space?' "

Ultimately, Doe learned that the feeling of well-being that the Loring house inspired wasn't a coincidence; it was the architect's intention.

San Diego: For those who live in this three-bedroom home located at Point Loma's Southwestern Yacht Club, the outside world is literally a step away. Available for $4 million through Wellsford Realty.
"It was part of Neutra's own philosophy, that when we eliminate the distinctions between indoors and outdoors, or minimize them, we have a much closer connection to nature," Doe explains. "He believed, and I really would attest to the fact that he was probably right -- there's no scientific study -- that when we have that connection with nature, even subliminally or subconsciously, we feel better. We tend to have less stress. And that in turn improves our whole life. And I tend to agree with him. That was one of the fundamental concerns that he had about improving our life, not just building something to look glossy in the magazines, and that all had to do with eliminating indoor-outdoor distinctions."

For those who embrace the notion of seamless indoor-outdoor living, there's arguably no better place to live than Southern California, with its constant sunshine and high concentration of midcentury-modern homes, easily recognizable by their iconic shapes, walls of glass and deliberate orientation in the landscape. In fact, it's nearly impossible to separate the notion of the quintessential indoor-outdoor Southern California lifestyle from the design movement of midcentury-modern architecture.

"Indoor-outdoor living in California, just because of the climate, is top-of-mind with many buyers," says George Penner of Deasy/Penner & Partners, which has offices in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Venice and Palm Springs. He notes the appeal of "that seamless transition between the indoors and the outdoors that was so well-defined, particularly, after World War II -- with the Case Study Program (a famous series of midcentury prototype houses commissioned from 1945-66) and Richard Neutra and certain architects (who) really promoted that type of living."

Those architects -- including Pierre Koenig, Raphael Soriano, A. Quincy Jones, John Lautner and Craig Ellwood, among others -- found the Southland the ideal laboratory in which to explore and deconstruct the relationship between interior and exterior space. And the idea of promoting well-being by bringing the outdoors in is more than a conceit. Residents of such glass houses are emphatic about the way their homes fundamentally change their quality of life and relationship to the outdoors.

Actress Kelly Lynch and her husband, screenwriter Mitch Glazer, are active in the Southland's community of passionate midcentury devotees, and they personally own two midcentury gems -- a 1959 Neutra at the base of Mount Whitney and a 1950 Lautner in the Hollywood Hills -- both of which feature expanses of glass and seamless indoor-outdoor transitions. "In the midcentury, the idea of having walls of glass that opened up, or the demarcation between inside and outside (becoming) fuzzy at best and nonexistent almost, it's something you couldn't really do in Minnesota, where I'm from," Lynch says. "And I used to see books of these houses as a kid, and I thought, 'Oh, that's how I want to live,' because I'd spent my whole life outside, fishing and camping and climbing trees and hiking."

Lynch's Lautner home enjoys a 360-degree view of Los Angeles, while her Neutra house is situated with enormous east- and west-facing windows that frame the rising and setting sun and moon. Besides enabling Lynch to live outdoors to her heart's content -- "We think nothing of walking out of our (Neutra) house and up the Sierra Mountains and doing a 14-mile hike; it just beckons to you," she says -- the homes' views alone serve to constantly connect her to nature.

"Midcentury houses are very much about their design and their function and about orienting your gaze away from the house as much as into the house," Lynch says. "People talk about the 'cave effect' of (Lautner's) houses; it's not that they're like a cave but that you're constantly looking at a framed view in every room. I see the Santa Monica Bay from my house, and in the other direction, I see San Bernardino and the snow on the mountains. If I look another way I see San Pedro and Catalina. ... So I'm very connected to and feel responsible consequently for the environment around me."

In a serendipitous twist of fate, Lynch's Lautner home, which sits on a two-acre lot, also boasts grounds designed by famed landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who, according the Environmental Design Archives of UC Berkeley, where Eckbo studied, "ushered in the modern period of landscape design."

But because of the level of disrepair into which the Lautner property had fallen by the time Lynch and Glazer bought it, they had no idea that Eckbo had designed the landscape. In fact, Lynch only learned about the pedigree of her outdoor space when, after she spoke at a symposium for a recent Lautner exhibit, "a landscape architect who is a professor at Berkeley handed me a CD and said, 'This is your garden. In the Eckbo archives at Berkeley, we've found some archival information that people don't know exists, and one of the things we found is this incredible garden design for your house,' " she recalls.

The CD contained all of Eckbo's plans for the enormous, two-level landscape, including "plants, sketches and areas of hardscape," Lynch says. "He liked having a garden (that is) almost like outdoor rooms -- here was one room where you could entertain, and maybe eat over here, and then there was a place to sit and contemplate that was through this series of trees or plantings, and then you were in another area and you could kind of just chill out over there. It was like a journey, which is exactly what this place lends itself to."

Increasingly, the work of a well-known landscape architect is a valuable selling point. "(Eckbo's) landscapes today, if you can find one that's not altered, bring a premium because of his awareness and vision," Doe says. "It started with Eckbo, and today it's grown to where it's become a very important element of the overall package."

Intertwined with the growing popularity of indoor-outdoor living and outdoor spaces that are beautiful, functional and sustainable, the fields of landscape architecture and design have only grown in prominence. And the trend is not limited to sunny Southern California.

New Canaan, Conn.: The eight-bedroom Moellentine House, built in 1929, is an early example of a home blending the relationship between indoors and outdoors. Listed at $11.9 million through William Pitt Sotheby's.
"What's happening now is that people are beginning to get a little more sophisticated on how they use their spaces," says Jim Lapides, spokesman for the Washington-based Association of Landscape Architects. "People have been barbecuing out back since as long as there have been backyards, but now people are beginning to say, 'Hey, if I'm going to spend some money on that nice burner, why not have a small fridge out there as well?' And then if you start thinking, 'Well, if you're going to have that small fridge, you've got to have some place for people to sit -- instead of having your old patio furniture, maybe we can make this little bit more of a dining area or a little bit more of a living area.' So people are beginning to see how they live inside their home translate more to how they live outside their home."

That shift, which Lapides describes as the "formalization of the outdoor room," has taken off in a big way, with clients asking for everything from firepits to outdoor home theaters. "Everything and anything that you can have indoors, you can have outdoors," he says.

But when the sky is the limit, where do you begin? What kind of outdoor space makes sense for a rooftop garden in Manhattan, or an estate in New Jersey? What about a family with young children, or a retired couple? What plant species are appropriate for a given climate? What about sustainability? What about maintenance? When it comes to answering questions like these, and to creating an outdoor space that will stand the test of time, the expertise of landscape architects and designers proves invaluable.

First, there are practical matters. Celebrated landscape designer Jay Griffith, a self-described "Hollywood brat" who has created landscapes for everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to the king and queen of Jordan, begins by addressing the architectural style of the home, as well as its orientation to the land, the local climate and microclimate, and whether the owner plans to stay in the home for a few years or forever.

But there also are a number of unexpectedly nuanced considerations to take into account. "One of the first things we do is ask (clients) for (what) we call a client brief, where they answer questions about there they feel good in the land, places they like to go as destinations, particular memories that they might have already on their site, any events that have taken place, if there are times of the year when they particularly celebrate, something like a family reunion -- does that happen all the time?" explains Thomas Woltz, a principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, which has projects everywhere from Sonoma, Calif., Connecticut and Manhattan to China, Brazil and Holland. "Just trying to have the garden address as many of the daily life needs of a family as possible is a really exciting thing, because the more we have to work with, the better the garden's going to be.

"So learning the life of the individual and the family is a really important first step," Woltz continues, "and that brief allows us to talk about things very pragmatically, like budget and schedule and square footages, but it also gives us the opportunity to speak philosophically. What are the things they care most about in the landscape? What wildlife have they seen on their site and would they like to see? Are they interested in birds and vegetables? And (it's about) really trying to determine what they care about emotionally, not just what the budget is and how much space they need. So when you have those two things always working simultaneously, I think you come up with a garden that really has long-term meaning for the owner."

But thoughtful landscape architecture and design are not only for the wealthy or those with acres and acres at their disposal -- "We work at absolutely every scale, from little tiny gardens up to tremendous parks," says Woltz -- and in fact, the demand for functional outdoor spaces is now partly driven by necessity.

In Los Angeles, for example, lots are much smaller than in, say, local desert communities like Palm Springs, where it's not uncommon for a high-end property to have a 12,000- or even 20,000-square-foot lot, Penner explains. "In many cases, people have to maximize the space that they have at hand," he says. "So if you're in Echo Park or Silver Lake or Los Feliz (which have large concentrations of midcentury homes), you're on a hillside lot, or sometimes it can be a much smaller lot."

Adds Griffith: "People go, 'Well, I want my house to feel bigger,' or 'I don't want to build more onto my house -- I want my outdoor space to feel more sympathetic to the indoor space.' "

What's more, people are learning to view all of the space on a lot, whether interior or exterior, as a fluid whole. "It used to be that, I think, there was a primary focus on just the house -- the architecture, the interior -- and the landscape seemed like it was more of an afterthought and was something that was distinct and separate from the project. There were very few people who were looking at it as an integrated piece of the whole," explains landscape architect Jerry Williams, director of the landscape studio at KAA Design Group. "Now I think most clients really appreciate the landscape as building lots have gotten smaller and building footprints have gotten larger. Landscape areas are often smaller than they used to be, but it's become more useful and integrated to the house itself so that you can open up the doors and double your living space when the weather is good by having an indoor-outdoor space."

Manhattan: In the Big Apple, a paved rooftop is the base for a 1,428-square-foot award-winning terrace garden, replete with a pergola, glass mosaic fountain and outdoor cooking and dining area.
In Manhattan, any kind of space, indoors or out, comes at a premium. Julie Pham, senior vp at the Corcoran Group, New York's largest residential real estate firm, is finding that particularly "in the past three or four years, people -- and developers especially -- have been utilizing outdoor space more and more as a selling tool."

Pham also is seeing a proliferation of seamless indoor-outdoor rooms, outdoor kitchens and glass walls. One of her listings, at 500 West End Ave. on the Upper West Side, boasts a 4,000-square-foot terrace and a pool encased entirely in glass.

"I'm starting to see (similar indoor-outdoor architectural features) happening on the East Coast as well," says landscape designer Sean Knibb, who works in both Southern California and the Tri-State area and is creating a "deconstructed Edwardian garden" for a client in the Hamptons. "Any room that opens up to the outside has now become that bridge between the outside room and the inside space."

Of course, the focus on a home's outdoor space isn't new; it's a trend whose popularity waxes and wanes. "It's my experience that this is a trend that's been happening; it's an age-old-cycle trend," Griffith says. "Bel-Air and Montecito, they all have outdoor fireplaces, and they all have these really lovely old outdoor sort of rooms, which goes back to Italian Renaissance garden design and even Mogul gardens, let's say, from India or anywhere in the Middle East. This is very ancient lore, garden lore, and so this is a re-emergence of a trend that is cyclical."

So what's driving the trend this time around?

Some, like Penner, see it as a desire for a comforting, natural and communal space where people can reconnect with their loved ones, especially in uncertain times. "The sense of