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Aligned with Nature

In Alec Michaelides' eyes, the strength and beauty of any landscape can be found in the line.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

"I like to create a plan that draws you through the landscape with the subtle use of line, whether the line is a wall, a hedge or the edge of a planting area," says Alec Michaelides, principal of Atlanta, GA-based Land Plus Associates. "This line lays out the journey that allows you to experience the unity of the house with the land. Line translates into any style of landscape and any style of architecture."

For the last quarter century, Michaelides has put his "guiding-eye" formula to good use in a variety of projects ranging from private estates and resort properties to mixed-use communities and commercial developments.

"Whatever I do as a landscape architect reflects the architecture of the home," he says. "The home is always the centerpiece. The site elements I design highlight, emphasize and support its architectural features so that the house and the property look as though they have grown up together on the site."

Integrating architecture and landscape comes easily to Michaelides, probably because architecture is his first love. "I started out studying to be an architect," he says. "It just so happened that in college I shared a studio space with landscape architects. I've also always had an affinity for gardening, so being a landscape architect allows me to combine both."

After earning a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from Virginia Tech, in 1985, Michaelides teamed up with landscape architect Kenneth Lemm and opened Land Plus, which has grown into one of the more highly regarded land planning and landscape architecture firms in the Southeast.

Through the years, Michaelides has firmly planted his signature style, a two-century hybrid cultivar that pairs Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens with David Hicks and Dan Kiley, not only in Georgia, but also in South Carolina, New York, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana and Florida.

"I like to think that when people look at my work, they immediately recognize it as mine and say, 'That's a Land Plus design.'"

To the Manor Formed
In the rolling, forested hills of northwest Georgia, there's a drive that winds its way through woodlands, pastures and fields of wildflowers to reveal a grand heritage estate surrounded by age-old oaks and soaring pines.

But the three-story, 30,000-sq.ft. residence, which looks as though it was to the manor born, was built yesterday, not yesteryear. "The owner, who was born and raised on the 200-acre property, wanted to build a legacy home that could be converted to community use further down the road," says Michaelides. "He had cleared a 100-acre site in the center, and that's where we began."

The grand scale made the project special and especially challenging. "Most of the projects I do are one to two acres; this one was 100 to 200 acres," says Michaelides. "During construction, the location of the perimeter wall was moved out several times to make the house feel better because the sense of perspective is shortened in such an open area."

In keeping with the English Country style of the house, Land Plus created a series of outdoor rooms that followed its architectural cues and used mature trees, notably pin oaks, deodar cedars and dawn redwoods – some of them 30 to 60 ft. tall – to create a sense of history.

The focal point of the landscape, the garden theater, features a series of backyard spaces that open out into each other like awakening spring blossoms. The 45-ft.-long lily pond, for instance, leads to a set of wooden gates. Set in the high stone retaining walls that rise above mixed perennial borders and cutting gardens, the gates peer out over the pasture.

Some of the other actors in the theater of greenery include a large parterre kitchen garden with a 100-ft.-long, vine-covered, heirloom-rose arbor; a boxwood knot parterre filled with annuals surrounded by an evergreen screen wall; a secret woodland dining area created by boulders unearthed during construction of the main gardens; a 14-ft.-tall chime tower; and a series of meandering paths that also serve as an exercise circuit.

Letting the Land Have Its Way
For a five-acre English Country estate in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, Michaelides turned the tables on the tough topography by creating separate, step-down rooms that cater to the challenges presented by the natural terrain and its multiple elevations.

The Arts and Crafts-style garden rooms include a formal entertaining lawn; an elegant pool area with an open-air pavilion; a vegetable garden; a kitchen garden for outdoor dining; a family motor court; and a receiving garden at the entrance. They are enhanced by majestic specimen trees that soar 60 ft. to the sky. "I had to build retaining walls for each section," says Michaelides. "This was hard enough, but the soil also was poor and mostly rock. We had to drill holes with jackhammers and, for each tree, create drainage systems that flow into the main drain so the water wouldn't be retained as it is in a bathtub."

Michaelides used formal, clipped hedges and perennial-lined paths to create living hallways between the outdoor rooms and designed a park-like system of trails to give the feel of an estate in the English countryside.

The pool was sited in a more private section of the property, and to shield the owners from the neighboring home, Michaelides massed hundreds of 35-ft.-tall hemlocks to create a natural green screen.

Making the Best of Less
The clean lines and Classical references of a three-story, 17,000-sq.ft.-house in Atlanta paved the way for Michaelides to create a minimalist, masculine landscape that relies upon bold design and symmetry for its timeless appeal. He used the narrow, sloping property to his advantage, creating a series of outdoor terraced rooms.

The biggest challenge was the placement of the four-car garage and 10-car motor court the owner requested. Michaelides designed an outdoor pool pavilion, complete with kitchen and fireplace, which splits the garage area into two separate, equal sections. The motor court in the front balances the pool/parterre garden in the back.

"The grade change forced me to drop the level of the garage," he says, "so the parterre garden is actually two feet above the pool." The pool, which ends in a vanishing edge, leads to the lower-level entertaining lawn, which is reached by a pair of grand staircases.

Listening to the Landscape
At Courtyard Manor, a small, narrow property with sweeping crosswise slopes in Atlanta, Michaelides decided to go with the flow, creating a landscape that was in sync with the three-story, 13,000-sq.ft. Classical manor planned for the site.

Although the owners tore down the existing house, they wanted to retain the pool and save as many trees as possible. They also requested a three-car garage, which was one of the more difficult parts of the project. "We gave significant attention to the design of the footprint of the house," says Michaelides. "The property doesn't have width, but it does have depth, and in the front alone, there's a 15-ft. change of grade. We used an expansive retaining wall on the eastern side of the property to create more usable space and to ensure service and maintenance access on all four sides of the property. And we had to use another retaining wall to contain all the infill created by cutting up the slope."

Michaelides worked around the trees, going so far as to alter his plans to site the front retaining wall around a 50-year-old magnolia. Keeping the pool in its original position also proved advantageous. "We could have moved it closer to the house," he says, "but by keeping it in the back and building a new Classical-style pool house, we turned it into a destination location, which creates the feel of an historic estate."

Natural materials that either enhance or repeat those used in the architecture meld the indoors and outdoors. The synchronicity begins at the handcrafted wrought-iron front gate, where a gravel driveway inlaid with granite cobblestone leads to the formal receiving court and then to the manor's front entrance.

Michaelides divided the space into several rooms – a formal receiving court dubbed the "green court," a walled garden walk, a green entertaining court, a meadow and a private pool and pool house. The walled garden walk is one of the more innovative elements that Michaelides designed for the project. "The lot is so narrow that there wasn't much room to create a direct way to get to the back of the property," he says. "With a 12-ft.-high wall to hold back the slope, we turned this transitional, utilitarian walk into a walled garden with a brick and stone grotto that you can see from the family room. It is planted with lush ground covers and shade-loving perennials, including hostas and autumn ferns. It offers a direct route to the backyard and a great sense of privacy."

An extension of the house, the green court is a gathering space for guests, who are encouraged to mingle on the stone terrace, stroll around the oval green or sit on a stone bench that is framed by colorful annuals and perennials. "Again, the high retaining wall holds the slope back in an elegant and natural manner," says Michaelides. "The tall fireplace becomes a focal point and creates a separate gathering spot for the family."

New-World Georgian Elegance
When the owner of a four-acre property in an established subdivision of Atlanta decided to build a new 13,000-sq.ft. Georgian-style house, he asked Michaelides to create a "special, secluded space."

The architecture of the three-story residence dictated a formal landscape, so Michaelides accommodated it with sweeping lawns and an elegant driveway as well as a garden pavilion with a spa and waterfall that provides a backdrop for a 50-ft. lap pool centered on the rear sunroom.

"The driveway is long, but there was no opportunity to have a panoramic view of the front of the house because we didn't want to remove the trees, including the huge oak," says Michaelides. "We used boxwood as the architectural connection between the house and the motor court, creating a gently traversing series of steps and long landings that lead to the front door."

A key component – and one the owner insisted upon – was a motor court and a seven-car garage. "The site determined our choices for us," says Michaelides. "There was a ravine on one side we didn't want to traverse, so we put the driveway on the other side. Instead of one long unwieldy wing, I created two garages – one for three cars and one for four."

The back of the house backs up to a busy road, so, to preserve privacy, Michaelides dropped the house site five feet and created a two-level yard hemmed in by 135 30-ft.-tall hemlocks.  


Nancy A. Ruhling is a New York City-based freelance writer.

 

 

 

 
 

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