Beauty, integrity, resilience: Cole Burrell says landscapes last beyond a visual impression

Beauty, integrity, resilience: Cole Burrell says landscapes last  beyond a visual impression

At first, Cole Burrell was hesitant to pursue landscape architecture. He’d spent his life (since childhood, when he was, as he says, “a bona fide science nerd”) studying botany and horticulture, nurturing a curiosity about nature that has since taken him all over the world to lecture on plants and ecology. But, eventually, an interest in design demanded further attention, so he went back to school to pursue a third degree in landscape architecture.

Photo: Courtesy Cole Burrell
Photo: Courtesy Cole Burrell

His initial fascination with the plants themselves has served him well, though, as his combined knowledge of design and botany has led him to publish more than 10 gardening books,  write 150 articles for magazines like Fine Gardening, Horiculture and Organic Gardening, and share his passion with students at UVA, where he lectures in the School of Architecture.

“This obsession with things green and growing has never diminished,” he says. “I feel that through meaningful design, plants have the power to alter people’s lives.”

We caught up with him as he was hosting a landscape tour of the West Coast to ask about his childhood, process and what’s up next.

A waterfall garden nestled quietly into a grove of white oak trees. Photo: Cole Burrell
A waterfall garden nestled quietly into a grove of white oak trees. Photo: Cole Burrell

Why landscape architecture?

I tried hard not to study landscape architecture. As an undergrad, my focus was botany and horticulture and I received two degrees from Virginia Tech. My freshman roommate’s brother was a landscape architecture student. He spent every waking moment in the studio. I thought he must be crazy to take a degree that required so much out of classroom time. When I started graduate work, I debated landscape architecture, but at the time there were no programs in the D.C. area where I was living, and I was not willing to relocate.

So, I pursued a second degree in horticulture with a botany minor. As soon as I graduated, I knew that I had to keep going. I was really interested in design and realized I had no skill set in representation or in design process. So, in essence, I went back for another degree because I realized I had too many limitations to achieve my career goals.

What I love best about the field is how applied it is. Unlike the hard sciences, everything you know, and everything you learn, is immediately applicable to the design process. The field is remarkably interdisciplinary. Botany, horticulture, ecology and geography—all my academic interests—inform the design process.

A gridded bosque of Princeton Sentry ginkgo trees. Photo: Cole Burrell
A gridded bosque of Princeton Sentry ginkgo trees. Photo: Cole Burrell

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

As a transplanted Virginia native, I always knew I would return to my home state. The majesty of Central Virginia’s landscape, the gentle Blue Ridge Mountains, russet broomsedge meadows and towering hardwood forests are inextricably linked to my sense of place and my sense of self. I wanted to submit to this magnificent landscape, and let it inspire my design work. I believe that good design emerges from a strong sense of place and, as a result, evokes powerful emotions.

A Druidic circle with teak root knot spheres accented by Maureen tulips. Photo: Cole Burrell
A Druidic circle with teak root knot spheres accented by Maureen tulips. Photo: Cole Burrell

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?

I was a bona fide science nerd when I was a kid. I wore black horn rim glasses and my uncle always called me “professor.” Nature was my teacher, refuge and inspiration. My interest in design grew from a fascination with plants, a love of gardens and from the imperative to acknowledge natural process in the melding of nature and culture through the design process.

I came to design through plants. As a young birder and amateur botanist, the desire to see plants in the wild, but also to cultivate them as well, was very strong. I was lucky enough to have about 800 wild acres near my house. These forests and meadows were my playground, classroom and nursery. I was totally immersed in the world of plants in the wild and in gardens.

Of course with age, my territory grew, and I began to explore beyond the limits of where my bicycle could take me. My exposure to larger and larger geographic realms meant more ecosystems, more plants, more gardens and more designed landscapes.

A Charlottesville landscape in which brick walls define terraces that cascade downhill from the house while wide steps lead from one level to another. Photo: Cole Burrell
A Charlottesville landscape in which brick walls define terraces that cascade downhill from the house while wide steps lead from one level to another. Photo: Cole Burrell

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

By the time I made it to a landscape architecture program, I had three degrees and a whole lot of great teachers. My undergrad advisor, George Briggs, was a landscape architect who taught in the horticulture department at Virginia Tech. Despite my roommate’s pitiable brother, trapped in the studio, George exemplified life on the other side of school, after the social deprivation and all-nighters. He had a great skill set and was an amazing teacher. He encouraged me to consider a design program.

In my LA program, Joan Iverson Nassauer showed me how to pull all the diverse threads of my life together. Her research tested perception of and preference for ecologically diverse landscapes in traditional settings. The sociological aspects of design interventions were fascinating to me. As a result, my academic interests focused on the origins of vernacular design traditions and avenues for ecological innovation within urban and suburban neighborhoods. These threads continue to tie my work together. Though trained in landscape architecture, I work as a designer as I am not registered.

A Charlottesville garden in which native Amethyst Falls wisteria festoons a low wooden fence under a Higan cherry tree. Photo: Cole Burrell
A Charlottesville garden in which native Amethyst Falls wisteria festoons a low wooden fence under a Higan cherry tree. Photo: Cole Burrell

On process: How does it begin?

Every garden I create is different based on the site, architecture, client’s needs and aesthetic preferences. First and foremost I am designing for the client. I enjoy the dialogue and the iterative process of bringing their vision to life through my aesthetic and ecological filters. The second consideration is the site itself. Not just right plant right place, but the ecological foundation that supports the garden must inform the design. The architecture of the house, and the vernacular traditions of the neighborhood are also important. I want my gardens to fit comfortably into the regional and local context.

What inspires you?

Beauty, integrity and resilience inspire me. The innate majesty of nature and ecological processes that support it. The function of native ecosystems and designed landscape is of vital interest. Working with Joan Nassauer trained me to look at all designed systems as functional ecosystems, and to design for resilience. That said, you can’t sell an ugly landscape.

The word “beauty” has taken a beating recently, but it lies at the heart of my vision. As Joan’s research elucidated, most people want to conform to a societal norm—a given set of cultural and aesthetic expectation. For many in Virginia, that is a somewhat narrowly circumscribed aesthetic. I love working with clients to meet those expectations, but to also fold in the functional aspects of the larger system to ensure that the garden acknowledges and works with the natural process so that it is able to function ecologically. This is the greatest challenge and the most exciting opportunity when designing at the residential scale.

What are you working on now?

I just concluded a project in Warrenton and the garden was open for Historic Garden Week in April. We had 1,100 visitors and the response was magnificent. It is great to have validation that the work you are doing captures the imagination of visitors. Currently, I am excited to be working at two scales: large country properties and a few small urban lots.