Natural inclination: Art meets architecture with landscape architect Anna Boeschenstein

Photo: Grounded LLC/Lincoln Barbour Photo: Grounded LLC/Lincoln Barbour

Where is the intersection of art and architecture? For Anna Boeschenstein, it’s in the ground.

“When I was in first grade,” says the Grounded LLC founder, “I told my parents that I wanted to be a farmer.” After getting her degree in art from Brown University, it was only a matter of time before she discovered landscape architecture, thanks to a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design who, Boeschenstein says, “[helped] me connect the dots between my art background and architectural design and really begin to integrate the two.”

Photo: Grounded LLC/Christa Albano
Photo: Grounded LLC/Christa Albano

Today, Boeschenstein’s work spans residential and commercial projects, from an Afton farm complex to a vineyard expansion. We asked her to tell us about what inspires her, why she practices in Virginia and how a childhood career aptitude test didn’t get it totally wrong.

Why landscape architecture?

I’ve loved design for as long as I can remember and have been drawing and painting since pencils, paper, brushes and paint were put in front of me as a toddler. In sixth grade I took a test that was supposed to tell kids their future profession; my results came back “telephone lineman.” The test had little regard for the fact that I’m afraid of heights (and that I would technically be a linewoman). Little thanks to the career aptitude test, I found the overlap between my affinity for art and aesthetics and my inclination to be working outside. I feel lucky to be in a profession that offers me such a range of work from master planning large tracts of land to figuring out the tiniest details of how a trellis will be built or masonry goes together. I get bored easily, and this profession requires you to constantly shift gears from layout to topography to planting to construction. It suits my personality.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I actually grew up in Charlottesville, and so when I moved back with my husband six years ago, it was a matter of homecoming. My life and career have taken me around the country to Providence, Rhode Island; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Aspen and Denver, Colorado. So I’ve lived in a lot of beautiful places and those beautiful places have exposed me to the dazzling range of plants and soils and landscapes and horizons that are on offer in this country. Each of those places was an education in itself. Sometimes, though, home is home. Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Mountains have always felt like where I ultimately belong.

Photo: Grounded LLC/Lincoln Barbour
Photo: Grounded LLC/Lincoln Barbour

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

My path to design was probably inevitable. My father is an architect and urban planner. We moved to Charlottesville when I was 8 months old in order for him to take a one-year teaching position at UVA’s School of Architecture. That one year turned into four decades as a professor. My mother worked as a tutor for the city schools and in the university’s admissions office. As a result, I grew up with parents who had their summers off and who took advantage of that enviable position. Every year our family traveled during those weeks so that my dad could research world cities and architectural sites. Many a summer was spent standing “on axis” somewhere or hearing my dad lecture about the historic settlement patterns of a region. I’m so appreciative of those experiences now.

My dad also designed the house that we grew up in, which was an early example of passive solar architecture. It was one of the first design-y houses in Charlottesville and was something of a landmark for people. Growing up, I could always give directions to my home by saying, “You’ll recognize it; it’s the only modern house on the street.” It still is!

Photo: Grounded LLC/Robert Radifera
Photo: Grounded LLC/Robert Radifera

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

I studied art and art history as an undergraduate at Brown University in the early 1990s. In my art history classes, I focused on the Italian Renaissance with a wonderful professor named Evelyn Lincoln. Evelyn introduced me to a friend of hers who was an art conservator at the Worcester Art Museum and who specialized in textiles. After graduation, I ended up working first at the Worcester Art Museum on the Antioch mosaics and then with Evelyn’s friend for several years, restoring objects like Marie Antoinette’s wedding veil. Working in museums and conservation made me think a lot about how much decisions about materials in the short-term impact the long-term, and about the longevity and lasting impact of the objects a culture makes.

In 1999, I returned to school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for three grueling years. I had many standout teachers there. Of my professors from that period, I remember Holly Getch Clarke and Elizabeth Mossop fondly. Holly was incredibly tough and, because of her intensity, extracted great work from her students and really pushed my boundaries. Elizabeth was a measured and thoughtful critic who was a great female role model who somehow found time to run an international design practice in addition to teaching full-time.

On process: How does it begin?

Projects begin with a site visit to understand the natural processes, topography, views and overall genius loci of that place. I have a discussion with the client about their needs and wishes and, from there, develop preliminary concept sketch options that address any site problems and highlight opportunities. Then we work together to develop the design with an increasing level of detail and oversee construction to make sure all elements tie together as we intended.

Throughout the process, I’m a firm believer in trusting my gut. Instinct is such a strong driver for designers, and it’s important to listen when it tells you something will or will not work. I’ve learned that if something feels right, that’s because it probably is. The ineffable is an inevitable element of design and aesthetics. Beauty is more of a feeling than an articulated thought, so I try not to overthink it. Hence, the gut.

Photo: Grounded LLC/Brent Moss
Photo: Grounded LLC/Brent Moss

What inspires you?

Oh, so much. One of the great things about being a designer is that you tend to analyze everything for its functionality, aesthetics and then, inevitably, what you could do to make it better or different. This is the way I function in the world. To be more specific, a trip down the aisles of Lowe’s to look at plumbing couplers for our leaky sink becomes, “Well this is kind of a cool object—how could I use it in a new way?” A weekend horseback ride through our back field becomes, “Look at the butterflies flocking to that one section of pasture grass. What kind of grass is it, and could I use that in a garden design?” My critical brain never turns off, which is the blessing and the curse of every designer I know.

What are you currently working on?

We’re in various stages of development on several projects right now. We’re currently under construction on a modern interpretation of a farm complex up in Afton with Muse Architects from Washington, D.C., and Ace Contracting Inc. It has a pool and pool house that is designed to emulate a horse shed with sliding shade panels that I’m excited to see come to fruition. Construction is about to begin on a house and site renovation in Albemarle with Formwork and Evergreen Construction. We’re breaking ground on the third phase of an ongoing project at an historic Free Union house next month, also with Evergreen. In this phase we’re renovating the front entry courtyard and adding a water feature. I’m also consulting on a local vineyard expansion for events as well as a modernist home in Richmond.

Among Anna Boeschenstein’s projects are (clockwise from bottom right) a multiphase historic farm project in Free Union; a modern landscape for a new home in the county, featuring an ipe pathway connecting different parts of the garden; and dual courtyards for a family home in Woody Creek, Colorado.

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