CONTRA COSTA TIMES • BAY AREA
Home & Garden
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FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 1999    
Interior Design • Landscaping
ABSTRACT ARRANGEMENT: Metal, concrete and steel make up the body of this Oakland hills garden, designed by Jeff Reed and Jennifer Madden, above.
Man-made elements add form to the flora, and garden color year-round
By Tam Putnam TIMES CORRESPONDENT

SOME GARDENS aren't planted; instead, they're built. In these constructed landscapes, flora defers to architectural forms. This may mean that foliage softens the man-made structures, or it may involve no plants at all. In the end, it's the built elements that give these sites impact.

Want an illustration? Three gardens in the East Bay boldly combine the contructed and the organic; one with vividly colored geometric walls; another with slate, concrete and metal evoking natural forms; and the third, a tiny plot amplified by a winding path and boulder-rimmed pool.

Metaphorical Materials

Like the Gupta garden, a back yard in the Oakland Hills uses man-made structures to transform a small space. This site is smaller still -- only 14 by 26 feet, actually a garden within a garden -- and its only plants are a row of Mexican sage and those glimpsed in the surrounding larger yard.

You make your way down several flights of steps to reach the elegant, austere terrace. Created by Jeff Reed, partner in the Oakland firm Reed Madden Designs, the garden conjures up landscape entirely through metal, concrete and steel. Supported on thick pieces of slate, a bench's smooth white concrete seat is punched with cutout sections, like the spine of a fish. It could be a fish or a boat riding the gray-blue stones underfoot. As the sound of a creek father down the slope drifts up, a quiet, contemplative moood prevails.

At your feet curves a line of rusted metal, dividing the smooth blue stones from sand-colored gravel. On the far edge of the site are two 6-foot-tall monoliths, presiding like severe druids. One, of concrete, is smooth and gently curved, with small metal rods protruding. The other, a slab of rusted steel, has a stone spike driven into it -- something like a nail and something like a head. Near the stairs, a clump of black metal cattail-like stalks wave slightly. The forms are so suggestive that, as you sit, you can't help but dream up analogies (is the bench really a boat? or a large eye?).

"My gardens are built metaphors," says Reed. "Each tells a story. This one I think of as a game of paper, scissors, rock. It's about a hierarchy of materials. Concrete is fluid and wraps things the way paper does; metal is used to cut and pierce; and slate is a natural material that can be fractured."

The place can be read abstractly, in terms of the interplay of those three materials, or representationally, as water, cattails, boat and people. (Or, instead of people, are those monoliths portals to something beyond? Never mind -- nothing is literal here.)

Reed has a degree in architecture; his partner, Jennifer Madden, with whom he founded Reed Madden last year, was trained as a landscape architect. "This is a postage-stamp garden," he says. "But here, as in all our work, I wanted to bring an underlying sense of order and tranquility."