LaGuardia Design Group's Work Showcased In 'Contemporary Gardens Of The Hamptons' - 27 East


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LaGuardia Design Group’s Work Showcased In ‘Contemporary Gardens Of The Hamptons’

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"Marine Meadow" in Water Mill by LaGuardia Design Group, featured in the book "Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons." ANTHONY CRISAFULLI

"Longview," on 2 acres of a former horse farm in Water Mill. ANTHONY CRISAFULLI

A contemporary compound in Sagaponack featured in

A contemporary compound in Sagaponack featured in "Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons." ANTHONY CRISAFULLI

Fountaingrass by the pool of a project dubbed

Fountaingrass by the pool of a project dubbed "Country Garden" in Bridgehampton. ANTHONY CRISAFULLI

"Modern Retreat" by LaGuardia Design Group in Sagaponack. ANTOINE BOOTZ

"Seaside" in Sagaponack by LaGuardia Design Group. ANTHONY CRISAFULLI

Christopher LaGuardia is the managing principal and founder of the LaGuardia Design Group in Water Mill.

Christopher LaGuardia is the managing principal and founder of the LaGuardia Design Group in Water Mill. COURTESY LAGUARDIA DESIGN GROUP

The LaGuardia Design Group team.

The LaGuardia Design Group team.

Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons

Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons COURTESY LAGUARDIA DESIGN GROUP

"Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons"

Brendan J. O'Reilly on Mar 16, 2021

Since the 1980s, landscape architect Christopher LaGuardia has been putting his stamp on the Hamptons at the finest estates. Early in his career, he worked under renowned modernist architect Norman Jaffe, and today, he is the managing principal of LaGuardia Design Group in Water Mill and a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Next month, Mr. LaGuardia and his eponymous firm will celebrate their decades of work — and the collaborators who helped make it possible — with the publication of “Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons,” a monograph featuring photographs and descriptions of 21 LaGuardia-designed landscapes and a foreword by Wall Street Journal architecture critic Alastair Gordon.

While some of the projects are examples of LaGuardia Design Group’s most recent work, the book’s opening chapter is on an oceanfront Sagaponack project that the firm first became involved with in 1998. It is the site of a 1970s Jaffe house that had been relocated 400 feet landward after the dune washed away. A 60,000-square-foot basin was excavated on site, creating a pond while also supplying the necessary fill to restore the dune. On other projects, the firm was involved from day one of the residence’s development, working alongside the architect for a seamless design.

In a recent video chat, Mr. LaGuardia said his approach is not to “decorate” an architect’s work. Rather, he seeks to integrate a home into the landscape.

The gardens selected for the book are more than just arrangements of plantings. There is a pond with stepping stones to cross it, an outdoor kitchen, retaining walls, built-in seating, and pools with lounge areas. One project includes an edible garden, and two are de facto gallery spaces for large sculptures. Many landscapes also required inventive grading solutions to protect houses from the sea while still being comfortable and easy to traverse on foot.

“It’s like a private garden tour when you go through the book,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “You get to go behind the hedges and see what’s there.”

Part of a Lineage

Mr. Gordon’s foreword to “Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons” is titled “A Sense of Continuity.” In it, he recounts how the postwar East End modernists dropped homes into natural landscapes that they largely left unaltered. But when development moved to former potato fields and the dunes, the architects of the 1960s and ’70s responded with “elaborate buffers and status symbols” and flattened the natural contours. “Something was lost,” he laments.

He praises Mr. Jaffe as being one of the few architects who aspired to “soften the collision between nature and architecture,” and he credits Mr. LaGuardia with carrying on that legacy.

Mr. LaGuardia said he was honored that Mr. Gordon fit LaGuardia Design Group into the lineage of the artists and architects who came to the East End.

Mr. Gordon was a natural choice to write the foreword. “He’s a really good writer and knows the history of the East End,” Mr. LaGuardia said.

Mr. Gordan had written frequently about Mr. Jaffe while Mr. LaGuardia was working under him, then in 2005 he curated a retrospective on Mr. Jaffe’s work at the Parrish Art Museum titled “Romantic Modernist,” and Mr. LaGuardia contributed a model of the Jaffe-designed Sam’s Creek community in Bridgehampton to the exhibition.

“I did a huge model — it’s actually right over there,” Mr. LaGuardia said, gesturing off-camera.

He started out at a small landscape design firm in the Hamptons before joining Mr. Jaffe’s practice, which designed all aspects of a home: the architecture, the landscape architecture and the interior design.

After Mr. Jaffe died in 1993, Mr. LaGuardia went off on his own. It was a tough time — a big recession — and there was very little work to be had, he said. But the jobs he did get were small landscape projects, and he stuck with it.

He’s grown the firm to 18 employees and has taken on two partners, Daniel Thorp and Ian Hanbach. Beyond the Hamptons residential gardens that are the scope of the book, LaGuardia Design Group does residential and commercial design both nationally and abroad in the Caribbean and Asia.

Landscape Architecture That Blends

LaGuardia Design Group’s guiding philosophy is that the landscape should blend with the architecture of the residence itself.

“We start out very early in the process with an architect, so that’s why you see that seamless transition,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “Sometimes we’re hired first. We start dictating how the house might lay out on the land. So I have great relationships with many architects. They know me for so many years. They want me on board to offer our site planning expertise and grading — how to work different levels.”

He said he finds collaborating to be rewarding and credits Mr. Jaffe with teaching him to integrate the architect’s “work of art” into the land, rather than decorating it.

“So many landscape designers tend to be more decorative in their gestures, less, sort of, sympathetic to the design of the house,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “So that’s why we get hired a lot also. We don’t gild the lily with our designs. It’s really an integration. … Working as an architect, I understand how hard of a job it is — I did it, it’s a lot harder than mine. Those collaborations really make the best projects.”

LaGuardia Design Group works on new builds half the time, with the builder, architect and decorator, and the other half is on existing homes and landscapes. In the latter case, the firm sometimes acts as the general contractor.

“I like the collaborative nature with all the other disciplines, but sometimes it’s good just to be the sole designer on board and do the thing, you know? So that can be nice, too,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “I work with some very particular architects. You have to know how to play in the sandbox together.”

Less Lawn, More Beauty And Biodiversity

Where many other landscape architects would use lawn, Mr. LaGuardia often designs meadows with native plants. These meadows provide visual interest year-round, and the natives, which are adapted to grow on the East End successfully without human intervention, require less maintenance than lawn, while also benefiting wildlife.

“It benefits the environment in so many ways that most people don’t realize,” Mr. LaGuardia said.

And then there are the aesthetic benefits.

“When you plant with natives they sort of blend in with the greater context, particularly projects that are on or in and about more naturalistic sites,” he said.

He explained that in Southampton Village he doesn’t use many natives, but on a pondfront property in Sagaponack, for instance, native plants speak to the greater context and create a seamless look.

“The use of meadows is something we’ve been a proponent of for many years,” he added, noting that it has become more trendy in recent years as people have become more environmentally conscious. “We’ve always used it in our work for aesthetic reasons — and you don’t need a lot of mowed lawn. You just don’t. And so we’ve always been a proponent of that, and honestly, most clients jump on board once we explain to them how much lawn they really need and that this look of a meadow is so kinetic and beautiful and seasonal that they buy right into it.”

Meadow design has become more elaborate lately, Mr. LaGuardia said, crediting Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer and leader in the New Perennial movement. Mr. Oudolf is known on the East Coast as the designer of the High Line, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park on a former railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan.

“The High Line in New York City was a real changing point for a lot of people because suddenly there was a landscape that wasn’t all pretty, pretty,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “It was, like, messy, meaty, but yet, beautiful.”

LaGuardia Design Group picked up Mr. Oudolf’s “recipe books” for perennial, naturalistic plantings and adopted his methods and use of colorful plants.

“It’s more expensive, obviously, than just seeding, but boy is it dynamic in so many ways,” Mr. LaGuardia said.

A tall grass meadow is seeded with a grass blend — a mix of cool-season grasses like fescue and warm-season grasses like little bluestem — and then drifts of other plants are plugged in afterward, he explained. The problem with fescue is it spreads and can overpower other plants. Another option is a perennial meadow, where the entire area is plugged with nonspreading plants. “So they harmonize but don’t spread, and therefore, it doesn’t blow up on you in a couple years into just one big glom of grass,” he said. “The Oudolf recipe is to use very long-lasting clump-forming plants rather than spreading plants. So that was really the trick to it because most landscapes become overgrown pretty quickly.”

A tall grass meadow provides wildlife habitat and a range of colors as the seasons change but does not attract many pollinators, he said, while a perennial meadow has flowering plants that attract bees and other pollinators for richer biodiversity.

Landscape Design On The Waterfront

Pondfront, bayfront, oceanfront — many East End estates that LaGuardia Design Group works on tend to be on some sort of waterfront, and that raises environmental and flood concerns.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency regulates the elevation, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates wetland setbacks, and the Town of Southampton has its own environmental vision, Mr. LaGuardia said.

“There are all these regulatory agencies that you have to navigate, and you have to know the things they’re looking for so then you can get creative and come up with something that looks good. So, for flood control, they limit the amount of fill you can bring on a job site now. They’re very concerned about that so we have to justify it many different ways, and it becomes a big driver of the design. Where like the sanitary system has to be elevated — there’s an opportunity, it’s not a negative. We start using that to sort of layer down the house into the landscape.”

Many waterfront sites lie at 5 or 6 feet above mean sea level, but FEMA wants the houses elevated to 13 feet, he said. “That’s a big set of steps up to your front door. So we try to layer it in very subtly in lifts, so it becomes more comfortable to move in and out of your house.”

To make it easy and to avoid unsightly railings — required when there are more than three steps — Mr. LaGuardia designs three steps, a big landing, three steps, and another landing. Some examples in the book show large slabs of stone that form steps in the side of grass slopes.

“An architect will come in with a full flight of stairs down to your car,” he said. “That’s not so fun to engage every time you go in your house.”

On the ocean, required elevations of 20 feet are not uncommon, he added, and the challenge becomes ensuring the homes don’t feel like “a box on stilts.”

“You’re dealing with a lot of vertical elevation change, and you’re trying to marry the building back down to the land without having like huge runs of steps and things,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “You also want the landscape to sort of sweep up to the house so it just feels anchored. You can tell when someone does a bad job in site planning — the house just sticks out.”

The dunes must also be rebuilt to protect the house, but then the fun stuff begins: the tennis courts, pools, terraces and gardens, he said.

Chris Laguardia’s Advice For Homeowners

Not everyone will enlist a landscape architect to redesign their garden, but everyone can draw inspiration from “Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons.” Mr. LaGuardia shared what homeowners should know about planning a garden.

“You have to put a little time into it,” he said. “Plants are living things; they’re not furniture. So you got to know if you have sun or shade — that’s very important. You got to have good soil.”

The first thing to decide is whether shade-loving plants or sun-loving plants are required, he said.

Then there’s deer. “Deer will mow down 75 percent of the plants at the garden center,” he noted. “If you’re not deer protected, your plants are going to be gone within a week.”

Protection could mean deer fencing or selecting deer-resistant plants.

“If you want to do something environmentally friendly, you can plant native-type plants,” Mr. LaGuardia advised. “There’s grasses, shrubs, trees. All those will attract wildlife to your house, Anything with a fruit or berry will bring wildlife to your house so that’s a nice thing to do.

“Start small,” he continued. “Plants grow. So understand, you buy a little thing in a pot, it can become 10 feet tall. So you got to put a little time into it before you do it, but with the proper amount of research any homeowner can pick the right things.”

He said the best native plant is the northern bayberry, which is suited to both heavy soil and sandy soil. “It grows everywhere. Deer don’t eat it. It’ll grow in the sun, it’ll grow in partial shade. You can cut it like a hedge, or you can grow it into a tree.”

He also likes summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), which has fragrant flowers in summer and grows in both shade and sun.

“When we do planting design we try to appeal to all the senses, not just color, texture. Fragrance is important,” he said, suggesting planting summersweet near an outdoor shower. “Try to really take into account all the senses and all the seasons.”

Mr. LaGuardia also recommends native trees, noting that deciduous trees can provide summer privacy while costing less than evergreens. “Maples, tupelo, oaks — they’re all native to the East End, and any of those are really great, great investments. But they do get big, so plan for it. Don’t plant them too close to your house.”

Monacelli Press will release “Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons” on April 27.

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