Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Icons, connected

Thomas Church: El Novillero in Sonoma, California, pool with Adaline Kent's sculpture.
While reading the newest addition to my already too extensive collection of garden related books, Thomas Church's Gardens Are for People (published 1955), I suddenly noticed that I had never reflected over who made the beautifully flowing sculpture which forms the focal point of the iconic swimming pool in the Donnell garden called "El Novillero" in Sonoma, Northern California. This garden is probably the most well-known garden designed by Thomas Church, and it has become an icon of modern, Californian garden design. After the completion of "El Novillero" in 1948 pictures of it were widely published in popular magazines and professional journals, and it had a huge influence in the design of gardens and pools even internationally. In Garden's Are for People, I finally found the name of the sculptor: Adaline Kent (1900-1957), member of a group that sometimes has been called the "West Coast Surrealists".
Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, pool with organic form between the house and the sauna.
After some research on Adaline's work and life, I found a note about Church's visit to Europe in 1937. On that trip he met Alvar Aalto in Finland. A lot has been said about the influences for the pool in Donnell garden - for example, in Modern Gardens in the Landscape (1964), Elisabeth Kassler notes that the form was inspired by the winding creeks of salt marches seen through the frame of live oaks. But to me, the connection is there directly - obvious just by looking at the similarly shaped pool at Alvar Aalto's masterpiece Villa Mairea (1938-39) in Noormarkku, about 130 km North from my hometown Turku in Finland. Aalto was already working on Villa Mairea in 1937 when Church came to visit him, and Aalto's architecture with it's informal, organic, and curvilinear forms made a lasting impression on Church.

Sauna and pool at Villa Mairea.

There they are, two of the most beautiful houses and gardens of the last century; both icons on their own. Their creators came to similar conlusions despite the different geographical locations - one in the warm Californian climate, the other on brink of the Arctic circle. Who was influenced by whom? Does it matter? Both are examples of the best of the 20th century modern architecture and design, by architects who were committed to creating beautiful and livable environments for their customers, and they both are timeless, as beautiful today as they were when they were designed.

Pictures are not taken by me this time: the first is by Kent Porter/The Press Democrat, the second found on the Internet for a long time ago (sorry about that), and the third by Joyelle.
Later update: Marc Treib takes up this connection in his essay 'Maturity and Modernity', in the book 'Thomas Church Landscape Architect, Designing a Modern California Landscape' (William Stout Publishers, San Fransisco, 2003). This book, edited by Treib, is an excellent collection of essays, all examining Church's work from different aspects.


Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

It shows, that pools can look beautiful and be integrated near the house. The sculpture is very beautiful following the easy form of the pool. The first house is the style I have grown up with. Many have been torn down, but when I see one somewhere it sort of touches deep. I also spend many years fantastic holidays in a smaller version, right on the river Rhine in Basel. A very interesting post it is always good to learn something interesting new and old!

Anonymous said...

I love the sculpture - such a lovely usage of art in a way I hadn't thought of before.

Tina said...

I have always loved the Thomas Church design and never knew about the origin of the sculpture or the connection with Alvar Aalto. So thanks for the interesting and informative post!

Glädjekällans Trädgårdsblogg said...

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Har precis upptäckt din blogg och den verkar mycket spännande.
Om du tittar in till mig har jag en liten utmärkelse som jag vill skicka vidare till dig.

Anonymous said...

An interesting comparison between the two pools. has a page on El Novillero at and you can see the pool on the satellite image of the map.

Vexi said...

Liisa, if you want to know more about free form pools and skateboarding, send email: Vexi.