Bringing Out the Essence of a Place

One of A.E. Bye's goals is a design that looks as though nothing has been done. INTERVIEW: LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

WHEN premier landscape architect A.E. Bye creates one of his abstract compositions, his palate includes the soft peaches and tans of marsh grass, the ambers of fall foliage, the vertical whites of birch - juxtaposed with the horizontal whites of snows. Not only does he ``paint'' with these elements, he incorporates them into ``sculptures'' - with the aid of bulldozers and pruning shears. Mr. Bye embraces nature in its rawest form, and through the addition and subtraction of various elements, transforms it into art.

John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, calls Bye ``probably one of two or three of the leading landscape architects since the second world war. His work is one of the standards of what all landscape architects learn to design.''

Is Bye's work idiosyncratic? On the contrary, says Mr. Stilgoe: ``He's had the courage, simply, to not follow the crowd. He's lived long enough to know he's right.''

``What you do, you bring out the essence of [the landscape],'' said Bye during an interview at his office in this wee town bordering Greenwich, Conn. ``Just to give you an example, you come to a place where there's a lot of `calligraphy' of the branches against the sky. But there are smaller trees that are interfering with the visual aspect of the larger trees. So I'll remove the smaller trees, which haven't developed much character yet, and - lo and behold - what is left over is a stronger statement....''

He hopes that ``what I do results in a work of art,'' he says later. But, he quickly adds, he doesn't create a landscape. ``The creative process is in bringing it out,'' he says.

Under Bye's direction, gyrating oak trees develop an even more erratic character. Fields soften. Massive rock outcroppings loom. He says he works to unify a site, and to intensify its character through his choice of plants and by playing contrasts - light and shadow, hard and soft, horizontal and vertical - against each other.

``You can have a mood as a basis for a design, or a theme for a garden,'' he says. ``It can be one that's grotesque, or mysterious, or serene, sublime. There's a picture that's malevolent,'' he says, singling out a photo of a bog among the photographs pinned to his office walls. ``See? If you walk into that, you sink out of sight.''

He points to another photograph of a horse farm. ``Here's a certain quality of serenity,'' he says. ``So we can use all these adjectives.''

Bye has taught landscape architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City for nearly 40 years, and taught for 22 years at Columbia University. Design projects have taken him to the Netherlands, the Caribbean, and nearly every state east of the Mississippi.

Dressed simply in a white shirt, open at the collar, slacks, and penny loafers, he recounts events that influenced his career: stints with the Forest Service and the National Park Service, his early interest in photography, the publication of his photographic essay ``Art Into Landscape, Landscape Into Art'' (1981), and the book he is writing on the moods of landscape. A blueprint of a Frank Lloyd Wright house lies on a nearby drawing board.

Arthur Edwin Bye grew up in Swarthmore, Pa. His family were Quakers. Frank Lloyd Wright's sister, Jane Porter, was Bye's Sunday school teacher and neighbor. Many years later, as a grown man, Bye was asked to work with Mr. Wright on the Reisley home in Pleasantville, NY. Impressed by Wright's use of native plants at the Fallingwater house in Mill Run, Pa., Bye incorporated that then-radical practice into his own designs.

Preserving the natural character of the land is a central theme in Bye's designs. His landscapes are often so subtly executed, so natural-looking, that first-time viewers often ask ``What was done?'' This, says Bye, is just the kind of response he is looking for.

In his design of the Harvey Hubbell Co. in Orange, Conn., Bye rolled up sections of the forest floor - as one rolls up sod - unrolled them onto boards, transported them to the site, and then slid them into place.

Bye's has been called an ``ecological aesthetic,'' because he so emphasizes natural elements - rock, soil, native plants. ``Many factors contribute to my vision of a landscape,'' Bye writes in ``Art Into Landscape, Landscape Into Art,'' ``but above all, the existing conditions found on a site suggest the final composition.''

Instead of dramatically altering a site - turning a marsh into a pond, for instance - Bye subtly shapes it until it attains a more ``pure'' form. ``I'm honest to myself, and to the environment,'' he says. ``It has taken me 40 years to get to this. Maybe not 40 years - maybe it's 30 years.''

At one time, Mr. Bye employed 18 people at his firm. He has designed landscapes for university campuses, shopping centers, schools, parks, a horse farm, religious institutions, and numerous residences. He scaled his business down to just himself and one other architect to allow for more thoughtful attention to each landscape, he says.

His primary focus today is on multi-acre residences. His clients range from race-horse breeders to cosmetics magnates, television moguls to movie producers. Often, his design intent is to provide a soothing contrast to an increasingly industrialized world. He believes ``nature provides sustenance for inner being.''

Bye often draws from the simplest designs in nature to inspire his compositions: a rock-strewn coastline, the pattern that grass makes on snow. A rolling meadow in Amenia Hills, N.Y., inspired one of his favorite, and perhaps most recognized, techniques. ``It's rather fascinating to take a flat lawn, which is not all that interesting,'' he says, ``and roll it up and down. And you see all these wonderful shadows that come across. Shadows go up and down with the roll of the land. And that enlivens the landscape considerably.''

How long does it take him to grasp a design idea? ``Three or four seconds,'' he says with a glint in his eye. ``I see just what to do immediately.'' He attributes this talent to 40 years of knowledge and experience, and a reliance on intuition over intellectualization.

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