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Gardening the Wright way

By Staff | Apr 9, 2009

One of the most prominent and well known architects of the modern era, Frank Lloyd Wright, enjoyed creating building designs which fit in with the organic surroundings of his structures.

One shining example of Wright’s “organic architecture” style is Fallingwater, a private residence in southwestern Pennsylvania built on a hillside and situated over a waterfall. This house, designed by Wright in 1935, appears to blend in seemlessly with the rocks, trees and surrounding flora of the site.

Derek Fell, author of more than 100 books on gardening, as well as a photographer and writer of several books on art, travel and gardens from around the world, recently shifted his focus to chronicling the gardens of Wright’s four most famous structures.

Released on March 1, “The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright” is a 160-page coffeetable book filled with full color images – photographed by Fell – of residential landscapes at Wright’s first home and studio in Oak Park, Ill.; his 3,000-acre summer home called Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis.; his winter home named Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Fallingwater, the commission that made him world famous.

“Once I got involved in the research, it was an extravagance of riches. It was far more material than I’d ever imagined,” said Fell, who came up with the idea for the book about two years ago. “When I went to Wisconsin and walked into the courtyard area where the gardens are, it was like stepping into Monet’s garden at Giverny.”

Fell explained that Wright would not only oversee the planting and landscape design of the footprint and courtyard of his structures, but he would also manipulate the sightlines of the surrounding landscape and vistas. For example, if there were any man-made structures that were in view of his home – a diner, a gas station or farm buildings – Wright would buy them as soon as they came up for sale and demolish them.

At Taliesin West, where Wright lived from 1937 until his passing in 1959, the architect incorporated new and colorful species of plant life within his 600-acre residence, including giant saguaro cactuses moved to strategic positions so they became “living sculptures.”

“He considered the desert a very pure kind of environment,” said Fell, who noted that Wright felt that his mind was “refreshed” after moving to Arizona. “From that point onward, his designs became a lot cleaner.”

The book also explores the Japanese and Mayan landscapes that inspired Wright and his appreciation of the stone meeting circles and naturalistic prairie plantings of the great landscape architect Jens Jensen.

“The most rewarding experience in making the book was meeting the people that I interviewed,” Fell added. “A few of them were students when Wright was alive. They were very much enamored with Wright himself and couldn’t say enough good things about him.”

In addition to his work as an illustrator for the Sanibel-Captiva Islander, Fell is the author of several books on artists’ gardens – including Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and Renoir’s – as well as many gardening books. His books have been printed more than 2.5 million copies, and his Web site (www.derekfell.net) has a catalog of more than 150,000 images. In addition, Fell was a consultant on garden design to The White House during the Ford administration.

“Most of my books deal with details and information about gardening – that’s the name of the game,” he said. “Michelle Obama recently talked about planting a new vegetable garden at The White House, so now you’ve got a whole generation of people who have never gardened in their lives wanting information about vegetable gardening.”

Fell, a frequent visitor to the islands, is a resident of Bucks County, Pa. where his historic home – Cedaridge Farm – is open to the public for tours and includes a Renoir-style garden.