“It took me two years to find the stones for this project,” says Dennis Bracale, a landscape designer based on Mount Desert Island, Maine, while giving a lecture at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Image after image showcased Bracale’s work on private gardens. The talk showed the audience the artistic heights landscape architecture can achieve when time and monetary constraints aren’t an issue.
The crux of Bracale’s philosophy is an image of a stone Buddha with a carved flowing robe framed by two stones, one of which accents the robes with its own layered flow pattern. That philosophy is the skillful combining of rough nature (found objects made through geologic and biologic processes) with refined nature (objects modified through craft) to create meditative spaces.
With a client base primarily on Mount Desert Island, Bracale knows his fellow islanders move to and stay on the island for the natural beauty of the location. Helping a client form a relationship with the landscape is his mission. His work results in meditative spaces that amplify yet seamlessly blend into the surrounding landscape. Scale is critical, Bracale says, and the design must be an echo of the surrounding site. If there are large stones in the background, he says to place large stones in the foreground. Making the land sing requires design at the scale of the land, not the scale of the person. Designing in this way brings the grandeur of the surrounding landscape right to the front door, immersing the client in the idealized extension of the native milieu.
Bracale’s design ethos is fed by his study of philosophy, ecology, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the garden traditions of Japan and China. His travels abroad have influenced his style, as have his experiences with calligraphy and craft. Calligraphy is incorporated both as a concept of energy flow and also as an inspiration for paths through the gardens. Craft, most notably Japanese joinery, is highlighted in all of his construction. “A project is only as good as its details,” he says, as he shows the assembly of an Alaskan yellow cedar arbor without nails.
While his most frequently used wood is from Alaska, his stone and plant choices are predominantly local to Maine. Most notably, the stone he chooses is granite from the “scrap pile” at the base of old quarries, whose workers used to roll any imperfect stones out to the edge. Imperfect and weathered stone is what Bracale is after, giving his projects the appearance of age at completion. Bracale’s planting style is romantic with lush, texture-rich arrangements of primarily native plants that capitalize on the never-freezing-never-hot climate of the Maine coast. His goal is to take the site’s natural features “up a notch.”
Bracale, who takes pictures of his works in progress from all perspectives, talks of sitting on his bed, examining the images night after night, noting the adjustments to make on the next trip to the site. “Sometimes,” he says, “that can mean adjusting a giant rock just two inches.” While others working on the site may think this sounds crazy, they’ve learned to trust the eye of the composer.
This guest post is by Sarah Schramm, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia.
Image credits: (1-2) Mount Desert Island gardens by Denis Bracale / Real in Darien