Contextual Minimalism, a new monograph from the landscape architecture firm Coen+Partners, presents the work of founder Shane Coen, FASLA, and his firm into a well-organized book encapsulating over 20 years of design projects. With photography, some drawings, and minimal text, it tells the story of how Coen’s design instinct developed into a design philosophy, and how that philosophy adapted to different design challenges, primarily in the upper mid-west.
Coen describes his firm’s work as the “celebration of nature through contrast, deduction, and abstraction,” an approach he’s come to call “contextual minimalism.” This approach is apparent in the firm’s use of contextually-appropriate blocks of color, texture, and mono-cultural plants.
Much of Coen’s work feels painterly, with broad strokes and deliberate dashes. Coen writes with appreciation of the impact his father, a painter, had on his approach towards landscape. On many of Coen’s larger projects, this approach works to stunning effect, as in Jackson Meadow. There, on the 365-acrea planned-unit development, Coen’s firm planted the entire property with little blue stem to create a “unified ground plane” for the development’s all-white structures: splotches of white among a field of seasonally fluctuating color.
Even after many years, Jackson Meadows feels unique among Coen’s projects, and much of that has to do with how Coen, in this book and public lectures, has described it. More than any other project, Jackson Meadows feels like a sandbox, a testing ground for what was at the time Coen’s philosophy.
Collaboration with the project architect elevated Jackson Meadows. This sort of collaboration has been a mark of the firm since its inception. Coen explains that working on projects with powerful architecture “brought meaning” to his practice. You can attribute some of that meaning to the holistic achievements that result from successful collaboration. But Coen exhibits an admiration for architecture that feels unique among landscape architects. It provides inspiration and a datum from which to design.
Coen’s approach is often forced into tighter private and residential spaces. Still, there is an attention to materials and relationship between architecture and landscape architecture that bolsters these projects. In the Wood House in Chicago, Illinois, Coen uses blocks of color and material to blur the boundary between inside and outside.
The projects elucidate how Coen’s economical design approach shifts and adapts to different settings. In rural contexts, the preferred way of exalting nature is to contrast it with structures or work that is clearly artificial. In urban settings, the designer must abstract nature. If done well, the effect will be a sublime and uplifting experience.
One might dispute the logic behind this strategy, but not the results. Look at what is achieved in Minneapolis Central Library, which is hemmed in by depressingly-wide roads. Before, the approach to the library was routine at best and degrading at worst. Coen added slate gardens supporting a row of birch trees to the library’s north-facing sides. The jagged slate recalls Minnesota’s rugged terrain. Its layering and the pioneering birches suggests opportunity and positive disruption.
Most monographs suffer from a surfeit of finished photographs in place of sketches and plans that provide real insight into the design process. Unfortunately, Contextual Minimalism does not deviate from this trend. But the book does allow one to see a clear connective thread between Coen’s projects, which is a significant achievement.