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Back Bay Retreat
Celebrating the Spirit of Place

L. Raine Frost
Photography by Chris Leschinsky

Back Bay Retreat

In 2008, Jeffrey Gordon Landscape Architecture transformed this Los Osos, Calif. residence into a retreat. About 1/2 acre of the property was redesigned with fire features, plant material and curving elements to blend in with the surrounding landscape and provide a comfortable space.

Back Bay Retreat

Steel cable railing acts as a backrest on the concrete bench and as a fence surrounding the ipe wood deck. Six fire features, including the fire pit shown, are located within the seating areas to provide warmth while by the coast.

This back-bay residence, located in Los Osos, Calif. merges contemporary design with rugged natural elements to reflect the regional landscape surrounding the site. After about seven months, Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture completed the project in 2008.

Going with the Flow
The project draws on the curved shapes of the bay's shoreline and estuary that can be seen winding away from the property, and it blurs any lines between the site boundaries and the bay. These natural sweeps are drawn into the smooth curving hardscape walls, textured stone seat walls, and meandering flagstone pathways. The polished concrete seat wall caps of the wood deck echo the waters of the bay in the late afternoon sun while the natural paving stone mimics the colors in the distant sand-spit.

The fingers of water that drain into the bay are drawn into the hardscape through the use of dark blue Mexican pebbles that fill the joints between the flagstone, casting a contrast between dark and light. Morro Rock can be seen in the distance, like a bookend to the sand-spit, abstracted by large boulders anchoring the stacked stone seat walls and fire pit. The ipe wood decking is reminiscent of the interior of an old ship, fitting within the coastal harbor theme. These design elements help to give the site a connection to its spirit of place or "Genius Loci."

Using Plants to Create a Connection
The connection to place was decidedly important in creating the plant palette as well. The indigenous landscape of the estuary and the salty marsh edges are predominated by native juncus, pickle weed, yarrow, salt grass, and coyote brush, which were then pulled up into the landscape to help create a seamless connection between nature and the home. Restios, dwarf Baccharis, hybrid Achillea, Artemisias, and a variety of grasses were used to draw relationships with the existing natives in the estuary and provide water-conscious, year-round interest. The use of plants also helped shape private spaces, while at the same time, opening up the property to the borrowed views of the estuary, surrounding dunes and Morro Rock in the distance.

The flowing dynamic of the space invites guests to stroll along pathways leading to a secluded bench where they can take in the tranquility of the bay, or gather with friends on a flagstone patio, open to the maritime breezes, while absorbing the warmth from a stone fire pit. The plant material and curves bring the interest of the estuary's constantly changing ebb and flow up into the landscape to create interest throughout the year. The warm glow of fire bowls and fire pits, which were strategically placed throughout the site, encourage the use of the outdoor spaces, regardless of the season or cool coastal nights.

Back Bay Retreat

Flagstone pathways and stacked stone seat walls represent the transition towards the bay's shoreline and estuary. Attached to this wall is a succulent called chalk dudleya, which is common in the southwest of the United States and in northern Mexico, as well as California.

Back Bay Retreat

Back Bay Retreat

The hot tub patio was transformed to open up the area and connect the users to their surrounding landscape by designing a wood deck with Mexican pebble and Juncus plants around it.

A Private Space Within the Landscape
JGSLA was able to exceed the clients' understanding of what their landscape could be by enticing them out of their comfort zone. This was accomplished by gently persuading them to see the benefits of opening up their property to the estuary. Their need for privacy was met in a more imaginative sense rather than simply creating screening of the site, which they originally desired. Instead, private spaces were formed throughout, while at the same time, connecting the landscape to the estuary to make them feel one and the same. The result was the perception of an expansive landscape that opened up to include the infinite borrowed views of the estuary and the sand-spit, while private spaces were provided in strategic locations to satisfy the clients' needs.

Another area that needed a creative solution was the existing hot tub patio. Originally, a wall created an enclosed feeling, obstructing the surrounding landscape. JGSLA's response to this when designing the adjacent wood deck was to create two levels and provide a sort of partition to make it feel like its own space separate from the dining deck. At the same time, planters on the opposite side, filled with Mexican pebble and Juncus that tied into the estuary, were raised up to create a feeling of being at ground level, opening up the space, and connecting the users to the estuary while soaking in the tub.

The ipe deck was inspired by the interior of a classic ship. The curvilinear stainless steel cable railing was incorporated for several reasons including the practical need to keep the clients' dog contained in the deck area in order to forgo a perimeter fence, to use as a back rest for the benches, and to exemplify the maritime vernacular that tied into the architecture of the residence.

Reflecting the Landscape
The concrete fire table, planters, and deck seat wall caps were all custom designed for a clean look that metaphorically reflects the nearby water and mimics the curvilinear estuary edges. The natural stone materials were strategically located in the landscape to act as a transition between the more contemporary and streamlined look of the wood deck and concrete elements and the wild lands of the salt marshes of the estuary. JGSLA enjoyed collaborating with some very talented local artisans to build their vision.

As seen in LASN magazine, December 2018.

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June 18, 2019, 7:03 am PDT

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