In the 1920s, the 16-unit Sachs Apartments were designed by Rudolph Schindler (who we consider to be the Michelangelo of Angeleno architecture) in the hills of Silverlake, Los Angeles for his friend Herman Sachs, a bon vivant, muralist, and designer who worked on Union Station and City Hall. Now known as Manola Court, the project was Schindler’s attempt at an Angeleno via European hillside housing village and it’s a dense, complex, idiosyncratic and exquisite piece of architecture and urbanism. Terremoto was approached by the current owner of Manola Court to develop a new gardenscape to compliment the loving and meticulous architectural restoration being done of the site by Enclosures Architects.
Where Schindler excelled in design and craftsmanship, he left something to be desired in terms of the infrastructural integrity of the project. And requiring a painstaking overhaul of each of the units onsite to be structurally fortified and to honestly and carefully return several of the existing units back to their original condition, albeit with thoughtfully and discreetly upgraded mechanical and infrastructural upgrades.
What we encountered onsite when we arrived was a ramshackle hodgepodge of odd, failing brick walls, decaying drainage, and an ad hoc assortment of hardscape and softscape with no real thread tieing it all together.
Unlike the architecture itself at Manola Court which had reams of archival material to reference in the restoration, the garden and outdoor areas were never originally designed or built in any sort of deep, meaningful way so there was limited historical precedent to reference in the landscaping. And while modernist homes of that era were all about embracing the connection between indoor and outdoor, we wanted to create a more contemporary landscape that would embrace sustainability and climate-appropriate native plantings to advance the one dimensional understanding of landscape at the time.
We used Schindler’s marriage of ornamentation and functionality and embrace of intricacy and unexpected details as our jumping off point. Our design process sought to approach the landscape as a reimagining rather than a direct restoration or reinterpretation of Schindler’s work and to be ok with editing rather than retracing the past. This led to an iterative process that was an interplay of principles, conversation, intuition and serendipity, with hand sketching and a lot of time spent onsite figuring out the best way to knit everything together. And it involved a mix of philosophical and surgical moves, keeping certain plants, keeping certain details of fencing, keeping certain walls.
The construction process started with the unsexy work of fixing infrastructure issues onsite, including restoring drainage function to make the precarious hillside site more floodproof and prevent further erosion.
We then turned our attention to the hardscaping, looking to interiors and some site archaeology to figure out which elements were original and which weren’t—fortifying existing walls where we could and bringing in new walls that mimicked Schindler’s formed concrete 17-degree angle canted walls, working in a collaborative process with contractor and master craftsman Fortunado (Nao) Arias on a series of groovy concrete experiments, embracing the texture of air bubbles and other beautiful imperfections during construction. With reverence to the work of Carlos Scarpa, we also incorporated blue, green and white decorative building tiles excavated from a crawl space onsite into walkways and embedded into canted walls.
The planting strategy established different distinct but interconnected zones across the site, leaning into horticultural semiotics and embracing a mix of native and culturally appropriate plants. We attempted to plant densely and layer different textures as a reflection of the surrounding landscape across the Silverlake Hills – from natives (yarrow, redbud), cacti and succulents (fence post cactus, dudleya, foxtail agave attenuata cacti), a new baby California oak tree, ferns and other shady plants, and a multitude of sage to create a sensory experience that would invite residents to touch and smell.
The completed – yet evolving – design creates a lush new landscape that nods to the overgrown Grey Gardens-ness of the original site, while creating a denser, lusher and more intentional gardenscape.
Continuing the origins of the complex as a creative community in Silverlake, the site continues to be a magnet for artists and creatives of all stripes. And the landscape and new deliberate gathering nooks and courtyards large and small created on site aim to nurture that sense of community. From the entrance foyer and mini-cactus garden to a large central garden originally intended to provide space for performances and other group events.
Landscape Architects: Terremoto (Jenny Jones, Diego Lopez and David Godshall)
Landscape Construction: Fernando Aria
Client: Paul Finegold
Photos: Caitlin Atkinson