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Landscape Architect Spotlight: Thomas Church

Thomas Church is a landscape architect and pioneer of Modernism in garden design. This article features Church's design process and style.
Thomas Church Featured Image

Thomas Church, American landscape architect and pioneer of Modernism in garden design once said, “The only limit to your garden is at the boundaries of your imagination”.

Known for Donnell Gardens (pictured above), Thomas Church served as an innovator for the field by completing 2,000 private gardens, writing articles for magazines and establishing to what we call today – “California Style” gardens.

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Thomas Church at Martin Garden, 1949. Image Credit: www.TCLF.org

After graduating with his master’s degree in City Planning and Landscape Architecture from Harvard, Church was awarded the Sheldon Traveling Scholarship and spent six months at the American Academy in Rome.

Church traveled much of Europe and studied several mediterranean climate gardens like Italian Renaissance Gardens, Moorish Architecture and Spanish Renaissance Gardens.

In 1933, he returned back to Northern California to establish his landscape architecture firm, where much of his work was inspired from his experience abroad.

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Donnell Garden Plan.  Image Credit: www.TCLF.org

Known for his free-form, simplistic design approach, Thomas Church designed one of the first kidney pool designs (pictured above) for the family of Dewey and Jean Donnell.

The pool’s form was inspired by “the salt marshes in the distance and may have been one of the country’s first biomorphic pools.”

Church collaborated with Adaline Kent, an American Sculptor in California known for abstract forms inspired by the natural landscape.

From plan view (pictured above) the sculpture resembles a ‘figure resting their head between arms’, which depicts contemporary work by Henry Moore.

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Donnell Garden, Sonoma, CA - Photo by Millicent Harvey, 2016

30 years after establishing his firm, Church wrote “Gardens Are for People” in 1955 and outlined in his book – Four principles to his design process.

  • Unity
  • Function
  • Simplicity
  • Scale

Within the book, he states “A garden should have no beginning and no end”, which resonates throughout all his work with bending and disappearing curves that ultimately creates a sense of movement in the landscape and surrounding environments.

Contrary to Italian Renaissance gardens, Church’s California-Style outdoor rooms “interacted with the house, with a free flow between the two.”

Click here to read about the “History of Classical Landscape Architecture”.

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Donnell Garden, Sonoma, CA - Photo by Millicent Harvey, 2016

Thomas Church served as a landscape design consultant for Standford and had a long, distinguished, and productive career with over 4,000 projects, as a Landscape Architect. In 1969, he published a second book titled “Your Private World: A Study of Intimate Gardens in 1969.

Thomas Church’s unique design style and principles to his design process impacted the field of landscape architecture and influenced many subsequent landscape architects like Lawrence Halprin, Garrett Eckbo, Dan Kiley, Douglas Baylis, James C. Rose and Robert Royston.

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