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Amazing Space

With the aesthetic of a sculptor, landscape architect Andrea Cochran takes moribund properties and turns them into captivating paradises. By David W. Major

With degrees in landscape architecture from Cook College and Harvard University, Andrea Cochran headed out to northern California in 1981 looking for a job to hold her over until the economy improved and she could return home to the East Coast. Little did she know that she would discover her version of gold out there, and for more than 30 years now, Cochran CC’76 has been mining it with ardor, much to the delight of the clients who enlist her company, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, to transform their properties into paradises.

What she discovered soon after her arrival was a confluence of conditions in northern California that invited her to consider landscape architecture in new ways: a prevailing culture of innovation; a hospitable climate with three growing seasons; a rich landscape teeming with exotic plants, flowers, and trees; and adventurous people who had come from someplace else, drawn to the allure of a new beginning.

“Clients here, I found, were less bound by tradition and more willing to take risks and try new things,” says Cochran. “Once I was here and realized these things, it became clear that I would be staying. I could never have had this career on the East Coast.”

In the intervening years, Cochran’s reputation has taken off, acknowledged in recent years with a spate of professional recognition and accolades in top design and gardening magazines, all the more impressive given the vast growth in practitioners of, and appreciation for, landscape architecture. The years of hard work and experience—“I am not an academic; I learn by doing”—have coalesced into a signature look, whether in high-end residential work, which accounts for half of her firm’s commissions, or the commercial and institutional, as well as affordable housing, projects that constitute the other half.

Cochran frames and sculpts spaces into clean, geometric shapes that amount to contemplations in repetition and order—and restraint. Relying on a palette of materials, colors, and textures that reflects her minimalist aesthetic, she defines these areas, both overtly and through suggestion, to be rooms within rooms, each related to each other, all of them part of the larger design. Simplicity is her calling card, and Cochran derives an understated elegance in her design through the mix of formal and informal elements. Yet, far from being an amalgam of cold, static spaces, the design, through its subtle, intermittent interventions, leads you from one point to another, with a discovery at every turn.

“When I visited the Villa Giulia years ago, this Renaissance villa built in Rome in the 1500s, a lightbulb went off in my head,” says Cochran. “You could immediately see the focal point of the design, but you could never walk to it directly. You were forced to walk around and through a series of spaces in a predetermined way. So, in my own design, I want to create an unveiling of experience. The idea of coming upon spaces became really important to me.”

So, too, was the revelation that the landscape was not just a place to be in but an art form in its own right. Moreover, sculptural elements, she saw, shouldn’t be just something plopped down into a setting but considered for their appropriateness in that environment. She also took cues from the work of land sculptors such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria, whose enormous installations undergo a chameleon-like transformation during the course of the day. Cochran saw that a landscape could be quiet yet ever changing, allowing people to experience a setting in many ways—as wind, rain, and light played across it. The landscape could be a choreography of sensory delight.

And it could present an opportunity to commune with nature. “It’s about creating connections and bridges and creating permeability,” says Cochran. “I want people to feel physically connected to the environment. This is done with materials and the way that the design is expressed.” Such is the game within the game, a sleight of hand of bridging the formal architecture of structures to the landscaped spaces and on to the natural world beyond. And it’s a calling that never ceases to engage Cochran, who knew years of time in the trenches, she says, before relative fame found her. “To me, when I am on a job site—and they do become quite large and take years—and I see things starting to get built, it makes me happier than anything else. It’s the best feeling.” •