Michael Van Valkenburgh Designs a Martha’s Vineyard Landscape
June 16, 2023
When Michael Van Valkenburgh lays a walkway, the path does more than just deliver you to the destination.
Text by Tovah Martin Photography by Lexi Van Valkenburgh, aerial photograph by Julian Gulliksen
“Getting to Martha’s Vineyard is a journey,” says landscape architect and Vineyard resident Michael Van Valkenburgh, “so the moment of arrival must be special. I draw the greeting out.” That was the driving force behind the miniature forest that welcomes visitors from the circular driveway of a Maryann Thompson-designed home on the island. Part odyssey, part screen to veil the house, the forest is bisected by a stone shard pathway that cuts through a stand of interlacing white birches wading in a froth of ferns.
Informed by the same whimsical aesthetic that inspired Van Valkenburgh’s design of the Monk’s Garden at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Teardrop Park in Manhattan, the mini forest essentially shrinks the designer’s signature curvaceous concept into a residential setting.
Thompson and her team were completely onboard with the warm-welcome motif. Known for her contemporary designs, Thompson nonetheless veered traditional on this project to comply with neighborhood regulations. The shingled house, the homeowner’s first island getaway and first experience building a home from the ground up, seemingly extends an embrace with two outstretched wings: between the garage and the front door, a covered passageway is draped in roses, while guest quarters form the other side of the U-shaped entry court. Aside from the forest, Van Valkenburgh treated the four-acre property to a series of destination gardens, naturalized woods, and meadows punctuated by sinewy stone walls.
The fact that Thompson earned two master’s degrees, one in landscape architecture and one in architecture, from Harvard University speaks to her desire to balance home and land. At 9,500 square feet, the house is extensive but wears its floor plan modestly. Gentley Bondeson, project manager and lead architect, explains: “The house heightens the experience of the landscape, prioritizing the site, water, and sky.” Windows maximize light and views of the ocean and nearby Chappaquiddick. Porches and terraces—screened and open—invite everyone outside. A dramatic pool pavilion/outdoor kitchen showcases crisscrossing beams above billowing shrubs chosen for blossom and texture.
During construction, Van Valkenburgh revisited the site often to refine the details, all the way down to the crunchy pine needle walkway that leads to an outdoor shower. “The feet deliver an experience that reacts throughout your body,” he explains, illustrating that, on this property, the journey is equal to the destination.