Designing Nature: A Renowned Landscape Architect Reflects on His Life's Work
Joel Le Gall is renowned for his ability to build from existing space. A native of France, Le Gall has a knack for incorporating symmetry and creativity into a garden to create a fresh look.
photos by renee rosensteel
He starts with a pencil and paper. Despite the availability of modern-day design software, landscape architect Joel Le Gall remains loyal to the old ways. In his Edgewood office, Le Gall sits surrounded by stacks of drafts and sketches of past and current projects.
His landscape designs, both commercial and residential, begin with a preliminary concept sketch, a basic layout of the plans for that particular space. Then the construction details emerge: dimensions, masonry, plants — all the small aspects that make a garden come to life.
Due to the taste and skill with which he’s carefully designed outdoor spaces for almost 30 years, Le Gall is renowned for his ability to build on existing space, complementing original structures and often restoring them to their former glories.
He pulls out two pieces of lightweight sketching paper that hold the plans for City of Asylum’s upcoming Alphabet Reading Garden in the North Side. His fingers follow the drawn-out walkway as he describes the request posed by the nonprofit organization, which houses exiled writers and offers a range of literary programs. City of Asylum needed a space to hold outdoor conferences, so Le Gall created an entry point, akin to a house, in which visitors enter a large space with smaller spaces surrounding it.
“It’s not necessarily drawn around one center point: take into account the area, the neighborhood,” he says about the process of creating the garden. “There’s no central point. It’s a multiplicity of items.”
The garden is in its final stages and is set to open in early summer. Le Gall’s design included a rain garden in the middle of the Alphabet Garden to prevent untreated water from draining into the rivers. The problem, he says, is that working with clay creates a pond where the rain garden should be. But he brushes it off. “We’ll figure it out,” he says.
Born in France, Le Gall was in his teens when he moved in 1968 to Oberlin, Ohio with his mother, who began teaching French at Oberlin College. After graduating from high school in Ohio, he earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Oberlin College. While there, he took a history of architecture course in which he learned about landscape architecture.
“It clicked,” he says, snapping his fingers.
His father, who had remained in France, then moved to Georgia, where Le Gall and his mother joined him. Le Gall began his graduate education at the University of Georgia in landscape architecture and later transferred to the University of Illinois, where he completed that degree.
Le Gall remembers his father, a biochemist, taking him to Central Park in New York City and teaching him about the man regarded by many to be the father of landscape architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted. Those lessons also conveyed the importance of parks to a city.
“It’s about the planning of outdoor spaces. It happens on a micro level with gardens and a macro level with regions and urban planning,” Le Gall says.
After graduation, he moved to Chicago to work in urban planning for Cook County authorities, but he says he grew dissatisfied by the lack of opportunities to pursue his vision there. In the 1970s, when his then-wife accepted a teaching job at the University of Pittsburgh, he accompanied her to the city.
After knocking on many doors, Le Gall got his first job with local landscape contractor Albert Seppi Jr. Later, Oxford Development Company hired him to work on landscaping surrounding its One Oxford Centre complex Downtown and a series of shopping malls in the area. Le Gall then worked with Environmental Planning and Design, an architecture firm in Pittsburgh, on projects around the city and throughout the United States before deciding to go back to working on his own in 1987.
He’s unable to estimate the number of projects he’s undertaken in the course of his career, but he says he works on 15 to 30 each year. They range from residential gardens to public spaces, such as City of Asylum’s Alphabet Garden; he’s also traveled to work in southeast France a few times.
While he tends to gravitate to English-style gardens — relaxed with a slight sense of structure — he says the wishes of his client and the characteristics of the land come first. If his client wants a formal garden and the space allows it, that’s what he’ll create. But if a client intends to plant olive trees in Pittsburgh, he’ll intervene, knowing the conditions in Pittsburgh won’t support that plan.
Bill Kolano, of Kolano Design in East Liberty, says he and his wife, Brigette, sought out Le Gall in 2006 to reinvigorate the garden behind their French Norman-style home in Fox Chapel. The original concept for the garden called for taking the symmetrical interiors of the home and extending them to the exterior.
Kolano notes that Le Gall is known for structure; understanding how to arrange the components of a garden in a cohesive master plan. In the Kolanos’ garden, Le Gall used the large dining-room window as the starting point for an allee of trees leading toward a stone urn. Outside the living room, Le Gall created an oval garden that aligns with the patio and great French doors of the space.
The plan is formal, with many different axes leading through to different garden rooms. The largest axis traverses the entire yard and ends with a semi-circular overlook.
“We’re very happy when we’re inside the house looking out,” Kolano says. “It wasn’t necessarily a landscape project as much as it was an architectural space project around the house.”
The Kolanos ask Le Gall to return every few years to rearrange and polish the ever-changing garden. In one of those visits, he designed a crushed limestone driveway around a perfect oval filled with white roses.
While Le Gall’s main interest lies in designing and planning a space, he also knows how and what to plant.
“The land tells you what to plant. I like to have the greatest possible variety and sequence of plants, so if you have the room you could have flowering trees and shrubs that would bloom early, mid-season and late and then [give you] fall color,” he says.
Bernita Buncher, chair of the Jack Buncher Foundation, which provides grants to support the arts, education, health care and other programs, hired Le Gall to extend the style of her home into her outdoor space and provide additional areas for entertaining. The architectural elements and certain plantings in the garden at her Georgian-style home in Squirrel Hill required symmetry and proportion, which Le Gall created by integrating new components with the older, existing elements of the house.
Le Gall extended the existing back patio and added two limestone columns that were exact replicas of two existing columns. With the four columns as support, he placed a pergola that eventually held the growing autumn clematis intertwined through the wooden lattice.
“We have had al fresco summer dinners for up to 12 people on the [newly added front] terrace with torches and candles providing all of the necessary light,” Buncher says. “It felt as if we were in an Italian villa in Tuscany.”
The Kolano and Buncher gardens are among Le Gall’s favorites. He has no garden of his own at his home in Edgewood. When asked why, he laughs and says he already has too many others in which to work.
In his office, he brings out folders and folders of pictures and sketches of these and other projects, remembering the planning process behind each one. Each picture is taped to other photographs and reconstructed to show the full scope of the landscape.
“I’m inspired by the land, the location and all of my past experiences,” he says.