Q&A with Shane Coen, Founder of Landscape Architecture Firm Coen + Partners

Above: Coen + Partners created a landscape that gives this home both privacy and transparency. (Architect: Brininstool + Lynch; photo courtesy Christopher Barrett.)

Since receiving the 2015 National Design Award in Landscape Architecture from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Coen + Partners in Minneapolis has been more in demand than ever. Currently, the firm is designing a 1,200-hectare park and mixed-use development in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; working for the U.S. government on DesignExcellence projects for the General Services Administration and the Department of State; and consulting with James Corner Field Operations on the redesign of Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Still, Shane Coen, founder and principal, and his firm love working on residential projects. Clients across the U.S. and their architects seek out Coen for his distinctive contextual, minimalist modern approach, which he introduced with the design of Jackson Meadow in Marine on St. Croix, back in the late-1990s, where he lives with his family.

Courtesy of Andrew Kamin-Lyndgaard

How would describe your approach to landscape architecture?

I’ve been asking myself that for years! It’s super instinctual. Back in school, 25 years ago, everything I saw had three times the amount of the stuff it needed to have. It all seemed like decoration to me. It wasn’t about the fundamentals of creating space. So I devised an approach in which landscape is a reverberation of or built around an architectural form. Geometry is huge to us. Site, landscape, and architecture are the same thing, should relate to and be reflective of each other. In an urban neighborhood, landscape architecture is about calming the mind. If all the forms are working in harmony with the architecture and context of the neighborhood, then the simplification of those lines has a calming effect. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do—create spaces that inspire people. Above: Shane Coen (photo courtesy Andrew Kamin-Lyndgaard) 

Do you always start with architectural form? 

Always: the block form. If we’re working in a suburban context, and there’s a forced curve that goes against the geometry of the house, we’ll still square up to the house. Then we’ll use the leftover space to extend the geometry of the house and create a threshold to the property that grounds it in the architecture.

Why is the relationship between house and yard so important? 

It’s a room. You’re creating an outdoor room. If you think like that, then you’ll want to consider how your front room—or front yard—welcomes you, your family, and your friends onto your property. While the front is a greeting room, and an opportunity to let people feel and know who you are, then the backyard is more private, for recharging after a busy day. The home becomes a transition between the two.

Where do plants come into the picture? 

Plants are such a minor part of what we do. We don’t think about plants until we’re well into the design. We’re currently working on residences throughout the Midwest, and in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oklahoma, and New York. Seventy-five percent of that work is with an accomplished modern architect. So we think more in terms of shaping space with color, texture, and experience. Will the texture be fine or coarse? Are we after a blend of colors or a monoculture? What spatial experiences do we want to create?

Why is residential work still a priority for you?

The minimalist-modernist approach to landscape architecture and residential living is a great market for us, and I’ve always loved the people connection. The rewards are significant in really getting to know someone and creating a space that will change their life for them. It’s a hectic world out there. We all want to come home to a peaceful place.

For more information, visit coenpartners.com

By Camille LeFevre


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