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Project: Tippet Rise, Montana landscape

Project: Tippet Rise, Montana landscape

Inverted Portal by Ensamble Studio, one of several large works cast in the ground onsite from stone, earth and concrete. Photo: Iwan Baan

When the US practice Oehme van Sweden was asked to work on the landscape for the new Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, the team was captivated by the site, says Jodie Jones 

Laid out on the tawny earth of Montana, against the stunning backdrop of the Beartooth Mountains, lies an extraordinary new music venue. Tippet Rise Art Center  opened in June 2016 and was an instant success. Visitors drove into the 11,500-acre site on roads newly created for this purpose, then transferred to a fleet of electric vehicles which transported them across miles of prairie, between venues and a series of man-made structures of jaw-dropping diversity. This may look like an untouched wilderness, but it is the newest New American Garden created by legendary design practice of Oehme van Sweden (OvS).

Sculptures, including Beartooth Portal and Inverted Portal, dot the landscape of Tippet Rise. Photo: Iwan Baan

Native planting

Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden were the Washington DC-based landscape architects whose mastery of the practical requirements of hardscaping were overlaid by a heightened reimagining of the unspoilt American prairie. Influenced by William Robinson and Karl Foerster, they replaced manicured lawns with a dynamic blend of grasses and forbs.

The two founding fathers of the firm are no longer with us (Oehme died in 2011 and van Sweden in 2013) but their firm has gone on to create well over 1,000 gardens for a huge range of public and private clients. In the process, they have steered many American gardeners away from an unhealthy obsession with the ‘English’ style and opened their eyes to the value of their own continent’s native plants.

Today OvS, headed by Principals Lisa Delplace (also CEO), Eric Groft and Sheila Brady, has an international reputation for design driven equally by art, science and environmental sensitivity. It is currently creating new gardens at sites as diverse as the DC Water and Sewer Authority Headquarters in Washington DC and the American Museum in Bath, but Tippet Rise is probably its largest-scale work to date.

Domo is a truly monumental work by Ensamble Studio. Photo: Andre Costantini

Sound stage

Tippet Rise was the brainchild of artistic philanthropists Cathy and Peter Halstead, inspired by a visit to Storm King Arts Center in the Hudson Valley over 40 years ago. They wanted to create an environment where performance spaces with impeccable acoustics and site-specific artworks would come together in a wilderness setting to create the venue for an annual season of high art. After a protracted search for the perfect location, they finally determined upon Montana, acquired a number of adjacent ranches and began assembling a team to turn their dream into reality.

Their first appointment was international design and engineering firm Arup, which had coaxed impeccable acoustics out of one of the Halsteads’ favourite music venues, Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk. Arup, in turn, presented them with the portfolios of a number of established landscape architects. “We chose OvS because we thought they had a light touch and understood that wilderness settings are very different from urban landscapes,” say the Halsteads. “They worked with the land, rather than against it.”

Stephen Talasnik’s Satellite No 5: Pioneer. Photo: Iwan Baan

When Lisa Delplace received an invitation to visit the site, she was struck by the vast landscape, in which the rich tones of moss-covered rocks, rusted fences and subtle wildflowers stood in contrast to snow-capped mountains and an immense, intensely blue sky. “The first step was to spend time on the land, walking, driving and biking, to absorb the surroundings,” she says.

Initially Delplace and creative team members Jungsub Lee and Liz Stetson spent a day or two a month on site, but this rose to around a week per month as the project gathered pace. “Once there, you realise that what might appear to be a blank canvas is in fact a highly nuanced terrain that has a material impact on how you experience and interact with vistas both near and far,” says Delplace.

The land is shaped by gullies, waterways and no fewer than seven canyons. There is only 40cm of rain per year, and much of the land is still a working cattle and sheep ranch. “Our original brief involved master-planning services for a 20-acre portion of Tippet Rise. This included the entry sequence, pedestrian circulation, siting of an outdoor performance space and co-ordination of sustainable features including rain water storage and wind and solar power harvesting.”

Patrick Dougherty’s Daydreams. Photo: Djuna Zupancic. 

Lines of desire

The team produced a series of watercolour images showing how the landscape could either reveal or conceal the various elements. At this point, even the location of the main Music Barn performance venue was open to discussion, but the fundamental issues remained constant. “The question was how one got to the site and moved within the site, while reducing visual impacts and maximizing sustainable features,” says Delplace.

The aim was to create an impression that these elements had always been present. Anticipating lines of desire in such a sprawling site was a huge challenge, and it is impressive that after the first full open season, visitors have naturally adopted the pathways laid out by OvS.

Perhaps inevitably, the predicted planting phases have run less true to plan. Building work finished later than scheduled and the land was heavily compacted in many areas. Current ranch manager Ben Wynthein is enthusiastically improving practices, including developing new ways for animals to access water without damaging stream banks. As a result, water quality has already improved so dramatically that rare trout are starting to return after an absence of many years.

The Tiara, a wall-less acoustic shell designed by Alban Bassuet and Willem Boning, with Arup Engineers, and made by Gunnstock Timber Frames. Photo: Willem Boning

Back to basics

For her part, Delplace has employed traditional methods to improve the growing environment. “There was up to 12 inches of top soil in places, and this was stripped and stockpiled, ready to be used as needed. Subsoiling reduced construction compaction to a depth of 24 inches, and then we used a system similar to screeding to rake out all the larger rocks that came to the surface. Only then could we begin to over-seed. Reestablishment of grasslands and prairies takes time and patience, and weed seedlings will have to be removed manually for a number of years.”

When considering plant selection, OvS analysed the existing grasses and forbs, consulted Wynthein on high performing species for grazing, and drew expertise from native plant nurseries. A base palette of grasses was established – including Bouteloua gracilis, Festuca idahoensis, and Koeleria macrantha – which could be blended with a more diverse range of forbs, chosen to bloom after early spring, when livestock graze the area.

However, the phased strategy for sowing these forbs has already been rescheduled. “As is often the case, weather and construction limited the planting season in 2016,” says Delplace. “As a result, we made the decision to seed the first year with grasses and annual rye as a cover crop. This year, we will over-seed without rye, and only in Year 4 will we introduce forbs. We are currently fine-tuning the forb mix for maximum colour,” she continues. “If we get it right it is going to be very reminiscent of what was originally out there.”

The crescendo may have been delayed but, that, surely, would have been music to the ears of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. 

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