BY LINDA BARNARD
With the design/build approach of Rusnak Gallant, the supple beauty of the garden meets the hard science of making a space for it to flourish.
Twyla Rusnak and Illarion Gallant, partners in life and work, run their business from their home at Blenkinsop Valley Farm, near the foot of Mount Douglas. Their residential projects blend art and function, echoing the houses and the people who live in them by fusing “the culture of construction with the culture of design,” says Gallant.
Whether a $10,000 garden, or a complex $2 million undertaking, projects begin with detailed conversations with clients. Ideas lead to concept drawings and a design. Budgets are based on meticulously itemized lists of materials and labour.
Gallant handles the hard-surface elements of retaining walls, walkways and rock and says landscape architecture is based on science and engineering. He’s also a creative, the lauded sculptor behind some of Victoria’s most-recognizable large-scale public art.
A walk with the couple around their property reveals their passions and styles. Rusnak, a trained landscape architect, studied dance at university and is a talented painter. She also grows showy dahlias. A new building is going up to house that business, from seed to flowers. Meanwhile, she’s experimenting with growing deer-resistant plants.
They raise pigs, turkeys and chickens. Beautifully rusted, large steelworks and pieces from Gallant’s public art projects rest near granite outcroppings and a stand of Garry oaks. Small weathered wood buildings are used for work, animals and making art.
A former garage houses their office. Gallant’s studio is just down the driveway where he is working on his latest public art project, Succession, commissioned for the District of West Vancouver Municipal Hall.
During the visit to their property, Spruce talked to Gallant (G) and Rusnak (R) about their design/build approach.
How is working on landscape design different from making public art?
G: It’s different because it’s not in the public realm. It’s a different narrative and it’s a bit more of an intimate discussion [with landscape clients]. It’s about space and a bit more personal.
How do your artistic backgrounds affect how you work with clients?
G: It’s about vision and insight, because they talk about their needs, and we respond to it with some sense of vision and insight, coloured by poetics.
R: My background was dance. It’s a lot about composition or choreography and creating space, rhythm and patterns. When you’re laying out plants, they have rhythm. But then as a painter, you might begin to see layers and layers of colour. When you’re designing a garden, you have to think in multi-layers and time and space.
How do you start a job?
R: I get a feel of what kind of project it is and either I’ll go alone, or we’ll go together [to meet the client], if it’s a big one that’s complicated. We meet and see if we have the same ideas, and, no, it doesn’t cost anything. If Illarion is there, he likes to kind of poke around and see where they’re from, what they do. And it’s really important to walk through the site. Some people are like, “I have no idea what to do here. I don’t know anything about gardening. I don’t know what a weed is.” And some people are, “I hate this. I love this. I want this pushed this way.
I need five more feet here.” And that’s the fun part. The more rules they give you, then you figure out how to use those rules. Then you can open their mind by giving them something exciting.
G: They make informed decisions. And our job is to educate.
What are the misconceptions that people have about landscape design?
G: [Some people believe] that it’s non-thinking. That it’s basically idiots who do it. But it’s materials. It’s people’s labour. It’s materials and it’s labour. It’s construction.
R: Or somebody will take a weekend landscape course and design their own garden. But it’s like going to buy art. Are you going to go buy a poster, or are you going to go to a gallery and buy a piece of art? We have training. A lot of times people think landscape is just sticking in a few shrubs. But what we’re doing is actually peeling back. You might be dealing with the top three or four feet, to get your drains and your electrical lines in.
What challenges does this region present for landscape design?
R: The climate is beneficial. It doesn’t get as cold, so we have way more plants. But there’s also more pests because it’s warm and things don’t get killed off in
G: Water, winds, heat. We have drought conditions here and that’s a hassle. You have got to be sure the plants are always watered [they install drip irrigation systems rather that sprinklers] and make sure you have the proper soil and environment for the plants.
The goal for this Oak Bay property was to create a garden that enhanced the Tuscan look of the house. To achieve this, Rusnak and Gallant worked with a formal layout in the front garden, using lush green evergreen hedges, along with ground-cover accented with white flowers and white variegated foliage. The 12-foot-tall Portuguese laurels act as privacy walls and serve as a lush backdrop for the gardens. Statuary, benches and feature pots filled with seasonal displays create
How do you get to know your clients to work out goals and an esthetic?
G: Twyla interviews; I interview as well. We both have different kinds of questions. I ask personal questions, so I get a sense of how they live because I have to understand what their lifestyle is, so we understand how they use the space, where they are culturally. We’re doing a contemporary Canadian landscape. And it has to reflect these clients. Because it’s their garden, not ours. It has to reflect them.
R: I ask if they’re gardeners. Do you want to be in there and take care of it yourself? Do you want cut flowers? Every client is different. They’ll have their own vision for what they want, or what they don’t want. They give you direction, and then you just take it from there. I take a lot of direction from the architecture. Typically, we add the wow factor to any house. If you do the right landscape, it just looks like it’s always been there.
Is there something that you like to include in every project?
R: I like to make sure that there’s something blooming pretty much year-round. That’s what people love about Victoria.
G: And I like hard surfaces, the hierarchy of hard surfaces. You go from the street up the driveway, on the side, right to the front door. There’s a whole hierarchy of patterns — the textures and the entrance sequence.
R: We’re going to make something beautiful. If something doesn’t quite work, you change it. So, when we leave, this is going to just be beautiful. That’s kind of the ultimate goal of making gardens, not making a garden so it’s just functional.