A new private courtyard invites bay watching, lounging, and outdoor dining

A great view goes to waste if you don’t have an attractive space where you can linger to enjoy it. The vista from the front of Barry Schenker and Diana Rebman’s new home in Berkeley included San Francisco’s skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. But because the small front yard looked so uninviting―its “floor” was just a walled-in patch of turf and mud―the couple merely gazed at the scenic panorama from indoors.

Then they turned to landscape architect Stefan Thuilot, their neighbor at the time, to help them transform the unappealing area into a comfortable outdoor living space. Thuilot replaced the lawn with pavers of square-cut Connecticut bluestone, leaving cutouts around the perimeter for plants and a water feature. The fountain of concrete and stainless steel, near one corner of the courtyard, has an attached redwood bench and serves as a focal point. “Your eye is drawn to it from the front entrance and also from indoors,” Thuilot says. The fountain invites you outdoors; once there, you can’t help but stop and admire the view.

The steel-and-stucco arbor Thuilot set atop the existing wall makes the space feel more enclosed, especially now that a wisteria vine grows along it. The arbor also improves how the house looks from the street. Before it was in place, the tall house with limited plantings around it stood out too much, says Rebman: “It didn’t look grounded.” The vine-covered arbor visually reduced the home’s massive scale, Thuilot adds. So does a creeping fig that is climbing the walls, plus the Japanese maple at one end of the courtyard and, just outside the wall, a ‘Meyer’ lemon and a grove of ‘Swan Hill’ olive trees.

Outside the wall

On the upper slope just beyond the wall, near the redwood bench, the landscape architect concentrated the most colorful plantings. ‘Garnet’ penstemon, Pride of Madeira, and other flowering plants look like an extension of the courtyard, says Rebman, providing “still another really great view.{ Across the rest of the slope, bamboo, miscanthus, and blue oat grass add texture. At the slope’s base, a stepped retaining wall faced with Napa basalt and capped with bluestone minimizes the downward slope of the street.


Frame views

An arbor with stucco columns and steel crossbars won’t necessarily interfere with a property’s views―Thuilot’s design proves it. By selectively focusing a portion of the view, the columns encourage you to pay closer attention. Enhancing an outside view makes a small space seem larger.

Keep the background monochromatic

Bluestone paving, the arbor’s painted metal, the stainless steel fountain, and even the weathered redwood of the bench are all closely related in color―gray to blue-gray. There’s enough variety in the materials to be visually satisfying, but individual items don’t make a small space seem busy by competing for attention.

Add mass 

The natural instinct with small yards is to choose only compact, ground-hugging plants. But doing so makes a compact space appear tinier, especially if there’s a large house at its back. Some height and heft―as in the ‘Golden Goddess’ bamboo and ornamental grasses Thuilot used in this garden―provide needed ballast.

Think vertically

To make this small courtyard feel more gardenlike, Thuilot encour-aged creeping fig to climb the walls, and trained wisteria to arch overhead. The planting pockets and pots contain plants that mostly head straight up, such as horsetail and dwarf papyrus; they green up the walls without crowding the hardscape.

Design: Huettl-Thuilot Associates, Berkeley (510/848-3200).




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