Where to Find Winter’s Fleeting Grace

Four landscape designers on the places they love when winter takes hold.

By Zach Mortice

Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, a favorite of Janet Rosenberg. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Benson Kua.

Winter landscapes earn their allure with the opposition to comfort and ease they put forth. In the wild, that might be a sense of enclosure amid the otherwise inhospitable. In a city, this could entail seeking out community and connection when it’s far from convenient to do so. The cold air, simply by existing, adds meaning to our interactions with each other and the world around us. You have to want to be out there, and to offer respect to the flora, fauna, and fellow humanity that is out there with you. So here are four landscape designers (three landscape architects and one architect) unpacking the wintertime landscapes that have inspired them. Winter is powerful but fleeting. Its spell is cast only for those who take the time to look.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Shane Coen—Green, Blue, White, and Gray

Shane Coen, FASLA, of Coen + Partners in Minneapolis says he is drawn to places that make us “slow down, be inspired, and connect with ourselves, other people, and nature.” And in winter, “it’s really hard to compete with Mother Earth.” His most cherished winter landscapes are locked in the embrace of gauzy childhood memories, and mostly untouched by human hands.

Coen grew up in Colorado. He remembers the intense chromatic experience of “monocultures of the ponderosa pine forest in the Rocky Mountains after a fresh snow,” he says. “In that landscape, I always imagine it with a blue sky. A field of dark, dark green ponderosa and Colorado spruce, the white [snow] drooping them down, and then the blue sky.”

He spent lots of time at his grandparents’ farm near Lamar, Colorado, on the western edge of the Great Plains, surrounded by vast flat expanses in all directions. Winter blizzards brought drama when the barbed wire fences that divided farm fields would collect tumbleweeds driven to migration by snowy gusts. He recalls the contrast of “human-made lines that appear as straight geometry through the landscape, that have also caught tumbleweeds,” he says. “So it’s created this super abstract landscape that is a combination of human-made forms and natural [ones]. Those landscapes are most beautiful in a blizzard with a gray sky.”

The Shelterbelt Warming Hut, designed by Robert B. Trempe Jr., was built in 2016. Image courtesy Forks Winnipeg, Leif Norman.

Mason White—Mutability, Vitality, and Persistence

Lateral Office’s Mason White (based in Toronto) says he’s most fascinated by “reactivating urban spaces that have a very charged life during warmer seasons, but giving them a new life for winter seasons.”

“In Winnipeg, there is now every winter the Warming Huts [at Red River Mutual Trail] where they invite architects and designers to do follies,” he says. These pavilions are placed along a frozen four-mile stretch of the Red River near the city’s downtown, claimed to be the longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world. “It activates a space that has an identity during the summer, because it’s water and everybody loves to be there during [summer.] It’s an incredible initiative. Many other Canadian cities are envious of that, and some have even tried to copy it.”

Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Abishek Indukuri.

For more untouched vistas, White likes to seek out winter landscapes that offer unexpected mutability and vitality. “At Iqaluit, Nunavut, the capital of the primarily Inuit territory in northern Canada, there is a very small park near the airport where you arrive, which is in a small town of about [7,700] people,” he says. It’s called Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. “I’ve been to it in pretty much all seasons. It’s always changing. When there are the melts, there’s an incredible flow of water. This river mouth [in] the park is for me a very powerful, emotive, spiritual place to see freeze up and change over winter, as [there’s] this incredible cover of arctic moss and arctic berries that you wouldn’t think to find in the winter, [but] you could find there. I’ve never really seen a place like it before.”

Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Benson Kua.

Janet Rosenberg—The Heart of the City

Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, in Toronto, has become a fan of the new Bentway skating trail, located under the city’s Gardiner Expressway.  It was designed by Ken Greenberg and landscape architects Public Work. But perhaps her favorite Toronto winter landscape demonstrates a much longer history of civic immersion. When the mercury plunges, Rosenberg lingers at the ice skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square, at the foot of Toronto’s unforgettable midcentury modernist city hall.

“I love it because it’s a place for all people,” she says. “It’s really a culture where young and old come together; families of all different levels, the multiculturalism of Toronto. You see people who’ve never skated before, and this becomes the venue for skating for seasoned Torontonians, as well as new people who want to get into the Canadian culture—of what we do here in the wintertime. There’s performances, there’s music, there’s lighting at night, there’s public art, and it’s really a place to come together where everybody feels the heart of the city.”

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Alice Popkorn.

Keith Wagner—With the Windows Down

For Keith Wagner, FASLA, of Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture in Burlington, Vermont, a certain kind of snow calls for a certain kind of quiet contemplation. “Up here in Vermont, when you’re driving down a lane through the woods, and heavy, wet snow is outlining all the branches, it has that quiet, cathedral-like quality that I love,” he says. “A lot of times when I’m driving on one of those lanes, I’ll just stop and put all the windows down. The quietness is so powerful. The silhouette of a tree shadow on a bright sunny day, a crisp shadow on the pristine snow—I love those things.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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