Martin Rickles Studio riffs on Ruth Shellhorn to design a ready-made ADU landscape.
By Zach Mortice
Carley Rickles came to a realization that’s unfamiliar to most landscape architects when she was beginning the landscape plan for an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). There was, strictly speaking, no site. As part of Los Angeles’s ambitious program to alleviate its housing crisis by dropping ADUs across the city’s legendary single-family-home horizon, each structure would sit in a backyard that could contain different dimensions, constraints, and contexts.
Rickles’s landscape design would be paired with a crisp and angular garden shed-like unit designed by Jennifer Bonner’s MALL, a creative practice that stands for Mass Architectural Loopty Loops, Miniature Angles & Little Lines, or Maximum Arches with Limited Liability. “It felt like all we had to draw from was the architecture,” Rickles says.
So, the Atlanta-based Martin Rickles Studio (composed of Rickles and the artist and architect Jennifer Martin) extrapolated the abstract geometry of Bonner’s design and put together a planter-based “graphic kit of parts,” Rickles says, that could weave around and through whatever might be behind the back door—birdbath, pool, or actual garden shed. “Every house is going to be different with different conditions, and we need to be able to respond to that,” she says.
Lean-to ADU, the name of the 515-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath collaboration between Bonner and Martin Rickles Studio, is part of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety’s catalogue of preapproved ADU designs, with entries from local and national firms, both new and established. With over two-dozen templates, city officials are looking to elevate ADU design while also offering an expedited “over-the-counter” approval process, as the former Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne and current Los Angeles chief design officer told Carolina A. Miranda, his successor at the Los Angeles Times.
Bonner’s ADU riffs on Los Angeles’s regional vernacular housing types, as well as the omnipresent backyard shed. And Rickles’s landscape uses this same geometric palette of circles, rectangles, parallelograms, and “very acute triangles,” she says, an echo of the front facade roof line. These shapes are defined by wavy metal edger planting beds and arrayed in any pattern that’s pleasing. Sketched and rendered with an Instagram collage aesthetic, with hearty helpings of millennial pink and teal, it looks like a ready-made boutique Airbnb offering.
Absent site-specific context and guidance, Rickles was able to draw on the history of Los Angeles landscape design from the late Ruth Shellhorn. Born in 1909, Shellhorn was a native Angeleno and pioneer in the design of Southern California landscapes at a time when there were few women practicing. She was best known for her work at Disneyland, where, in just a handful of months, she designed the park’s pedestrian circulation system, planned landscapes, and selected plantings. Rickles took inspiration from Shellhorn’s horizontal beds of geometric plantings that depict Mickey Mouse. “I thought that this idea of literally having pop culture embedded in the landscape would be something interesting to bring forward, especially in California, by this heroine of landscape architecture,” she says.
Shellhorn was important for the way she used landscape to frame retail experiences, designing courtyard-like landscapes that presented shopping as a lifestyle, with intense sun-dappled plant textures and colors to evoke a subtropical aesthetic—an approach that became synonymous with Southern California landscape design. She was also attracted to narrative and theatrical applications of plants, like the brambled melaleuca trees planted at the Sleeping Beauty Castle, which are sinister and twisted in the way of a fairy tale’s second act.
For Lean-to ADU, Martin Rickles Studio includes native plants such as desert marigold, blue fescue, red buckwheat, and desert globemallow. Surrounding the geometric planters, Rickles says the remaining “yard” will be green gravel, a satirical take on the still-aspirational environmental dead-end of standard single-family-home turf lawns. Rickles sees this as a corrective that’s meeting “a social and ecological need,” she says.
By flexibly nesting a new design typology within the suburban residential pattern, Martin Rickles Studio’s landscape promises to assert just enough of its own identity to be a good neighbor.