Landscape of the Year: Natural Beauty

It’s hard to believe construction on Red Butte Ranch was completed just three years ago. The grounds that encircle the elegant, Craftsman-style Aspen home and its surrounding buildings are peppered with large Gambel oak, stands of aspen, and lichen-covered boulders that make the whole compound feel established on the land. And this was precisely the goal of the project’s lead landscape architect, Kurt Culbertson.

The building’s architect initially wanted to push the house to the edge of an escarpment that overlooks nearby Red Butte and Mt. Sopris, explains Culbertson, principal at Design Workshop, a nationally recognized landscape architecture firm whose projects include Riverfront Park in Denver and the pedestrian mall in Aspen. Instead, Culbertson and his team suggested pulling the home back from the slope so the garden would become the foreground of the view, saving the existing trees and boulders and giving the yard a mature feel from the start. “Preservation of plant material is paramount—particularly the oaks, which are extremely slow-growing and difficult to transplant,” he says.

This idea of working with what already exists plays neatly into Design Workshop’s central philosophy. Namely, that landscape projects should succeed on four points: environment, economy, aesthetics and community. At Red Butte Ranch, preserving the existing landscape tempered the environmental impact (native plants support wildlife habitat and require no energy to transport and install), supported the bottom line (there were less trees to buy and earth to move), and scored visually (you feel like you’re nestled into an idyllic mountain meadow).

As for the design’s community impact, Culbertson explains it like this: Many mountain homes dominate the viewshed; that is not the case here. “One of the things that I am particularly pleased with in this project is that the residence enjoys magnificent views, but the home is almost invisible from the surrounding countryside,” he says.

For plantings, Culbertson opted for a minimalist concept. The site is relatively shady because of the hill behind the home and the existing trees on the property. But where there is sun, there is a profusion of color, notably in the variety of perennial daylilies, which Culbertson chose because they are one of the longest-blooming and most reliable performers in the mountains. “You get this great punch of yellows and oranges in contrast to the [areas of] shade and filtered light elsewhere,” he explains. And in a departure from most modern landscape projects, Culbertson’s design avoids elaborate hardscaping (paving, walls, steps), incorporating instead a simple, elegant lawn.

The lawn, in turn, provides the perfect setting for the owners’ robust sculpture collection, which includes works by sculptors James Croak, Tom Otterness and Jaume Plensa. When it comes to placing art in outdoor spaces, Culbertson says, it’s best to prepare an “art master plan,” which identifies where certain pieces might be placed, marking ideal locations for future installations. “The collector might then purchase artwork with a particular location in the garden in mind,” he says.

Overall, the design is intentionally subdued. Traditionally, Craftsman-style homes were built as lakeside or mountain getaways with very simple landscapes, not elaborate gardens, explains Culbertson. “We’ve tried to be sensitive to that tradition rather than create a landscape that overwhelms the home.”

Sculpted Spaces
Landscape architect Kurt Culbertson digs up his best tips for placing art in your outdoor space.

START WITH ART Art should be planned as part of the landscape from the outset of the design process. “By doing this, you avoid what is sometimes referred to as ‘plop art’—the sense that art pieces are added to the landscape without any sense of their context. Consider the artist’s intent and the characteristics of the artwork to aid in designing a suitable setting for the piece.”
SEE THE BIG PICTURE When adding new pieces to your collection and landscape, consider: Is the artwork appropriately scaled to the space? Do materials and colors complement the landscape? Does the form of the piece support other design objectives?
MAKE A MASTER PLAN If you already own pieces or know that you’ll collect pieces over time, think ahead to how you’ll integrate them. “We find it is very useful to prepare an ‘art master plan,’ indicating the best location for existing pieces and describing the location and characteristics of pieces that would be desirable to complement and accentuate the design.”



Landscape Architecture: Kurt Culbertson with Carolina Segura and Casey Byers, Design Workshop, Aspen, (970) 925-8354,
Landscape Contractor: West Canyon Landscape, New Castle, CO, (970) 618-4829
Architecture: Bernard Wharton, AIA, and Arthur Hanlon, AIA, Shope Reno Wharton Architects, Connecticut,

Categories: Landscaping & Gardening