Design Platform in Great Swamp

Robert Marvin/Howell Beach & Associates - Office

 

   
       
 
    "The dominant reason for existence of Robert Marvin/Howell Beach & Associates shall be to create and design an environment in which each individual can grow and develop to be a full human being as God intended him to be."

-  Office Philosophy

   
 

 

Robert Marvin, FASLA (1920-2001)

This editorial was originally published in Landscape Architecture Magazine August 2001.  It appeared in the "Land Matters" column written by: J. William "Bill" Thompson, FASLA, Editor.

I

 first saw Robert Marvin when he was giving a talk in the Charleston, South Carolina, municipal auditorium in the mid-1970s.  He wasn’t a natural public speaker, but he strove to make the point that, as the South continued to develop, we should weave natural systems into our plans for subdivisions, office campuses, and new towns.  His overall message – like the quote above, which I gleaned from a conversation years later – struck a chord with me.

My first glimpse of a Robert Marvin project was a parking lot.  Not just any parking lot, of course, but the Simmons Mattress Company parking lot outside Atlanta.  The odd thing was that it looked totally underdesigned – more like cars parked at random in the woods than a conventional lot with curbs and neatly arranged parking stalls.  It was only when I looked more closely that I realized that the narrow, one-lane driveway and the scattered, curbless stalls at Simmons had been meticulously staked out to weave through the existing woods with minimal disruption to the trees or the forest floor.  I went on to marvel at the Simmons headquarters building and the way it was shoehorned into the oak-hickory forest, but it was that first glimpse of that parking lot that stuck with me – a humble but eloquent example of Marvin’s ability to make development fit the land at the detail scale of design.

In the late 1980s, I visited Marvin at his office in the small town of Walterboro – a visit that was a revelation, because this was no ordinary office.  It was at the end of a sand road that wove through the woods, and it was a sort of glassed-in platform, designed by Marvin’s own team, that sat up on pilings at the edge of a swamp.  Marvin told me that he tried to entice prospective clients to visit him there so that they could grasp his land-friendly approach to design for themselves.

Finally, in the late 1990s I visited at his home in Walterboro to write a profile of him that was eventually published in LAM in June 1997.  I spent two days with Marvin and his effusive wife, Anna Lou, traveling around the South Carolina lowcountry looking at his projects and the plantation lands that had been in his family for generations.  It was during those two days, listening to Marvin hold forth in his honey-sweet drawl, that I realized that his life was linked to the old agrarian tradition of the South and to his forebears who gained their living from the land.  Marvin didn’t raise cotton or indigo, but he still had a profound tie to the land in the same stretch of that southern coast that his ancestors had farmed.

One detail of a project we visited those two days sticks in my memory – the entry drive at Bray’s Island, a former plantation that was being developed as a high-end residential community.  Despite the elite nature of the project, Marvin had designed the entry drive as an unpaved sand road.  This humble, low-tech detail, like the parking lot at the Simmons Mattress Company, was an expressive example of Marvin’s making development fit the land rather than the other way around.  With Marvin’s passing, his legacy deserves to be studied by landscape architects and developers throughout the South and beyond.