A colorfully illuminated garden fence in Alexandria, Virginia, gives the neighbors something to talk about.

Different sites present different challenges. In the case of this small residential corner lot in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the client wanted to hide a group of heavy power lines that run along the edge of his property on a shared lot line. While some design solutions might have responded simply, this project involved an innovative solution that accomplishes the utilitarian task of screening the wires by creating a sculptural and landscaped edge for the property, while remaining neighborly.

This was not the first collaboration between client and architect, nor among the members of the design team that included architectural, landscape, and lighting professionals. 'It is a charged and fluid working process,' explains Robert Cole, principal of ColePrévost, the D.C. architectural firm responsible for the project. Acknowledging his enthusiastic and informed client, Cole explains, 'He often appears at design meetings with a large filing box stuffed with clippings from magazines, newspapers, books, and digital images he has snapped from his travels. We show him images of where we are in the thought-process and he responds.' In addition to creating a screen for the wires, there was also the need to remediate a drainage issue on the site: the clay-saturated soil creates heavy water run-off after it rains.

Since a wall would not necessarily hide the wires or remedy the drainage problem, Cole sought another solution, exploring the use of plant materials. Working with landscape architects Rhonda and Doug Dahlkemper, principals of their own practice called WorkshopDC, Cole chose a fast-growing, exotic bamboo, the stem of which turns shiny-black with green flecks and reaches a mature height of between 26 to 30 feet. To facilitate the growth of this plant material, yet temper its invasive characteristics, the team designed a reinforced garden bed measuring 4 1/2 feet deep, 4 1/2 feet wide, and 45 feet long. When the client mentioned he would only see the space at night after work, Cole called in lighting designer Tom Lindblom.

The fifth collaboration in a series of small projects with the client, Cole saw this outdoor space's potential to become a 'zen-like garden feature' and a way to inform the design direction for the client's new house on the same site. The garden-fence area uses a sophisticated series of textured materials. Mexican river gravel anchors the bamboo in the ground plane, providing another layer to address the drainage issue, while inground floodlights with an MR16 lamp and honeycomb baffle graze the bamboo from below. In front of the bamboo, a wall of structural channel glass panels, turned horizontally and modulated in sections, provides a visual base for the plant material. Vertical stainless-steel supports used to stiffen the glass wall facilitate a place for the second lighting element, 4-foot-long LED iColor Fresco lightsticks. The back of this layered three-dimensional wall is a fiberglass-reinforced concrete board. It acts as a neutral backdrop for the shadowy patterns of bamboo and horizontal glass members. The board also absorbs the intensity of the client-selected palette of royal blue, purple and red, and shields the light from spilling over into the neighbor's backyard. The lightsticks are linked to an iPlayer 2 module and keypad, and there are eight presets that allow horizontal and vertical color-changing patterns.

By all accounts this is an elaborate response to a straightforward task-a client's desire to visually hide power lines from view. But sometimes 'small projects' lead to dynamic solutions. In this instance the client's interest in design allowed a collaborative effort between architecture, landscape, and lighting. What started simply as an idea about a screen ultimately developed into a landscaped dimensional space, as the design team interpreted and explored the meaning of boundaries and edges. elizabeth donoff

project Rodgers Garden Fence, Alexandria, Virginia
architect ColePrevost
landscape architect Workshop DC
lighting designer Tom Lindblom
lighting programmer Brian Walsh
photographer Christian Molina
manufacturers BK Lighting, Color Kinetics