EDMUND HOLLANDER: Landscape Architect

Ellen Keohane | September 29, 2006
Morgan McGivern

Edmund Hollander plucked an apple from a tree in the yard of one of his client’s multimillion-dollar estates off Georgica Road in East Hampton and sank his teeth into it. Immediately, his face puckered. “Not quite ready yet. Another week,” Mr. Hollander said as he hurled the partially eaten apple into a cluster of bald cyprus trees bordering the property.

Most people strain to see beyond the hedges of the houses in this neighborhood, but Mr. Hollander, a landscape architect, has free access. He jokes that his New York City and Sag Harbor-based firm, Edmund Hollander Landscape Architect Design, P.C., has designed the yards of every third property in this neighborhood. He co-founded the firm with his business partner, Maryanne Connelly, in the late 1980s.

This year, the firm won a residential design award of honor from the American Society of Landscape Architects for a dune-side residence in East Hampton. Locally, Mr. Hollander’s firm is known for its work on the ecological restoration of Robins Island and more recently, at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton.

“This makes me feel great. This is very cool,” Mr. Hollander said as he walked along a staggered row of perennials and decorative grasses leading past a golf green to the property’s tennis courts. “I love coming to places and seeing this.”

When designing a landscape, Mr. Hollander carefully studies the site and the architecture of the house, and listens closely to what the family wants. “My wife often kids me that I use up all my listening genes when I’m working,” he said.

The key to being a great landscape architect is listening to your clients — and to the site, Mr. Hollander said. “I don’t want to sound like Shirley MacLaine, but the land should tell you what to do.”

From traditional to contemporary, Mr. Hollander’s firm adapts the direction of the project to the clients’ needs and what the space calls for, he said. “That’s what makes our firm different, we don’t do one thing,” he said. “If all of our work looked the same, it would be because we were letting our egos overwhelm nature and the client.”

Many of Mr. Hollander’s clients approach his firm at the same time or even before they hire an architect for their house. “If you think of a landscape as a composition, where the house goes may be impacted by where the tennis court goes or where the pool goes,” he said. In most cases, his firm works collaboratively with the architect and client on everything outside the four walls of the house, he said.

“This is one of the first places we ever did,” Mr. Hollander said as he pulled into a long driveway lined with hydrangeas and boxwoods. It was nothing but bare sand when they started, he said. “The husband was upset that there was no shade. I told him, ‘Just be patient.’ Now it’s a jungle.” For the past 10 years, Mr. Hollander said, he has worked on a series of projects on the five-acre property.

When designing a landscape, practical elements are as important as artistic ones, said Mr. Hollander as he pointed to a shaded seating area on a patio next to the house. Where people drink their coffee in the morning, for example, is an important consideration when designing a landscape.

“Design is really about making space — whether it’s indoors or outdoors,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s buildings, landscapes, interiors, or exteriors; it’s all about how space and people interact.”

Following a path made of Arizona sandstone, Mr. Hollander weaved his way through rose, herb, and vegetable gardens, past a pool, and down a narrow path where branches and shrubs brushed up against his shoulders and legs. “This whole landscape is about walking around, because the owners love to stroll and walk the grounds,” he said.

None of it could have been accomplished without the expertise of builders, stone masons, and gardeners, Mr. Hollander added. They are the ones who have the skills to take his plans and turn them into reality.

A native New Yorker, Mr. Hollander grew up on Manhattan’s East Side. “Everyone always wonders how someone from Manhattan gets involved with this stuff,” he said.

It all started with a horticulture class at Vassar College, where Mr. Hollander graduated with a history degree in 1972. Encouraged by a professor, he followed Vassar with two years at the New York Botanical Garden, which basically prepared him for a career as a gardener, something he was not that interested in, he said.

Ian McHarg’s book “Design With Nature,” one of the landmark publications of the environmental movement, inspired him to apply to graduate school for landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he studied under Mr. McHarg, who was the founder of the department. “It was life-changing,” he said of the experience.

After graduate school, Mr. Hollander stayed in Philadelphia for a couple of years, teaching and working at a firm called the Delta Group. “Philadelphia had all the dirt, the noise, the crime of New York, with none of the fun,” he said. He soon moved back to New York. There, he taught at City College and worked for Clarke and Rapuano, which designed Battery Park and the grounds of the United Nations, as well as other outdoor public spaces in New York City.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Hollander reconnected with Ms. Connelly, a fellow classmate at Penn. In addition to working at their day jobs full time, they started doing landscape design for some private residences at night and on weekends. In 1991, a project they worked on with the architect Robert A.M. Stern and the interior designer Albert Hadley was featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

“That was kind of a big break and a wonderful thing to happen,” Mr. Hollander said. “Through word of mouth, we kept getting more and more work.”

Eventually, Mr. Hollander and Ms. Connelly left their day jobs and started their own firm, which now consists of about 15 employees. They now juggle about 30 or 40 commissions at one time, and have become so busy that they have to turn away two or three jobs a week, Mr. Hollander said.

Although his firm works on projects across the globe, he said, he is happiest working on the East End, where he shares a house in Sag Harbor with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. From the ocean to the bay and in between, there are so many different environments on the East End —and things love to grow here.

“It gives me a great opportunity to design landscapes in incredibly different areas,” he said. “It allows us to really have fun.”