minuet in rock

Living the urban life doesn't mean forgoing green, as Susan and David Coulter discovered in 1995, when they bought a ground-floor Los Angeles condo. Its streetside perch gave them two small terraces off the living and dining rooms, though the busy corner came with so much traffic noise that previous owners had rarely ventured outside.

The Coulters, who divide their time between New York, L.A. and a Montana ranch, saw the terraces as opportunities to expand a city house and mute the harshness of its surroundings. They envisioned garden views from every room, like living paintings, where leafy spots would provide a comfortable atmosphere for entertaining.

The couple hired L.A. architect and landscape architect Mark Rios for design help. Rios conceived the house and garden as a single composition. He streamlined the traditional 1960s apartment, reconfiguring rooms and floors to convert a two-story space to one. His white walls, high ceilings and skylights evoke the unadorned

aura of a gallery, which is ideal for displaying his clients' contemporary art collection. Externally, he and his design associate, Mark Tessier, vowed to make the most of every inch. "Successful gardens solve real problems," Rios explains, adding that the fixes should seem effortless, with choices predicated on beauty, not necessity.

The problems here--tight quarters and an overly exposed setting--were the common urban kind, and their solutions involved blotting out tall buildings, muffling traffic noise and erasing lines that made each 700-square-foot terrace seem cramped. The designers got permission to plant carrot wood trees on the other side of a wall enclosing an area outside the living room designated for entertaining. The trees' lofty foliage screens a nearby high-rise, but it also suggests that the Coulters' garden continues beyond the wall. And the wall itself became part of the solution when Rios and Tessier transformed it into a musical (and traffic-muting) water spill that sheets down blue and green tile and at night shines with silver light. Its bubbling channel can be crossed on stepping stones, and its spray nurtures water-loving tropical plants such as bromeliads, spathiphyllums and epidendrums, which grow in pots on the adjoining terrazzo pavement.

In contrast, the garden outside the dining room is more intimate and small-scaled. When the designers arrived, two large trees (a ficus and a carrot wood) existed in the space. Given the size and age of the trees--and their effectiveness as city screens--removing them was unthinkable. Instead, Rios and Tessier worked around them, choosing companion plants such as abutilon, cranesbill, campanula and Australian fuchsia, which don't mind shade or root competition. Around the ficus' base, where gnarled, shallow-spreading roots made any planting impossible, they raised the ground to create a separate gravel-topped terrace with a terrazzo edge for garden seating. Along the far perimeter, within an existing stucco wall they painted green, the team planted a ficus hedge and erected a bronze frame for climbing stephanotis vines. The frame's lower third is paned in laminated glass that, lit from behind, shines like a lantern after dark. A fountain that pours water onto a Colorado moss rock completes the scene and draws the Coulters outside for lounging and summer lunches. "A city garden is supremely relaxing," says Susan Coulter, whose husband is the former chairman of Bank of America. "Not only can you putter in it with a cup of tea, but you can watch the arrival and departure of the seasons--a part of life I couldn't do without."

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