Take every left-hand turn you can take, and you’ll end up here,” says architect James Tuer. Our Landscape Designer of the Year is describing how to get to his latest project—a whimsical, sprawling compound that he describes as a “once in a lifetime” job, complete with a freestanding library and an orangery (home to an indoor orange tree)—but he could very well be talking about his own design career. It hasn’t been a straight path for Tuer (who previously won Eco Designer of the Year back in 2015). But he got somewhere fantastical all the same.
For the past five years, Tuer has been handling both the architecture and the accompanying landscape (including this “sky garden”) on an ambitious seven-acre site atop Bowen Island. Visitors are welcomed by a garden entry filled with water-smart grasses and Japanese maples; climb the stairs, and find a view of a floating garden. Photo by Kyoko Fierro.
Tuer studied landscape architecture at the University of Guelph in the ’80s, and got his start designing ski resorts. It was creating the village at Sun Peaks that inspired him to go back to school to get his architecture degree. Hopping between projects big and small—his own home on Bowen Island, the park at the Sea to Sky Gondola—he realized at a certain point that he didn’t have to choose between the two career paths, architecture or landscape. One informed the other, a beautiful loop of inspiration, the line between indoors and outdoors forever blurred.
The uniting factor on all of the projects he undertakes with his firm JWT Architecture—whether garden or courtyard or building—is an unwavering celebration of a sense of place. “There’s an idea of ‘genius loci,’” says Tuer. “I try to share a landscape with the building, and share the building with the landscape. I like to bring out the best in the site.”
In Tuer’s Alder Residence, native plants, raw concrete, granite boulders and gabion baskets bring a hit of nature to an urban lot for an empty nester couple in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. Photo by Deb Stringfellow.
One literal example: the sloping courtyard of that once-in-a-lifetime project (dubbed Seven Buildings) features intentionally exposed raw bedrock, wet daily by concealed sprinklers to highlight the gorgeous colour of the natural stone. Tuer also works closely with Nat’s Nursery for all of his plantings to ensure everything is native and water-smart—his preferred palette includes ornamental grasses, Japanese maples and sedges.
But don’t confuse “regionalism” with being provincial. The Pacific Northwest has a wide context of influence in and of itself: Asian culture, the Arts and Crafts architecture movement of the 1920s, Greene and Greene’s homes in Southern California and, of course, the natural landscape. Tuer finds inspiration in all of it, and beyond. On three of the structures for the Seven Buildings project, Tuer has installed a “sky garden,” inspired by the rooftop terraces of Morocco. The undulating surface is covered with sedum, in a rainbow of natural hues. “You have blue greens, red, reddish greens... you get to play as an artist and a painter.”
In his Laneway House project, the space acts as an “urban cottage” for a stroke survivor and her husband of 40 years, who are no longer able to travel. Tuer turned the small courtyard into a garden oasis, complete with a serene pond, a high slatted fence for privacy and smooth concrete walkways. Photo by Andrew Latreille.
Tuer is here to collaborate, not conquer, with an approach that impressed our judging panel. “Materials and planting work together and complement each other to create new places that still feel like a part of the landscapes they’re inhabiting,” commented judge Grant Stewart, principal at Seattle landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. “In his projects, topography is acknowledged and welcomed.”
When his projects include both architecture and landscape, that sense of welcome is magnified. Operable walls, terraces and decks a-plenty bring the outdoors in, and even when you’re within a home’s four walls, windows are placed to frame the view—of the garden, of Garibaldi’s peak, of Texada Island—just so. “It’s almost like cinematography, or a painting,” says Tuer. “A way of framing nature from many different vantage points.”