Ten Times Better | Landscape Architecture Magazine

Ten Times Better | Landscape Architecture Magazine

At Quarry House, TEN x TEN uses Minnesota stone and lissome birch sculpt a residential garden in three dimensions.

By Aaron King

Stacked quarry stone in a parklike setting
A set of collages explored design possibilities for the backyard. Courtesy TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture and Urbanism.

The backyard as a distinct space has not always been with us. It is, according to the cultural landscape historian Paul Groth, a relatively recent invention that was made possible by technological innovations in the 1930s and 1940s.

As Groth wrote in the journal Landscape in 1990, those innovations rid American backyards of “various sheds, laundry lines, noxious trash barrels, and ash pits.” But it was the evolution of the garage from detached to attached that signaled the moment when the backyard became “truly free, a born-again space.” Backyards are, in effect, what remained after more rugged elements were expelled.

Quarry Garden, a residential landscape designed by the Minneapolis-based firm TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, distinguishes itself by reintroducing ruggedness to the backyard. It’s located in the Lowry Hill neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis, and within the span of a year, it has pocketed both an ASLA Honor Award in Residential Design and a Landezine International Landscape Award in Private Gardens.  In their recognition of the project, the Landezine awards jury described the atmosphere of the yard as “rich,” “dense,” and “mysterious.” Mystery is tough to achieve on a residential lot spanning a fifth of an acre, and that warrants a closer look.

A Study in Design Process

I met Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, and John Rasmussen at the Quarry Garden site early one Saturday morning in June. Rockcastle is a principal and cofounder, with Ross Altheimer, ASLA, of TEN x TEN. She had returned to her native Minneapolis in 2015 to found the studio after a prolific career in New York City. Rasmussen is an associate at the firm and was the lead designer and project manager on Quarry Garden. He had arrived that morning from birding with a colleague (highlights included a great horned owl and common grackle). The street was quiet, but the volume of birdsong rose as we approached the backyard.

Quarry Garden is only the third residential project by TEN x TEN, Rockcastle says. The clients, professors at the University of Minnesota, had moved from just blocks away and were looking for both architectural and landscape renovations to their new home. They hired the architects at MSR Design, who expanded the house and applied a vertical scaffolding treatment to the rear facade. For the landscape, the clients hoped to re-create a “woolly” environment that had characterized their previous backyard, Rockcastle says. They also hoped to incorporate qualities of “Japanese meditative spaces.”

Early in the design process, Rockcastle presented the clients with images of distinct Minnesotan landscapes grafted onto their lot. “We were playing with some collage techniques, trying to get a sense for how wild and rugged they might want to go.” The similarities between these rough collages and the final design are striking, and one collage in particular stands out: a snow-capped quarry wall, Mesabi gray, crowned with white birches and set against a backdrop of the clients’ vinyl-sided home. The clients’ positive response to this and other images gave Rockcastle and Rasmussen a vision toward which to work.

An outdoor landscape blueprint
A diagram of the viewsheds for the design’s “outdoor rooms” concept. Courtesy TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture and Urbanism.

TEN x TEN’s office is located on the second floor of a repurposed light bulb factory in Northeast Minneapolis, about a 20-minute drive from Quarry Garden. The firm had moved into the office eight months prior but had yet to see full occupancy; the 17-person staff prefers to work from home. “I’m here all the time,” Rockcastle says. “It’s great.” The office is brightly lit by four large, north-facing windows. Sketches and mementos adorn the south wall, including a bright orange mold stamp from Mill 19, an award-winning adapted steel mill project in Pittsburgh. Several exhibition banners hang from the lofted ceilings and act as a divider between the kitchen and desks, and waist-high bookshelves frame the space between the desks and the conference room. These shelves are occupied by material samples, plaster castings, and a variety of plants in a variety of pots.

Finding Productive Tension

“We’re trying to collect a lot of materials, lots of [stuff] that inspires us,” Rasmussen says. “We do weird experiments.” He showed me some castings on the shelves: a mix of soot and soil congealed in a thin plaster batter. These were attempts to “replicate the ground plane” of a local, disused foundry. “We’re picking up charred timbers, moss growing. It connects you with the space and the place.”

Rockcastle had earlier told me that she encourages “a lot of experiments as a way of intentionally spending time [on-site]. If you’re using your hands, playing with the soil, or setting up a question or a prompt that you then photograph very specifically, it allows your sense of a place to be hyperfocused on a couple of different things, rather than just documenting randomly.”

Man standing amongst leave drawing up landcaping plans
John Rasmussen inspecting trees at a nursery. Courtesy TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture and Urbanism.

This isn’t always the case, she says. “We’re still finding our way with residential clients and what processes might be of value to them.”

For Quarry Garden, Rockcastle says she and Rasmussen decided to make “key elements, like the quarry and the deck, orthogonal and tight,” and allow the wilder counterpart to fill in, “letting the species themselves do the work of being wild.” The specific wilderness Rockcastle and Rasmussen were inspired by was the Minnesota North Woods, a boreal forest environment that Rockcastle described as “short and dense with a high proportion of pine and spruce. Birch is more in the transition zone. In the fall, it’s predominantly yellow because the birch is the primary deciduous.”

Construction of the project wrapped up in 2020. Professional photos taken of the project in September of that year show a thicket of Whitespire birch with their branches hovering just feet above a plane of Pennsylvania sedge. In the time since, the birch has grown up and a window of visibility between the lowest limbs and tallest sedge has opened. “I’m really excited to think about the succession of the birch. Like, do we get to a point where we start to bring in a couple more little guys?” Rasmussen wondered, referring to trees that would reduce visibility. He didn’t mind the limbs rising but says he missed the tight “hug” of the young birch.

Beautifully designed black locust decking with no-mow fescue in the foreground
The black locust decking with no-mow fescue in the foreground. Courtesy Gaffer Photography.

The ground cover was undergoing an informal review during my visit as well. TEN x TEN had specified a no-mow fescue in an area of the yard the designers refer to as “the clearing.” “Subtle characteristics” make the sedge superior to the fescue, Rasmussen says, but “from a value-added standpoint, [the no-mow] is so much cheaper.” Unfortunately, the no-mow had recently been mowed and was looking a bit defeated—a fault of the maintenance crew, who had also misidentified the garden’s sweet woodruff as a weed and uprooted it, Rasmussen told me. Landscape Renovations, the contractor that installed the landscape, would oversee maintenance in the future. And the sweet woodruff, some of which had eluded the last crew and now resembled small puffs of snow, would be worked back in.

The Big Design Move

To blur the threshold between the architecture and landscape, the designers conceived of the yard as a series of outdoor rooms. The most well-defined of these rooms is a sunken space at the back of the yard, which Rockcastle and Rasmussen consider to be the quarry proper. It’s fair to call the idea of outdoor rooms a “conventional concept,” as Landezine did, but it’s a convention because it’s an effective way of organizing space. The blurring occurs mainly in a covered outdoor lounge that faces the yard. TEN x TEN worked to ensure the yard design was visible from as much of the interior as possible, Rockcastle says. A single building and remodeling office, Terra Firma, was tasked with constructing both the home renovations and the landscape.

Out of the lounge and down the middle of the yard runs a six-foot-wide elevated walkway, surfaced with slender planks of black locust. It’s the spine of the project. “When we were modeling it, it felt powerful; it felt cool. It’s like you’re walking down a hallway…you just kind of flow,” Rasmussen says. About midway down the walkway, we stopped to inspect a Canadian hemlock. The weather had knocked out its leader branch, but Rasmussen said it would mend itself with sap and a secondary branch would take the lead, resulting in a “really cool, sculptural” hemlock.

Children playing under young birch trees.
Young birch trees cast unique shadows in both the cold and warm seasons. Courtesy Gaffer Photography.

The walkway terminates into another sculptural piece, a four-foot-wide by eight-foot-high wedge of granite. At 12,000 pounds, it’s the heaviest stone the designers specified, and it was carried over the threshold in the arms of a telehandler. Rasmussen says that “at some point, I want to drill a couple of holes through the top and on the back side. Have a water tray, so the water just sneaks through. Just a seepage.” Rockcastle wants to see light pierce the holes. “We like the idea of working with the sound of the wind in the leaves, water in the stone,” she says, creating the conditions for “those phenomenal, wild moments.”

Down three stumps of granite fashioned into steps, we descended into the quarry. Planting and grading partially obscure the quarry from view until you’re at its edge (cue the mystery). The descent is two feet and lands you on a bed of Dresser traprock and scattered forest litter. “You feel like you’re further in it” due to the top of the quarry walls sitting six inches above grade, Rasmussen says. These walls are composed of eight or so long slabs of granite procured from a local Coldspring quarry, and no material on the project exudes more character.

Roughnecks in the Garden

Known as roughbacks, each slab bears a set of evenly spaced grooves, about half an inch deep and one inch wide, along the face. The grooves are an artifact of the excavation process in which holes in the rock are drilled and packed with dynamite that, when detonated, free a 5-by-5-by-10-foot block from the quarry wall. (“Bhoosh!” Rasmussen says, mimicking the explosion sound.) Once it is freed, Coldspring shaves any defects off this block, including sections with drill holes, and it’s these sections that become the roughbacks. These specific roughbacks were tossed onto a plateau outside Coldspring’s quarry, called the graveyard, which is where they caught the eye of Rockcastle and Rasmussen.

“We didn’t know exactly what we needed,” Rockcastle says of the granite. But inventorying and deploying unused items is something of a specialty for TEN x TEN. They did it to masterful effect on Mill 19. Rockcastle says she and Rasmussen were both working on that project simultaneously with Quarry Garden. “There was a heavy influence. Giving yourself a limited set of parameters, making it a goal to reuse materials in creative ways.” The same spirit drove both projects, she says.

Rockcastle, Rasmussen, and other designers from the firm returned to the graveyard to kick the tires on the roughbacks. They brought wax pencils to tag the ones best suited for their residential quarry. “We measured and documented them in order to build a 3D model,” Rockcastle says. Rasmussen led the modeling of the stones and meticulously studied their arrangement. “It was a lovely textural study John was doing. Flipping which ones were the cut edges, which ones were the textured edges, so that when you’re sitting in the space, you have a composition of different textures.”

The best vantage on this composition is from the live-edge bench at the back of the quarry. It’s hewn from white oak and nested between the walls. “We wanted it to look like it’s floating,” Rasmussen says, so a minimalist bracketing system was used. Rasmussen considered the Japanese American woodworker George Nakashima “a huge influence,” and at one end of the bench are three butterfly joints neatly stitching a split, an incongruity typical in Nakashima’s work. Rasmussen described the joints as a “cue of care. It shows intentionality.”

An outdoor firepit in a lovely landscaped backyard
The quarry is partially obscured by planting until you’re at its edge. Courtesy Gaffer Photography.

Several of the project’s minimalist elements were the result of a paring-down process. There was “a fear of overdesigning or making it more precious than it should be,” Rockcastle says. The team studied several options for a firepit in the quarry, including raised stone basins and linear structures, before taking the camouflage approach of burying a gas coil beneath the gravel and allowing the gas to seep upward. A roughback with a square void at its center sits flush with the gravel, the void framing the hidden burners. The only indication of the roughback’s purpose is an inlaid floor plate and valve that, when opened and ignited, send flames hissing out of the ground. Rasmussen demonstrated this while explaining that the gravel was igneous and, critically, solid. “It can handle being flamed. Porous rock can’t, because if you get moisture in them, you’re going to have exploding rocks.”

Rockcastle says the seating studies Rasmussen conducted used custom sculptural forms to achieve a “Noguchi-style garden, where the furniture is a really important part of the space.” These studies show wavy, primitive recliners and stools, but the clients opted for off-the-shelf furnishings. Rasmussen modeled another option for the space with an alternate wood bench, the form of which came cascading down from the elevated walkway. It’s an idea that might have seen enthusiastic implementation in a different context. But in this yard, Rasmussen believed “that would have been awful.”

Rasmussen says the decision to step down into the quarry helps to “elevate your subconscious experience of the yard,” calling it a “key moment of decision-making” between one region of the yard and the next. There aren’t many decision-making moments, however; it’s a small space. The main path pulls you from the lounge toward the back of the property, where the quarry might siphon you off. But if you instead hang a left out of the lounge, proceed past the humble vegetable garden growing tomatoes and squash, and take a right at the fence line, you’ll come upon a secluded hammock.

Modern architecture lines frame a view into a parklike back yard
The yard as seen from the porch. Courtesy Gaffer Photography.

“[They] left the hammock up all summer,” Rasmussen says, pointing to the shadow it cast. That explained the bare patch of mulch beneath it. But Rasmussen used the scene to highlight that the mulch was triple-shredded. “We really want it to feel like a woodland,” he says, “kind of like you’re walking in the woods.” The mulch gave a sharp crunch as I pressed my sneaker to it, and Rasmussen nodded approvingly.

On my way out of town, I stopped at another TEN x TEN project, the Historic Fort Snelling revitalization, a recently completed landscape overlooking the Mississippi River. The fort was closed to visitors, so I paced the grounds, appreciating the nascent planting and wayfinding, which explained the significance of each species to the Dakota people. I stopped in front of a pair of limestone roughbacks, stacked one on the other but at an angle, and I imagined the arrangement studies they had undergone. I brushed the stone off with my hand and took a seat.

Aaron King is a landscape designer and writer based in Brooklyn.

Project Credits
Landscape Architect TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, Minneapolis. Architect MSR Design, Minneapolis. Construction Terra Firma, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Planting and Maintenance Landscape Renovations, Afton, Minnesota.

Adiantum pedatum (Northern maidenhair fern)
Amelanchier arborea (Common serviceberry)
Aronia melanocarpa (Black chokeberry)
Asarum canadense (Canadian wild ginger)
Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ (Whitespire birch)
Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge)
Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ (Brilliance autumn fern)
Festuca (No-mow fescue)
Galium odoratum (Sweet woodruff)
Geranium maculatum (Spotted geranium)
Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich fern)
Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon fern)
Pinus cembra (Swiss stone pine)
Pinus strobus ‘Fastigiata’ (Columnar eastern white pine)
Taxus x media ‘Everlow’ (Everlow yew)
Tradescantia (Spiderwort)
Tsuga canadensis (Eastern hemlock)
Viburnum opulus (European cranberry bush)