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Grounds Keeper



Published April 14, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Talk about productivity. H. Keith Wagner has completed 22 paintings since January. That's more than four a month, a daunting pace for any artist. "I get so impatient waiting for paint to dry," he explains with a grin. Wagner also turns out heavy-metal sculptures, some of which are giant balls of rusted steel rolled up like string. Three exercise-ball-sized specimens sit in the living room of the house he designed for himself in Ferrisburgh; a couple of larger ones cast round shadows in the yard just outside.

But that's not even half the story. Wagner's first love -- and professional focus for the last 18 years -- is landscape architecture. The principal owner and chief designer in Burlington's Wagner McCann Studio, he has landed a number of prominent local design projects such as the new I-89 Williston rest areas, corporate headquarters for IDX and Burton Snowboards, the Vermont Arts Council Sculpture Park and ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.

Wagner's touch is evident on campuses, too, including the University of Vermont and St. Michael's, Champlain and Middlebury colleges. His work for institutional, corporate and residential clients can be seen as far away as Hawaii and the Bahamas, and as near as... the photographs and drawings in his office at the corner of Marble Avenue and Pine Street.

Wagner, 42, shares his expansive, light-filled quarters on the second floor above the former Gaslight Laundromat with business partner Melissa McCann and eight employees. At six-foot-eight, Wagner needs plenty of space. He also has a good idea of what to do with it.

The open, orderly arrangements of shelving and workspaces hint at Wagner's design aesthetic: clean, elegant, spare. His landscaping typically features walkways, low walls and/or seatings of indigenous stone, bold mass plantings, and custom-made planters or urns that provide a splash of color against the greens and earth tones. "Even perennial beds are a few yellows or a few reds -- waves of color that I think give it visual strength," he notes.

"An important part of our landscape work is that we approach the land as a sculpture, the design as a dialogue with its context," Wagner says. That idea is borne out at Bicentennial Hall on the Middlebury College campus. The state-of-the-art building is a science center, and Wagner echoed that interior purpose with "datums" outside in the entrance and courtyard. That is, native Vermont stone seatwalls spaced, ruler-like, exactly in line with the building's columns. He planted white birch trees around the datums to create "a dappled canopy" as he puts it, "under which inquisitive minds may gather."

Science also inspired Wagner's treatment of the grounds and plaza outside the new Johns Hopkins University research facility in Baltimore. Here those datums show up again in broad bands of paving stones in alternating colors -- suggesting graph paper -- while planters are shaped like "Petri dishes." The flat roof of a low central structure is covered with grass, and tilts from an upper plaza to the street level. It also offers the visual respite of a green swath amid the light stone of surrounding buildings and the cement-gray of the larger, encircling city.

"Over time there's been a maturation of how I view landscape -- functional, inspirational, even allegorical," Wagner says. If his metaphorical expressions usually result in minimalist, almost Zenlike arrangements of natural and manmade materials, Wagner has shown his playful side in a couple of smaller-scale Vermont projects. The Williston rest areas, with their concrete picnic tables that reference tractors, and the track-like walkway around the grounds, balance Wagner's love for industrial design and the state's rural traditions.

ECHO called for an entirely different approach. "The client was interested in a water element outside the building," explains architect Bren Alvarez, whose firm, Smith Alvarez Sienkiewycz, designed the award-winning lake-science center on Burlington's Waterfront. Suggesting that Wagner is "one of the most fun landscape architects to work with," Alvarez says he obliged with slate walkways that let off surprising squirts of mist.

ECHO marketing director Katrina Roberts affirms that the mysterious spray outside the building is a big hit -- especially with dogs and toddlers -- and evokes the most frequently asked question when visitors come inside: What is that? "We tell them it's another element of water," Roberts says. "In the building you can see it, feel it in different forms, so outside you can feel it as mist on your skin. We only operate it seasonally, but it's definitely part of the attraction."

The appeal in much of Wagner's institutional and residential work is actually that it doesn't shout "Design." That is, his siteworks pay tribute to nature even as they gently corral it with neat stone walls and weed-free walkways. The resulting confluence of shape, size, color and texture achieve a wholeness, and yet Wagner leaves his work with a most inviting "void" -- an acknowledgment, presumably, that the work is not complete until human visitors inevitably and variously fill it.

For instance, at a residence in Stowe, Wagner designed a rather austere "pier" of stonework that extends into the family's back-yard pond. Though the platform is beautiful when empty, it's easy to imagine the swimmers, boaters, sunbathers, picknickers or sunset-watchers who may congregate there.

"Some landscape architects concentrate on plantings as opposed to the larger picture," opines architect Tom Cullins, a principal in Burlington's Truex Cullins & Partners. "Keith has . . . a vision of landscape architecture, which is to deal with [it] in a broader sense and to work the landscape as an art form. Not to diminish his capabilities with details, but he really is a true sculptor of exterior space." Cullins, who's currently working with Wagner on the new student center at UVM, compares his sensibility with that of world-renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley, who recently passed away at his home in Charlotte. "And as a footnote," Cullins adds, "Keith is a joy to work with."

Born in Philadelphia, Wagner grew up near Rochester, New York. He was just a high school sophomore when he realized his life's calling. After a brief stint at UVM on a baseball scholarship, Wagner transferred to Syracuse, where he graduated with a B.A. in Landscape Architecture in 1985. Harvard Graduate School of Design followed. While in Cambridge, Wagner worked for William Pressley & Associates, then returned to Vermont to become partners with Burlington landscape architect Paul Flinn.

"After three years, at the age of 26, I bought him out and Paul moved to Hawaii," Wagner says. He changed the company's name to The Office of H. Keith Wagner. Last year it changed again after McCann became a partner in the practice.

"We slowly grew over 17 years. Looking back, the great thing for me is, we're doing bigger and more interesting projects," Wagner says. "Articles are being published about us, and that gives us credibility to architects who are going to hire us." Landscape architects are not required to be licensed in Vermont, Wagner reports, but he's licensed in four other states and registered with a national professional board.

At this point he estimates that his landscape work is about 60 percent institutional and 40 residential; that same ratio is true for both in-state and out-of-state clients. For institutional sites, the fee for landscape architects is generally part of the construction budget, Wagner explains; his contracts vary from about $5000 to well over $100,000. For individual homeowners, costs obviously depend on the scope of the work, but a master plan might run three to five grand, he says.

Wagner doesn't get that kind of cash for his smaller art work. He began painting and sculpting not to make money, but as an expressive outlet. Some of his pieces have appeared in local galleries in recent years, and Wagner himself is a regular at art openings. "The paintings are very personal to me, but I'm still engaging the same sensibility as in my landscapes," he suggests. "I think the painting informs my landscapes and vice versa."

After a period of experimenting with abstract fields of color and texture, Wagner's newer paintings, perhaps not surprisingly, "are starting to be landscapes," he says. But his views are the sparest possible: low, flat horizon line, big, big sky and maybe a building or two for context. In fact, they look a lot like the kind of terrain Wagner loves: the Southwest.

Before he found the land for his Ferrisburgh house, Wagner reveals, he almost bought an old filling station in Marfa, Texas -- a possible renovation project for his retirement years. Though he admits the New England landscape can make him feel "claustrophobic," he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to leave it behind. No doubt Wagner's 11-year-old daughter is one of the reasons he feels "grounded" here. And then there's all that lovely Panton stone...