Bernard Trainor Wrests a Big Sur Landscape Back from the Edge
Bernard Trainor’s first impression of the land surrounding a house on a stretch of Big Sur coast was that it felt dispirited and inhospitable: A harsh climate of drenching rains, mists and howling winds had taken its toll and left the property fractured from its stunning Pacific view. Responding to the sound of crashing waves, his intuition told him to simply uncover a sense of place. “I totally respect nature—it has humbled me on many occasions,” he says, “but I’m never shy about intervening when necessary. There’s a subtle yet significant difference between manipulating a site and unleashing its instincts.”
Perched on a cliff, the home had a verticality that the team sought to temper. “The scale here is vast,” says Trainor. “I’m always thinking about broader contexts. In this case, that amounts to the horizon and endless sky and water.” Together with associates Michael Bliss and David LeRoy, Trainor added decks to the house to help ground it and graded, tiered and terraced the soil around it. In order to restore the large front swath of the property extending from the driveway to the back of the house, they brought in 25 varieties of plants, including California native coastal shrubs and grasses, South African restios, Australian tea trees and Mediterranean succulents.
To guide the descent from the house down to the sea, Trainor designed two main paths where lengths of weathered wood alternate with flanking boulders in an elemental language of timber and stone. Reclaiming the slope from ravages of time and weather, he created a textural and fragrant landscape. The owners now trek past spiky grasses and myrtle shrubs, and honey-scented Manzanita blossoms cast shadows onto sage and thyme ground cover. At the ocean’s edge, Trainor created a viewing platform, dry-stacking local Enz fieldstone walls in concentric half-circles to echo the tidal patterns. At the center of this space, which appears poised between ancient ampitheater and modern monument, he placed a stunning, sculptural firestone quarried locally and carved by Santa Cruz artist Peter Hanson.
Now, the homeowner can retreat here to entertain on summer evenings or bask seaside on sunny days. Trainor has always had an affinity for parts of the world where the earth meets the sea, particularly in Australia where he grew up sailing and surfing. “My work actually features core principles like discovery and interconnection,” he says. Studying horticultural history and architecture in England, Trainor discovered the true meaning of indigenous from the celebrated plantswoman Beth Chatto.
That knowledge is evident at Big Sur: The landscape features native and Mediterranean climate species like Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine, California lilac and Elk Blue California rush. “Knowing which plants would be comfortable in this type of coastal edge climate was a key to the design’s success,” explains Trainor. “This landscape has been more resilient than I would have imagined. Durable can be beautiful!”
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Force of Nature.