Make no little plans

I have always understood the importance of “the plan” when I envision a building, but as I set out to design the walking paths on my 200-acre forest located near Dorset, Ontario, it took me some time to take in the scale of the project I was undertaking.

At a quarter the size of Central Park in New York and half that of High Park in Toronto, this site would need to have a strong conceptual framework to ensure that the paths I was creating throughout this pristine wilderness would encourage those exploring them to connect deeply with this spectacular landscape.

The American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, who was famous for his master plan of the 1893, Chicago World’s Fair said:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.”

I have often been drawn to this quote as it reminds me of the importance of thinking big. While I had initially interpreted it as a statement that seemed pompous and grandiose, it became more relevant to me as the scale of the projects I was undertaking grew larger. In 2005, five years after I had launched my firm, I was involved in designing a seaside village in Dalian China. Over the next 15 years the scale of the designs at my firm grew to include a waterfront community on Georgian Bay, and a university campus in Kunming China, among many others. My career had become a series of “big plan” projects. Over these years I discovered that without the overriding objective of creating that “noble, logical diagram”, which ties together the various, often conflicting elements of a large-scale master plan, the exercise can erode into a piecemeal resolution of a series of circumstantial requirements.

As I began to envision the layout of the walking paths for the site this quote rang true once again. However, previously I was designing the spaces you would enjoy while walking in an urban environment, now I was creating the means to explore and engage with a natural landscape. Traditionally, the three main components I utilize when creating an urban master plan were still there – that being the buildings, infrastructure, and the landscape. However, in this project the component hierarchy is reversed.  In this case the landscape is revealed through the infrastructure, which is the series of paths. These link the natural features of the site with the sculptural pieces, places of repose and the various buildings providing additional ways to engage nature.

I knew I needed to be purposeful with the first mark on the landscape, as it would create an opening in the otherwise continuous forest canopy. The existence of this untouched forest was the essence of what made this site extraordinary as it connects seamlessly with the adjacent properties and extends, almost unbroken, to the 7,725 square kilometers of Algonquin Park, which is located 60 kilometers away.

This opening in the forest is a pure form, obviously man-made, geometric, and conspicuously set apart from the continuous expanse of nature. As such, it creates a place of orientation and repose, and a space which is enclosed by the shaded forest understory that surrounds it.  When designing this space, I was aware that a square would be too architectural and rigid, a circle too fixed and static, but an oval would fit my objectives perfectly (a geometric form with soft edges, which was particularly important since I would be carving this out of the existing forest).

This initial impulse was also informed by the soft curve of an existing forested hillside, and the dimensions of the oval were set to match the size of this naturally occurring amphitheater. 

As I was constructing the oval in 2019, I felt it was important that when you arrived within this space that you would assume the opening had always been there, and that the forest had not been disturbed to create it.

The existence of a large, moss-covered stump, on the sloped surface of the amphitheater was also important in setting up the strong north/south axis which is aligned with this existing historic remnant.

Not only would the oval be formally separate from the forest by its perfect geometry, and its level surface of gravel and lawn, but I felt strongly that this shape would also help in connecting you to the cosmological order of the earth, with its compass alignment.

This would ensure that the location of the sun, as opposed to an otherwise green canopy overhead, would provide orientation for you as you entered the property.

I placed the site’s primary building, which is in the shape of a cross, on the eastern end of the oval. To make room for this construction, I will create a second opening in the forest canopy around it which will follow the outline of this building.  Once the cross and oval are connected visually, this will carve out the symbol of “life” from the canopy.  

For this I was inspired by the work of Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, who has been inscribing the “TERZO PARADISO” symbol in different mediums and on different sites throughout the world.

In my case the image would be the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, or Ankh. Why “LIFE”? Why this impulse to create a symbolic statement?  My desire was that in arriving in this space, hidden deep within the forest, it would become obvious to you that there was something at play here, this was not just a recreational lakeside cottage and that the elements placed on this landscape are part of a narrative; one connected to the very “life” of the site, both metaphorically but also literally through the appreciation of this stunning natural landscape.

An important aspect of this approach to planning the property is that, except for the areas within the cross and the oval, the landscape is to remain in its natural state. With the selective pruning and strategic removal of some of the existing vegetation, the most beautiful aspects of the site are revealed to us as we walk the paths. 

The plan would facilitate the exploration of this dramatic topography through the careful placement of paths, and the places of repose that I have designed along these walks would allow us to stop and connect deeper with nature. These routes, which link the various architectural and sculptural elements that I have planned along them, bring further revelation as we engage these natural and man-made wonders.

The overriding principle or, “noble, logical diagram” as Burnham would call it, for the site plan arrangement of the entire property transforms, as the geometric rigor of the man-made interventions you experience near the oval and the cross, become more informal and directly connected to their landscape setting, as you move away from this perfect geometry. 

Because the oval had been constructed as a perfectly level plain upon an existing sloped hillside, a 45-degree sloped surface of four-inch, crushed granite, separates this space from the lower forested area that exists along its northern edge.  

To follow the north axis, I have envisioned a set of stairs which will surround a fountain/grotto.  This will provide access to the forest floor below. From these steps I felt that there needed to be a strong axis that leads directly north from the oval which would draw us into the forest. 

From this initial impulse, there was also a desire to use a sculptural piece, placed at the end of this axis, to direct our view from the fountain/grotto toward this destination.

When following this axis, deep into the forest, we will eventually reach the Diana Monument, a space dedicated to one of the most influential people in my life, my Aunt Diane.

At the Diana Monument you choose the route forward, following one of three very distinct trails. Sculptural pieces will be positioned in the distance, in alignment with each of the arched trellis’s which create a threshold to the different trails. The placement and materiality of these pieces located within 100 meters of the Diana Monument will give an impression of the character each path will take.

One path extends uphill along a shear rock formation and leads to the windswept highlands of the site.

Once we’ve reached this hillside destination, there is a panoramic view of the Lake of Bays, and the Dorset Fire Tower which rises above the trees on the distant horizon.  

Another route winds its way to the shoreline of the Lake of Bays where we find a shimmering wetland area that is home to a pair of great blue herons, many turtles, and an inexhaustible family of beavers.

Beyond the wetland area there is a large rock which extends into the lake and serves as a jumping off point for summer swimming.

The third trail follows a small river that flows from a secluded lake, located deep within the forest, down 100 feet and into the much larger Lake of Bays.  I had followed this river before any paths were constructed on the property, as it had been a safe alternative to walking through open bush, where a single misstep could result in being lost in the expanse of the wilderness.

Travelling up the boulder strewn river valley had also been the highlight of any journey on the property, as the steep incline was also imbued with numerous waterfalls and huge rock formations, which made this route an inspiring experience.

These three paths leading from the Diana Monument, meet again at another important compass point on the landscape, just before the route that encircles the upper lake. Here a clearing, with a sculptural element that I have named the Shirley Temple (a nod to my mother, as well as her favorite childhood star), will create the third place of orientation and repose.  From this area, as we look northward, sunlight bathes the waters of the upper lake. It is here that we will be able to observe the first of the lakeside sculptures dedicated to my parents, and from where another distinct journey begins.

Since purchasing the first piece of this property 25 years ago, I have come to understand that the lake, embedded deep within this forest, is the site’s most important natural feature. Its size, not too large to be overwhelming or too small to be insignificant, represents a microcosm of the natural features that are present in this region.  At 10 acres, its shoreline exhibits aspects of ecosystems found in Southern Ontario, some 200km to the south and simultaneously those of the Boreal Forest which occur officially, many hundreds of kilometres to the north. 

Each time I have walked up the river valley to the lake I have imagined it to be a secluded “Noah’s Ark” with just enough room for one set of animals, be that a pair of ducks, blue herons, mergansers, or even bears (one of which I have seen numerous times lumbering through the forest around the lake). 

In my yearly visits to the lake, I began to envision that in specific spots around its shoreline I would create sculptural pieces in the landscape that would act as the symbolic resting place for my parents. A path would be necessary to link these four sites, and the distinct sculptures dedicated to each of them, as we moved around the lake.  In this journey the sculptures would interact visually, with one another, across the water. 

This choreographed sequence required a definite starting and ending point, and one separated from the other walks that lead from the Diana Monument. The Shirley Temple will create the necessary hinge point connecting the three walks, which began at the Diana Monument, with a short trail leading northward to connect to the paths which encircle the lake. The sunlight streaming from the opening to the sky over the lake entices us north, towards the Gatekeeper Bridge, and the first of the four sculptures.

This tri-partite division of the landscape, with three orientation devices connecting them, is the basic organization of the plan.  These three, distinct zones, can in essence, be interpreted as representing man, nature and around the secluded upper lake ,which I have named after my father who died in 2014, the spirit. 

When abstracted even further, into three ovals connected by hinge sculptures, the simplicity of the plan or “noble, logical diagram” is clear.  

While the specific routes will still require more attention, especially as they are being created at the site, the overall organizing devices of this plan have been set. The task now, is to articulate these journeys, both literally and metaphorically to ensure they build upon the narrative that links the entire site.

I look forward to visiting the property this winter and planning how my vision can be further developed. With the absence of leaves in the forest’s lower understory and therefore with long views possible through the trees, even within the densest parts of the forest, I want to fine tune the routes to ensure they capture all the most engaging aspects of this complex landscape. 

While it may seem that I have thought “big” with this design, as Daniel Burnham advised, it is also important to realize that peripheral to the areas shown in this site plan is the other two-thirds of the property, which I intend to protect as undisturbed wilderness. It is that part of the plan that is the most important to me and the inspiration for the creation of this ecological preservation project.  The land beyond the drawing will remain as the “unknown”.

By leaving most of the wilderness untouched and revealing only some of its most remarkable features along these pathways, I hope that in the future, visitors to this site, will be both inspired and rejuvenated and that my guests will leave with the understanding of the intense connection I have to this land. Most importantly I hope that they will have experienced just a little bit of “magic” in the woods.

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