Fellows Focus: Douglas Hoerr

Excerpted from our Society of Fellows e-newsletter, September 2017

Doug Hoerr rarely says “no” to a challenge. Passionate about craftsmanship, he revels in the tangible elements of his work and what they can become when abstracted into pure texture, color, and form. He leads both design and business at his Chicago-based firm, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, with an insistence on the superlative, creating innovative landscapes on every scale—from intimate private gardens to vast public parks. His instinct for trying new ways of doing things inspires his team and makes him a pioneer in every sense of the word.

Recently, we talked with Doug to gain some insights into how his passion evolved and what fuels his creative process.

When and how did your interest in the land, horticulture, and design begin?

I grew up on a farm in Milford, Indiana—it was the perfect setting for my fascination with the physical and built world. From bee-keeping to reading the topography to find arrowheads, I immersed myself in the outdoors from an early age.

Later, after a decade of experience with a design/build firm, I took an unorthodox sabbatical in England where I worked in the gardens of Britain’s greatest plantsmen—John Brookes, Beth Chatto, Adrian and Alan Bloom—that really deepened my craft and grew my passion for horticulture. When I came back, I started my own firm here in Chicago.

What types of landscapes are you most inspired by? Private gardens, streetscapes, wild spaces, etc.?

I am always studying the natural, unique landscapes and horticulture around me—wherever I am—from a countryside to a city center. We design for all conditions and are constantly energized and inspired by travel.

Do you keep a personal garden at your residence? If so, tell us a little bit about it; what features are you most proud of?

Of course! I have an urban garden in the city that includes a porch and 400-square-foot rooftop garden on the garage that creates a series of outdoor rooms. This garden is primarily for seasonal change out, so I don’t use a lot of perennials. I’ve experimented with planting trees, including maples and aspen, in large pots, to see their lifespan in an urban condition. Five years and counting!

Left, Doug's garden at his Michigan farm; right, rooftop garden at his Chicago home

I also have a farm in southwest Michigan, which is really a living laboratory. I experiment with the components that many of our clients ask us to design for their homes. The land has woodland, tillable land, and marsh, so I practice a lot of natural landscape management, choosing natural plant choices and eliminating invasive species to manage the large property without enormous amounts of maintenance. Additionally, we have a vegetable and herb garden, a fruit orchard, a cutting garden with 200-300 dahlias and 300-400 peonies, a small container nursery and thirty acres of organic rye that is going to be harvested and distilled into rye whiskey by a local distillery. This farm is all about testing, research, and experimentation. 

You recently released Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt. What prompted you to write this book and what do you hope readers will gain from reading it?

There’s been a book in both Peter Schaudt and in me for ages. It was past due, really, so when we were approached by Monacelli, we decided to move forward. It was lucky we did because, sadly, Peter passed a couple weeks after he was recorded by the author, Doug Brenner. They discussed and recorded in detail all of the projects he wanted in the book. I know Peter would be proud of this book.

On a personal level, I’m pleased with the book because I feel it shows our diverse range of projects and our ability to handle differences in scale, geography, programming needs, and our horticulture expertise. We have matured as a firm and have some the best talent in the industry. This book will hopefully give our firm greater visibility, clarify our range of talents, and create even more opportunities for my team.

Your gorgeous book highlights 45 of your favorite projects over the past 25 years. Do any particular projects stand out to you as icons of your firm’s work?

Hoerr Schaudt projects: left, McGovern Centennial Gardens in Houston, TX; right, Commercial project, Michigan Avenue, Chicago

I always love the project we’ve most recently completed. I don’t have favorites because we are fortunate to have great clients who bring us complex and interesting sites, unique programming needs, and fun challenges. We love every scale of project and solving the puzzle in a manner that benefits the clients, the architecture, and the site.

With your firm based in Chicago, much of your work is in the Midwest, an area with extreme seasons. How do you design for the changing climate?

Our craft is really a blend of art, engineering, and a deep understanding of the forces of nature and time. We are advocates of the landscape. We always try to connect the spaces we design to the cycles of nature and create places for utility, function, and beauty in any season. Our focus on horticulture and understanding the microclimate of each site informs our plant selections—from winter structure plants, to spring bulbs—that can withstand tough weather conditions and provide visual interest even under two feet of snow!

What advice would you give a Fellow approaching the design of an outdoor space for the first time? Any tips or best practices to follow?

All plants are good but not all plants have a place or are hardy or appropriate for your garden. Pick the right plant for the microclimate of your site. Every property has many microclimates such as shade, sun, wet, or dry. Choose plants that like these spots and they will thrive—fighting the site will never be successful in the long run.

Go to your local botanic garden or arboretum and see what grows well where and in harmony with other plants. Study interesting plant combinations in magazines and books. Choose plants first for form, texture, hardiness, and, ultimately size. Too often, plants are chosen first for their bloom colors, and that’s where I see a lot of frustration with novice gardeners.

What has your experience been as a Garden Conservancy Fellow and a member of our community of garden enthusiasts?

The Garden Conservancy is such a worthy organization to support. It’s so important to commit resources and funding to preserve an art form that can be so vulnerable to time and environment. In addition, it’s really nice to be surrounded by people who speak the same vocabulary—from plants to design—and value the art of landscaping and gardening, and recognize the ways in which it positively impacts our everyday lives. 

Doug Hoerr holds a BA in landscape architecture from Purdue University and is a member of the Architecture & Design Society, Art Institute of Chicago, and Leaders of Design Council. He also chairs the Major Daley Green Roof Committee.

His recent awards include the American Horticultural Society Urban Beautification Award; the ASLA Illinois Presidents Awards for Harbor Springs Residence and City Garden Residence; Green Roofs Healthy Cities Award of Excellence, 900 N. Michigan Avenue; and the SCUP Design Excellence Award, North Park University.

To learn more about Doug’s work, visit the Hoerr Schaudt website.