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There Goes the Neighborhood

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There Goes the Neighborhood
Shane Coen '90 seeks to redefine the suburban landscape

—Christopher O'Carroll

Jackson Meadow
WITH WISCONSIN TO ITS EAST and the rest of Minnesota to its west, the picturesque prairie landscape of the Saint Croix River Valley slopes sharply upward from the water. Marine-on-Saint-Croix, the oldest town on the Minnesota side of the river, is the sort of place that wears its charm like a pageant winner’s sash. A chunk of the downtown rates a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the venerable architecture reflects the Scandinavian heritage of the earliest European settlers. Residents prize the combination of small-town rural beauty and an easy commute to the Twin Cities, roughly a half hour away.

A decade ago, a developer got hold of the old Jackson Farm, 350 acres of prime Marine-on-Saint-Croix real estate high above the river, and brought in a Minneapolis landscape architect to design Jackson Meadow, a development of 65 new homes. The town’s planning commission planted its feet and squared off to fight against a sprawling, McMansion-studded eyesore that would ruin the character of the community. Then the commission members met landscape architect Shane Coen ’90 and discovered that he was not the enemy after all.

Today, Jackson Meadow is an attractive town’s newest attraction, a suburb-of-tomorrow showpiece where cutting-edge design theory meets serious conservation commitment. Houses, modestly proportioned so as not to overwhelm their lots, cluster together on less than one-third of the land, preserving the rest as a common recreation area. Residents and visitors enjoy walks in undeveloped sections with names like The Pines and The Hollow. Children romp through expanses of grass and woodland in a place that is both a lived-in neighborhood and an elegant work of art.

As you approach Jackson Meadow, traveling uphill from that National Register downtown, the first thing you’re likely to notice is one of the spare, angular black buildings that enclose pieces of the neighborhood’s infrastructure—equipment dealing with water supply, sewage disposal, and the like. These black utility buildings, like the neighborhood’s uniformly white houses, are designed to stand out dramatically against the contours of the landscape. The roads through Jackson Meadow curve in harmony with the lay of the land, but the buildings assert themselves as objects distinct from the natural world. This reflects Shane Coen’s vision of the way human construction should interact with its surroundings.

His design work has always favored geometric creations that don’t pretend to be anything they’re not, that flaunt their contrast with nature instead of trying to blend in. “I believe that we can’t compete with Mother Earth, so don’t try,” he explains. “No faux nature, no fake streams, we don’t do any of that. However, if you superimpose geometry in a natural setting, it gets far more interesting. When you apply a perfect rectangle or a perfect square onto a natural setting, then the surroundings become even more powerful and that stark contrast is there for everybody to see.”

With that philosophy in mind, Coen established a set of guidelines for his colleague, architect David Salmela, to follow in designing the Jackson Meadow homes. Every house is white, with its silver-gray roof pitched at a steep angle in homage to the region’s traditional Scandinavian architecture. All the exteriors employ the same minimalist vocabulary of basic shapes. Within those guidelines, Salmela designs each house as a unique variation on the unifying theme. Coen personally sites each building to give residents the best possible views, and also to create harmonious spatial relationships with adjacent structures and surrounding landforms, a concern he attributes to his training in the UMass Amherst landscape architecture program. “UMass pounds into you the creation of spaces,” he says.

Rex Blake, a psychologist who moved to Marine-on-Saint-Croix from Minneapolis three years ago, was attracted originally by the land conservation ethic he saw in Coen’s plans for the development. “I grew up in southern California,” Blake says, “where the idea of development is wall-to-wall houses. Here was a group of people who said, ‘We’re going to leave the best land as a shared communal area.’” Now that he’s living in Jackson Meadow, Blake finds that the aesthetics of the design are every bit as appealing as the thinking behind it. “In a lot of contemporary residential subdivisions,” he says, “you get superficial difference in the colors of the houses, but the architectural details are all identical. This is exactly the opposite. The fact that they’re all white lets you appreciate that they’re really quite different in terms of the details.”

The development’s architectural guidelines limit the size of the house a buyer can build on any given lot, but Blake does not consider that a drawback. “If you can get away from the more-is-better, larger-is-better way of thinking about things, I don’t know that you’re giving up much.” When you build a house at Jackson Meadow, he points out, you know that all of the houses on the surrounding lots are going to be designed by the same architect using the same size and color guidelines. Therefore, he says, “you’re gaining a lot of control. You have the rare opportunity here to know exactly what you’re going to look at out your windows for the next 50 years. If what you see is something you like, then you’ve bought a guarantee that it always will be something you like.”

For Coen, Jackson Meadow is more than just another award-winning display of his design talent. “I knew I was going to make my home there from the first time I ever walked on the property,” he says. His initial encounter with the abandoned farm remains as vivid for him as the memory of a first kiss. “The prairie had grown up in the 15 or 20 years since cows had stopped grazing on it. It was rolling hills and undisturbed views down to the Saint Croix River, about a mile and a quarter away.” Today, he and his family can enjoy the river view from their living room windows. His son and daughter, both born in the Twin Cities, are growing up in a community of their father’s design. His wife, artist Kathleen Day-Coen, works just a few yards from the house in a studio above the family’s detached garage.

Detached garages are the norm in Jackson Meadow. This is a topic on which Coen waxes surprisingly vehement. There’s a fierceness any New Englander would recognize in the winter weather of the upper Midwest, so for homeowners and real estate agents throughout the Saint Croix Valley, an attached garage is a no-brainer amenity. But Coen begs to differ. He insists that the walk between garage and house should be “a spiritual experience” in any weather.

“I really can’t overemphasize it,” he says. “If you live in a house with a detached garage, and you love your house, there’s a relationship that happens on the walk from your garage. You see your house, and you get to walk toward your house, and you feel grateful that you live in that house. Somebody could offer me $100,000 to attach my garage, and there’s no way I would do it. When you attach a garage onto a structure, you’re going to lose 25 percent on average of the light and views. So you’ve very much walled yourself away from the outside and created this human environment that isn’t connected to the natural environment.”

When you reconnect to the natural world, he adds, you get the opportunity to connect with the other people who share that world. Walking to and from your house, you might see your neighbors out walking in their yards. You might exchange a friendly wave or a few words of greeting. This vision of community life is crucial to Coen’s concept of the landscape architect’s role. He designed Jackson Meadow’s open spaces not only with an eye to the physical beauty of the place, but also with the aim of shaping the neighborhood’s culture and spirit.

Kathleen Day-Coen sees community spirit born of her husband’s design whenever she watches the children of Jackson Meadow at play. “All the kids in the neighborhood run wild,” she says, “but wherever they are they can be seen by at least one home. It’s just beautiful. When I see my kids running wild around the neighborhood, I know that couldn’t happen in Minneapolis. The streets here are slow, and it’s so safe.”

The amenities of this safe suburban life don’t come cheap. Real estate prices at Jackson Meadow are not out of line with the rest of the Marine-on-Saint-Croix area, but they are out of reach for many families, Coen acknowledges with regret. In many towns, he explains, local building codes will drive up prices by limiting the number of houses a developer can plan on a given parcel of land. From what he has learned working with the developer on Jackson Meadow, he hopes he’ll come to future projects armed with the savvy to make those codes accommodate a vision that includes more affordable housing.

Shane Coen grew up in Colorado, the son of artist Don Coen, who has won acclaim for his gigantic canvases of cattle and other Western subjects. A 7-by-12-foot Don Coen painting titled “Seattle Cows” hangs today above the desks and drafting tables at the Minneapolis office of the Coen + Partners landscape architecture firm. Don’s father, a durable Westerner who lived into his 90s, was still operating a farm in Lamar, Colorado, when Shane was young. “My cousin and I bucked hay for my grandpa during the summer,” he says. “It was fun.” He credits those happy seasons on the farm with teaching him a reverence for the land and inspiring the commitment to rural conservation that has become a central passion in his design work.

Don Coen remembers his son as a boy who was capable from a very early age of almost fanatical concentration on any activity that especially interested him. “Whatever Shane went after, he went after with a vengeance. I love to play golf and I had a big driving net in the back yard. He started hitting balls into the net when he was 4, and by
the time he was 10, we would hardly ever play golf with any adult that he didn’t beat. He would go to the golf course and hit balls for hours on end. He always had this incredible determination and this willingness to really stick to something once he got into it. Which was a good thing, and also a bad thing once he got interested in the Grateful Dead.”

Until he became a devoted Deadhead in his teens, Shane and his family assumed that he would grow up to be a professional golfer. Once music took over as the ruling passion in his life, his future looked less certain. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to emulate his father’s career in the art world. “To follow in his footsteps was a little intimidating,” he admits. Beyond that, however, he had no firm plans. “I was one of those kids who was just going with the flow. I wasn’t putting a lot of thought into it.”

The flow carried him to the Pioneer Valley in the mid-1980s, by which time he had spent one fairly nonproductive year as a college student in Colorado. He looks back on that first foray into higher education as a year of amassing no transferable credits while he played golf, listened to music, read occasional books, and watched his roommate build models for a landscape architecture class. That was his first exposure to the vocation he had yet to discover.

With that background, Coen enrolled at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture to learn all he could about plants. It was in his final semester of the two-year program that a class in planting design “really solidified what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “It wasn’t really landscape architecture, it was more garden design.” But it was enough. “There was something about it that got me. That’s when I really fell in love with the idea of being a landscape architect.”

Don Coen reports that when he saw his son becoming as serious about landscape architecture as he had once been about golf and the Grateful Dead, “I was pretty surprised. I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised.” Two decades later, that surprise has given way to enormous pride in the place of honor his son has earned within the profession. “Shane’s really breaking new ground in landscape architecture,” he says. “He thinks about it in a very creative way.”

Shane Coen recalls his studies in the UMass Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning as two years of unremitting challenges and demands. “They killed you! You had to stay up all night at least once a week.” He credits that rigorous program with educating his eye, teaching him to see the landscape more intelligently, think about it more creatively, and respond to it more passionately.

In addition, he says, his UMass professors taught him a way of thinking about his chosen profession and about the ideal collaborative relationship between architect and landscape architect. “When I came out of school,” he says, “I believed that the landscape architect was supposed to be involved from start to finish, was supposed to position the building.” In the off-campus world of real estate development and design contracts, he found a different kind of theory and practice. “The landscape architect was hired after the project was at least 50 percent done. The architect had already done everything and the only thing the landscape architect was hired to do was to put plants and paving down.”

Coen resolved never to do business that way. “My partner and I decided we wouldn’t take any jobs unless we were involved from the very beginning,” he says. “Therefore we starved for a long time.”

Nowadays, he’s eating pretty steadily. Riding the success of Jackson Meadow and other award-winning designs, Coen + Partners is currently working on new suburban developments in Minnesota, New York, and Idaho. Every one of those projects has been shaped by the principle that landscape architecture is not a decorative add-on but the very soul of the design. When Coen delivered a recent lecture in New York, he reports, “They introduced me as the landscape architect who’s leading the charge to redefine the profession. Which was quite flattering. What they were talking about, with our communities, we’re creating the master plans then hiring the architecture team and demanding that the architecture respond to the landscape architecture. The land comes first, as it should.”

As Coen + Partners extends its influence to communities far beyond its Minnesota home base, Coen aspires to see the firm’s guiding principles—from practical land conservation commitments to theories about professional dynamics and the relationship between nature and art—leave a lasting mark on the design of the twenty-first century. “My hope,” he says, “is that we will be able to make a significant contribution to redefining suburban development.”

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