Gil Hanse’s Architecture 101: Building the Natural

With a routing in place and the best of the natural characteristics maximized, it’s time to start thinking seriously about the placement and character of the golf features. On our projects, my partner Jim Wagner and I always emphasize to our team that we want to “build the natural,” that is, create aspects that appear so natural that the discerning eye cannot tell if they were manmade or found. To paraphrase Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the best natural contours come by finding the village idiot and telling him to build something flat.

On MacKenzie’s most spectacular canvas, Cypress Point, what he designed blends seamlessly with what was already there, achieving the highest form of the art. Rather than compete, they complement each other. But this presents an interesting dilemma, in that it is the rare person who can remove organized order from the human brain and build something that is so random in character and appearance that it appears natural. And this is where the real hero of course design and construction comes in, the shaper. Riding a variety of earth-moving equipment, it is the shaper who takes our ideas and turns them into mounds, contours, and other forms that look eternal.

15th hole at Cypress Point (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

Jim and I have cultivated a team of shapers, whom we call “Cavemen,” who do most of the building, shaping, and finishing work for us. To be fair, Jim and I are still pretty good on the machines, and I make no bones about the fact that it is my favorite part of the job. But we also realize that these capable artists are usually better left alone and only sometimes need a soft editor’s touch on their work. (Most of this “editing” is done to remove repetition, for as much as we would like to deny it, we have preferences that often reveal themselves in our work.)

My good friend, the excellent course architect Ian Andrew, once told me that my go-to move is “down,” by which he meant that my habit is to go down with the features I build, pressing them close to the ground, embedding them into the landscape. I realized that he was right: For me, building the natural means blending it into the landscape, pushing downward to create the transition. The Old Course inspires me more than any in the world, and while its landscape is varied, it is the lower-profile rhythm of the contours that most capture my affection.

However, nature does not work in only one direction. For other designers, the natural might be to go up, to build features that rise out of the landscape or tie into natural contours on the ascent: The most splendid example of modern architecture, Sand Hills, has many uphill approaches to greens that are perched above the golfer in perfectly natural settings. Others find abrupt transitions natural, using canyons, cliffs, and erosion to create more abrupt land forms that are still natural in formation and perspective: Shoreacres in Chicago is crisscrossed by wonderful ravines that marry perfectly with the abrupt landforms of Seth Raynor in scale and context.

18th hole at Sand Hills (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

There is no right or wrong in how you perceive natural, but it is our belief that it is the interpretation of natural within the context of nature itself, on any given site, that yields the best golf course architecture.

Our mentor, Bill Kittleman, the former head golf professional at Merion, once described the golf landscape in terms of an ancient tapestry. At its center, the colors are vibrant and tightly wound to form the most visually pleasing and detailed aspects of the image. As the eye travels toward the tapestry’s edges, the colors are more worn and washed out, the weaving even fraying as it succumbs to years of being pulled and stretched. So goes the golf course, where the most intensive maintenance and most vibrant colors are at the center of holes, the fairways and greens. This is where superintendents and most golfers lavish the lion’s share of their attention, and it shows.

We believe that it is on the edges, where the colors fray and blur and the transition to the natural occurs, that the tightness of the maintained and manicured landscape should unwind and the true beauty of a golf course and its design really exists. The more successfully we can create features that enhance this transition, the closer we come to building the natural.