Austin Open Days Tour 2012: Rockcliff Road Garden

My fifth stop on last Saturday’s Open Days tour, the Rockcliff Road Garden, was really more of a sculpture garden. Lots of open space on this lakeside property, graced with a home designed by Lake Flato Architects, gives prominence to many large works of art placed on the grounds. But I couldn’t help noticing a devotion to Japanese maples in the entry garden. There were dozens, not all in the best of health, but clearly they were part of a collection, like the art. This one is a beauty, its rusty leaves set off by the chartreuse foliage of the tree behind it.

Some glowed red…

…and some greenish yellow along a curving limestone path. So many Japanese maples lent an Asian vibe to this part of the garden…

…played up even further with this courtyard combo of pines, junipers, and boulder.

Overall, however, plants seemed chosen for their sculptural qualities more than anything else, like these weeping blue atlas cedars, bent like wizened, gray-haired women and framing a boulder set on a concrete pad—art or nature? And are the plants part of a garden or pieces of art themselves? It was hard to tell.

Moisture-loving leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum) brightened a shady spot. Many of the plants in this garden were water lovers, but since the garden sits on the banks of Lake Austin it may well be naturally moist.

Leaving the entry garden behind, you step onto a railing-less boardwalk edging a small canal. The boardwalk leads in a straight shot toward the main house, set closer to the lake.

As you near the house you see this fascinating sculpture of crouching men stacked in a vanishing line atop the shoulders of an Atlas-like figure.

Each figure is blinded by the one above—a somewhat disturbing effect. Talk about a monkey on your back! Now that I think about it, all of the sculptures on the property had a vaguely ominous or unsettling mood, or so it seemed to me. Many were so visually off-putting that I didn’t photograph them. The owners obviously have a particular taste in art, and it doesn’t involve beauty but provocativeness.

Beauty was to be found in the design of the home itself, the natural lake view, and dramatic accents like these hanging, bare-root orchids.

I’m not usually much of an orchid fan, but I found these quite appealing.

Looking back down the boardwalk we just crossed—long vistas, straight lines, and vanishing points.

A soaring porch was open to garden visitors. In fact, we passed through the porch to see the rest of the garden along the lake.

Succulents in organically shaped pots and saucers

Another look—beautiful framing and craftsmanship

A wider view

I admired the interior for a bit, and then I noticed that a stone-block side table was engraved with some unsettling declarations. Later I learned that they are from Truisms (1978-1983) by Jenny Holzer. Hmmm. “Murder has its sexual side” is not something I’d want to read every time I set a drink down.

Stepping outside, a green-and-blue vista of lawn and lake greets you.

But uh-oh, here’s another vaguely creepy piece of art, like a swirling whirlpool, or a black hole ready to swallow you up.

Another look

Ah, I much prefer the view of water and green hills.

Chairs at the end of the lawn overlook the lake…

…but mischievously, some of the chairs are cleverly disguised pieces of art, placed in unsettling positions—one leg hanging off the edge of a deck or tilting to one side or, like this one, strewn into the lake as if a really good party had occurred the night before. Well, it was fun to see! This was definitely a garden with a sense of humor and a dark side.

Up next: The cactus and agave collector’s garden of Jeff Pavlat and Ray Clayton. For a look back at the contemporary Bonnell Drive Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

14 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    The quote is creepy. It makes you wonder what these people are like. I do like their garden. Not my favorite but interesting.

    Yes, I agree, it was certainly interesting. I think the quotes are meant to be provocative, not taken literally—to make one think about things. —Pam

  2. Salma says:

    well, it’s a point of view, whether you love it or not.

    Yep, and new points of view are always interesting to explore. —Pam

  3. I missed the morbid feel in some of it, though the whole setting felt a bit “cool”, especially without knowing the owners. That quote – yikes! I’ll concentrate on the boardwalk w/ vanishing point view…a good note to exit on!

    “Cool” is a good way to describe it, though I definitely felt a sense of humor here as well. —Pam

  4. Laura says:

    I picked three of the Garden Conservancy properties to visit and this wasn’t one of them, so I’m glad you covered it here. I’m not sure what to think.

    I do like the rock pathway.

    The feel of this landscape is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish in mine, so that makes it all the more interesting. It’s beautiful but disturbing…It might be a fun garden to tour on Halloween.

    I might someday haunt my garden, but I’ll be a friendly ghost. I don’t think I’d want to run into any of the ghosts or anything else in this garden after dark nor would I take an invitation from the owners to spend the night.

    Oh, I would! ;-) —Pam

  5. Alison says:

    I agree with you, those quotes (and the garden) are disturbing. “Money creates taste” bothers me. I guess the garden itself is proof of that. But it doesn’t say it creates good taste. The chair in the water is funny, though.

    I think “money creates taste” and the other quotes are meant to disturb you, Alison. I think that’s the point. Provoke, not merely be beautiful, is what many artists think good art should do. I’m probably a philistine, but I like a little more beauty in my own art. ;-)

  6. Mamaholt says:


    I like the water and wood and the windows.

    Love to see interesting places like this, even if I don’t really get their taste in art.

    Those maples…swoooning. I’ve got a spot for one and am waiting for my monthly garden allotment to magically replenish itself!

    And once my dreaded Catalpas die … mmmmm more maples!

    For many years I thought Japanese maples didn’t really thrive in our hot, often dry climate. But I was proved wrong when we moved into our current house, and an existing Japanese maple here has required very little from me. The key, I think, is siting it in full shade on the north side of your house. —Pam

  7. sandy lawrence says:

    Wow, this was interesting! And now, of course, I’m wanting in the worst way to see photos of those sculptures so off-putting that you didn’t take shots of them, Pam. ha.

    I personally agree with one of the statements on the stone: “Solitude is enriching”. I’m thinking these are meant to encourage discussion over drinks, maybe …

    Something interesting happened when I was looking at that fabulous vanishing points photo of yours. Somehow, at first glance, my eye hooked into an optical illusion mode and my brain wouldn’t give up the trick for several long seconds that I was looking at a mirrored image reflected in the right section of the photo. Perhaps the whole garden and sculpture was a planned play on illusion between tension and relaxation, alarm and serenity by the owners? … anyway, I love to see things that are different, so thanks so much for the great tour!

    My pleasure, Sandy. Hey, for a picture of one of the sculptures I declined to photograph, check out Shirley Fox’s post about this garden, specifically the first sculpture in the post. —Pam

  8. Skye says:

    I wouldn’t think that the Japanese maples would do very well here in the heat. I fell in love with them when I lived in Seattle. The red dragon being my favorite with the bloodgood a close second.

    Hi, Skye. I too used to think Japanese maples wouldn’t do well here, but I was proved wrong (see my answer two comments above). In normal years we get 32 inches of rainfall, and in full shade, on the cool north side of a house, I’ve found that a species Japanese maple will grow very well. I do covet those fancier, beautiful cultivars but haven’t tried any. —Pam

  9. Greggo says:

    It reminds me of a architects landscape ( oh it is , he he). And yes every item is used as art and not ‘garden’. Not exactly my cup of tea, but very interesting.

    Yes, I agree, Greggo. I enjoyed my visit. —Pam

  10. Nicole says:

    Very interesting ( and obviously very expensive to create) garden

    I love the railing-less boardwalk edging a small canal-very SE Asian, there are lots like this in Thailand in public spaces and I am sure that was the inspiration.

    How interesting, Nicole. Thanks for sharing your comparison of Thailand gardens. —Pam

  11. Interesting…edgy…spooky. NICE HOUSE!

  12. sandy lawrence says:

    Thanks for the link to Shirley, Pam. I was having a cookie with afternoon coffee. I put the cookie down. Permanently. A couple of those look like something once living, now unrecognizable after violent slaughter!

    A positive, I absolutely adore the sculpture that looks like a black cloud outfitted with functional water faucets. Thanks for the heads up. At least now I’m no longer curious. ha.

    Ha, thanks for the chuckle, Sandy. —Pam

  13. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Nice place to visit but…
    I didn’t catch the blinding part of the men on the guy’s shoulders piece until you mentioned it. To me it resembled a spine. Maybe this was a collection of all the people who tried to walk on that railing-less boardwalk while they were a little tipsy. Just fish ’em out, bronze ’em and stack ’em up.

    It does look like a spine, Peter, now that you mention it. Man, I’m glad I didn’t fall in and get bronzed. —Pam

  14. ryan says:

    Definitely an interesting place. That sculpture with the figures crouching on top of each other is fantastic. I feel like the pieces probably give a lot of amusement and pleasure to the owners and I get a pretty clear vision of their personality. I find it actually pretty great.

    That was my favorite of all the sculptures. I think a sense of humor is definitely evident in the choice of art in this garden. —Pam