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Mar 25, 2009

The 21st-century landscapes of Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot blur the lines between earth and art.

By Donna Sapolin

Andy Cao is at a home in Malibu, Calif., tinkering with a steel mesh structure embedded with 5,000 cut-glass crystals that hovers like a delicate cloud over a patch of sculpted grass. At night, the floating form takes on the glimmering character of a celestial event. By day, the crystals fracture the sunlight, showering sprays of color over the crisp white house.
“We’ve created the feeling of a dream here by re-imagining the elements of sky and earth and using commonplace materials in a new way to interact with light,” says Xavier Perrot. Perrot, who works from Paris, is a partner in cao|perrot studio, a firm of landscape architects based in Los Angeles.
cao|perrot produces unusual results, in part because the partners follow an unusual process. “Plans and research come later for us,” says Cao. “We use intuition and personal feelings as the launch pads for our environments. In this way, the projects can speak to who we are and also evoke a deep, visceral reaction in those who experience them.”
The three partners who make up the firm draw heavily on their own early memories of place for design ideas. Perrot was raised in Brittany, Cao in Vietnam and photographer/writer Stephen Jerrom in New Zealand.
Both Cao and Perrot grew up by the sea, a fact that colors their perspective about land and how to manipulate it. The result is a focus on materials that conjure up the atmospheric, ethereal qualities of misty skies, rolling waves and sand dunes dotted with shells and glass bits rather than spectacular plants.
Cao’s approach took form soon after he graduated from school in 1998. Unable to find work, he used his own backyard and 45 tons of recycled glass pebbles to render his recollections of Vietnamese salt mounds and terraces.
“In the two-and-a-half years Andy worked on the yard, he unlearned all the lessons he had been taught in school,” says Jerrom, whose writings and photographs of the project helped jumpstart the firm. “No one had ever seen anything quite like it, and life was never the same after that.”
Years later, the partners have executed about 35 public, residential and commercial commissions in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Recent works include another cloud-like structure for a courtyard installation at Kenzo headquarters in France and the winning concept in a design competition for a large public park in Shenzhen, China.
cao|perrot also create temporary installations for garden festivals that let them “explore concepts and materials more adventurously,” says Perrot. “These projects have led to discoveries that have virtually transformed our subsequent work.”
This was the case with their 2004 Lullaby Garden at the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma. Inspired by the crafts, sights and sounds of Cao’s motherland, they covered 1,300 square feet of rolling earthen mounds in hand-woven carpets made out of fishing line by Vietnamese villagers. As the rugs faded, the project asked viewers to consider the effect of time and weather in shaping an environment.
Ultimately, cao|perrot cares little about whether an installation is temporary or lasting. “Our work is all about shaping an experience for the inhabitant or visitor,” says Cao.
“That experience is always temporary, but hopefully the impact lasts.”

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