A Place Becomes a Healing Environment:  A Q&A

Christy Ten Eyck’s mission is to connect urban dwellers with nature and each other. That’s why her Austin-based landscape architect firm is guiding the Laity Lodge renovation projectTen Eyck’s mission aligns so neatly with ours. Christy and her partner, Tim Campbell, excel at bridging architecture and nature by shaping how people move between buildings, experience a trail, and gather and cook outdoors. Those outdoor spaces are not just the setting of Laity Lodgeeveryone involved with this project believes that the sacred space of the Frio River Canyon is the very heart of this renovation effort.

We visited Christy and Tim’s office to talk about the healing nature of a multi-sensory environment and the blending of old and new.

When you first visited the Lodge, what was most striking to you?
I was struck by how remote it seemed when you get out there, out of cell range, and then you drop into the valley in the canyon and you’re driving down the river. It was amazing. And seeing those incredible dams, both the large one on the Frio but then the smaller ones as we went up the hillthey were so beautiful.


[But] of course that big parking lot is your first experience, right there overlooking the Frio River. It just [doesn’t] go together. We’re working with Overland to figure out ways to discretely hide the vehicles and create these little parking gardens where they can be tucked in and where from the moment you enter the property, you start to decompress.

We’re excited by all the new thinking around guests’ arrivals.
The thing that really catches your attention when you first drive up to the existing site is this big limestone lot. Overland [Partners] had the initial thought, “Hey, that should be something gorgeous like a wildflower meadow.” We’re totally on board with that. The idea is that maybe we could tuck some parking into the juniper very carefully and judiciously.

Part of the experience of getting here is the journeynot only in the car, not only through the river and up the hill, but getting out of your car and literally walking on a trail to your room. So the idea is that you would come in the main vehicular road, and then we would have some sort of permeable parking spaces so we allow the water to seep into the ground, but those would be tucked between the trees.

Do you guys talk to each other about blending the new and the old?
We’re always bridging, and we’re major recyclers, too. We peel up and reuse in new ways. I could see reuse of the material, using the boulders, reusing stone, a lot of the same elements, potentially woodalthough wood is always a maintenance issue, but we love wood, the warmth of it. It’s really just using your same materials in a different puzzle.


To what extent are you inspired by the plant side versus the design side of this project?
The plants are the total icing on the cake. They really tie you to a place and give you that seasonal delightand they draw the pollinators. The plants are going to make it sing, really. It’s all part of a sensory experience that we’re trying to create.
It is proven through research that a place becomes a healing environment if you can appeal to two or more of the senses at one time. So if you put a person in a place where they hear this gorgeous sound of water, they smell the most amazing fragrance, and they’re touching a smooth fossil or a stone, your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure goes down.


So, environments like the Canyon are literally restorative to the mind and body.
Cities have become these massive, concrete, boring, sterile places. Couple that with the notion that nature was outside of the city, not inside, and it has resulted in sensory-deprived people walking around these cities. That’s why we love what we do. We really feel like every project has the potential to be a wellness or healing environment for people. The richness of texture is important. That’s why people love Italy and Spainincredible stone and brick and tiles.

How much plant variety can exist in the Canyon?
This ecosystem supports an amazing amount of diversity of plants. I don’t see any Bigtooth Maples on site. They do great in this area. There are some other things we might think about introducing into our plant palette with the Lacey Oaks that are all over the property.


Then there’s the diversity of the fauna, the bird life.
There’s nothing more fun than seeing these incredible birds that are native to that area and to all of Texas. We’re in the central flyway as the birds migrate to Mexico. And I love owls and the sound of owls at night. That’s all a product of bringing plants in that will attract this. Nothing thrills people more than seeing animals and the beautiful, native gardens.


What other priorities do you have for landscaping?
We’re paying attention to breezes and the comfort of being in the shade, having all kinds of micro-climates to seek out, depending on the weather or the time of day. Another thing we’re always on the lookout for is the path of water through a project. Especially in a drought-stricken place, we just feel like the path of water is sacred, and especially on the banks of the Frio.
We should be a sponge that soaks up every impurity possible before it goes into those sacred waters. To do that, we follow the path of water, enhance it, and plant things that are really good at soaking and filtering. And it adds interest and a thread of Laity being the tributary to the Frio, but also a metaphor for people in the whole circle of life.

Photos by Michael A. Muller