The Magazine of South Carolina

What Can You Get the World to Build?

Landscape Architect Robert Marvin Figured Out the Answer.


The late Robert Marvin, landscape architect

Finlay Park, Columbia

Columbia Metropolitan Airport

Marriott's Grande Ocean Resort, Hilton Head Island

Article by Roger Pinckney XI, Photos Courtesy Robert Marvin/Howell Beach & Associates, PA

Heís the great-uncle we all wish we had. Eighty and witty and wise and he holds your hand when you gather round the table to say grace. But this is not your grand-motherís imaginary youngest brother who ran off to sea and came back with a twinkle in his eye and stories to tell. This is Robert Marvin, internationally acclaimed landscape architect, Low Country boy grown up and famous and too soon old like the rest of us. Heís a man who will put a house on a rock or in a swamp just to show you how beautiful it can be. Heís a man who will design you a house with a view that will make you weep and leave you palmetto thickets all around and no lawn to mow.


The Marvin and Beach and Associates office near Walterboro, "a design platform in a great swamp," is a good example of his work. According to Marvin, swamps make up one third of South Carolina, and they are the land most in need of preservation. "Swamps are being destroyed every day, filled for development and cut for timber." A swamp was a perfect place to demonstrate his environmentalist creed. All materials were hauled in by hand so the soil would not be compacted and native vegetation would not be disturbed. Posts were set in sand rather than concrete. Only hand tools were permitted during construction.


His favorite material? Number two yellow pine. Itís cheap and local and it looks good when heís done. The result is a building that made so little impact on the land that it seems to grow right out of the swamp.


"The walls are tree trunks," Marvin says. "The land comes first. Thatís the statement we wanted to make." And thatís the concept he wants his colleagues to maintain as they work. Accordingly, each workspace faces outward, and each occupant sees the glory of the Low Country with every glance up from the drafting table.


Visit the office on a sunny spring day and you will hear the animals agree. A gator bellowing like an old outboard that wonít quite start and the cardinals calling "Whatís here? Whatís here?" and the Carolina wrens crying "Video, video, video." South Carolina Educational Television must have gotten the word. In 1976, they produced a documentary on Marvinís philosophy of landscape architecture.



Robert Marvin has left his mark in earth and cement and wood and steel at Callaway Gardens, at Hilton Headís Harbour Town, at Finlay Park, at Brayís Island, and at a hundred other places over 40-odd years. But ultimately, he says, blue eyes twinkling, crackling with insight and humor and genius, "itís not what you can design; itís what you can get the world to build."


So Marvin has beaten gravity and rain and wind. Now he does battle with the greatest foe: our sense of our own limitations. Sometimes one on one, sometimes like the Good Book says when two or three are gathered together, sometimes at universities and even at the Smithsonian, but always passionately. Perhaps this will be his greatest legacyónot the formal gardens and banks and homes and parks and corporate offices, but the cool green terraces and great sunny plazas in the heart, mind and spirit. Would you expect less from a man dedicated "to create an environment in which each individual can grow and develop to be a full human being as God intended him to be"?


Marvin draws on the work of psychologist Karl Menninger, who believes individual human success and happiness are as much affected by emotional reactions to the environment as they are by physical comfort in it. Shakespeare put another spin on it: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

Other quotes come rolling out of Robert Marvin:


*  "We are no longer in a fight with nature. We are in a fight with our own technology."


*  "Nature is the most thrifty thing in the world. She never wastes a thing."


*  "We hope to give more than we receive. Sometimes, we even lose money. But if we want to change environmental history, we must be willing to sacrifice."



Itís a long, long way from the swamps of the Ashepoo to turning down a multimillion-dollar project in London because it was just too far from the tupelo and cypress and Ashepoo River black water. But thatís Marvinís story, as fine and true as they come. The only white boy on 15,000-acre Bonnie Doone Plantation where his father was overseer.


He was a boy who played alone. A boy who poled through the swamps and rode through the woods and learned to love it from the first. And not only to love it, as many have, but to watch how it works and learn to work with it as have very few.


After acquiring a horticulture degree at Clemson, Marvin went off to war and came home a captain with combat experience in the South Pacific. He worked in his fatherís nursery business before the GI Bill sent him back to school, this time for graduate work in landscape architecture at the University of Georgia. In June 1947, there was Robert E. Marvin and Associates, Landscape Architects of Walterboro, SC.


And the rest is history? Not quite. Marvin went into partnership with Howell Beach. Over the years, others have joined the firm. Their work has generated a dozen awards presented by American First Ladies from Mrs. Nixon to Mrs. Clinton, plus three dozen national awards from groups such as The American Society of Landscape Architects, The American Resort and Residential Development Association and The American Association of Nurserymen. Marvinís designs have been featured in Southern Living, Southern Accents and Landscape Architecture magazines.


To what does Robert Marvin attribute his success? First, to a deep and abiding faith in God. Second, to the love of his wife Anna Lou, his soul mate and constant companion. Third, to a lifelong thirst for knowledge.


"When I wrote my motto, I realized I had to step beyond to learn what I needed to know to live up to it. I began reading two hours each day and we attended conferences in philosophy and science. I tried to learn everything I could to create environments that develop healthy people. And if weíre different from other landscape architects, I guess thatís why.



Roger Pinckney XI lives on Daufuskie Island. He writes about history, outdoor adventure, travel, folk art and food.



* Shady Grove Plantation & Nursery, Orangeburg
* Grimball & Cotterill Associates, Columbia
* Wildwood Nurseries, Walterboro

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