Sunnylands Center and Gardens / The Office of James Burnett , Frederick Fisher + Partners

© Hester + Hardaway

An extension of the 200-acre desert retreat of publisher, diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, the Sunnylands Center and Gardens is an interpretive center that celebrates the architectural and cultural legacy of the historic estate. Inspired by the Annenberg’s extensive collection of impressionist artwork, the landscape architect painted a living landscape that respects the character of the Sonoran Desert and demonstrates a new ecological aesthetic for landscapes in the arid southwest.

Landscape Architect: The Office of James Burnett (OJB)
Project Location: , California, USA
Architect: Frederick Fisher + Partners
Client: The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands
Photographs: Hester + Hardaway, Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett, Kerun Ip, The Office of James Burnett

© The Office of James Burnett

The Annenbergs commissioned the California modernist architect A. Quincy Jones to design their estate in the desert in 1963. In 2006, the Annenberg Foundation commissioned the design team to develop an interpretive center that tells the story the Annenberg’s contributions to the cultural, artistic and architectural history of America.

plan © The Office of James Burnett
© The Office of James Burnett

Because of its location in the desert, sustainability figured prominently into discussions about the nature of the project. Originally conceived as an extension of the golf-course landscape of the Estate, the design team and the client came to agree that it was in everyone’s best interests to implement the most advanced efforts in sustainability.

© The Office of James Burnett

In addition to the selection of regionally-appropriate plants, the project features restored desert habitat, high-efficiency capillary irrigation system, soil moisture monitoring, on-site storm water retention, geothermal wells, a significant photovoltaic array and an on-site green waste recycling program. The Center is a pilot project for the Sustainable Sites Initiative, is pursuing LEED Gold Certification and uses approximately 20% of its water allocation from the Coachella Valley Water District. The project also proactively meets the specifications and requirements for the use of reclaimed water five years ahead of the implementation Rancho Mirage’s citywide initiative.

© The Office of James Burnett

Working closely with Mrs. Annenberg and the Annenberg Trust, the landscape architect developed a scheme begins as an orderly, geometric composition closest to the building and becomes progressively more organic towards the edges of the grounds. Inspired by the owner’s Van Gogh, “A Wheatfield with Cypresses”, the landscape architect sculpted the earth and used plants in a painterly fashion across the landscape. Trees were carefully positioned throughout the site to ensure that ample shade was provided and great care was given to the visual composition of understory plantings.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

Connecting to the materials of the Estate, the perimeter of the garden is secured by a series of iconic pink masonry unit walls and sturdy Texas Ebony trees to protect the gardens from desert wind and blowing sand. A generous entry drive meanders through a series of rich, undulating desert plantings before delivering visitors to a formal entry court anchored by specimen Sweet Acacia. After dropping of their passengers, guests park their vehicles in a heavily landscaped parking court integrated into a grove of Hybrid Mesquite trees and proceed along a pedestrian promenade the to the main entry.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

In collaboration with the architect, the building was carefully sited to frame panoramic views of the mountains beyond from the Center’s main entry and lobby. Guests explore a variety of interactive exhibits including those that address the design and construction of the gardens developed as a collaboration between the Client, the landscape architect, the horticulturist and the exhibit designer.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

A continuous terrace across the rear of the building extends the Center’s café into the landscape and accommodates special events. Twin stainless steel fountains on the terraces complements the crisp architectural composition, mirror the expansive desert sky, lower the ambient temperature and create the soothing sound of running water.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

Sized specifically to support large tent installations required for event programming, a circular lawn is the central organizing feature of the rear garden. Framed by a double row of ‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verdes, its perimeter walk connects guests to a series of private gardens that feature quite seating nooks, rich desert plantings and a labyrinth for contemplation. Paths from the rear garden lead visitors through a rich and varied botanical collection of desert plants that passes through the front garden, along the perimeter of the restored habitat and back to the Center.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

The landscape architect’s responsibilities also included leading a one-year procurement process to select approximately 50,000 plants for the site. Together with noted desert horticulturist Mary Irish, the team established exacting standards for contract grown material. The Foundation also implemented time-lapse cameras on the site to document the extensive efforts required to realize the landscape, which will be incorporated in the educational exhibits inside the Center.

© Dillon Diers/The Office of James Burnett

Developed in close collaboration with the Annenberg family, the Annenberg Trust, the architect and the exhibit designer, the landscape architect prepared a scheme that celebrates the legacy of the Annenbergs while remaining sensitive to the delicate balance of life in the Sonoran desert. By creating an alternative to the traditional Palm Springs landscape that relies on heavy water use, chemical fertilizers and exotic plants, the landscape architect has created a garden that challenges the status quo and raises awareness of ecological issues in this imperiled ecosystem.

Text provided by The Office of James Burnett.

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For more about The Office of James Burnett check out Jim speaking at the New York Botanical Garden.

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Cite: "Sunnylands Center and Gardens / The Office of James Burnett , Frederick Fisher + Partners" 13 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • PatrickLBC

    Stunning… some of the most amazing landscape work I’ve seen in a long time. Congrats & thanks for sharing.