Walter Cudnohufsky’s new book with longtime collaborator Mollie Babize asks, ‘What makes a place scenic?’

  • Walter Cudnohufsky at his Ashfield home studio with some of his artwork. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Walter Cudnohufsky at his Ashfield home where his landscaping blends in with the environment. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Walter Cudnohufsky at his Ashfield home with one of his popular apple tree artworks in the background. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2018 8:00:05 PM

ASHFIELD — In his new book, “Cultivating the Designer’s Mind,” written over the past 10 years with longtime collaborator Mollie Babize, Walter Cudnohufsky asks, “What is design? What makes a place scenic?”

Those questions are key to someone who’s probably the region’s best-known landscape designer. But they also offer insight into someone whose life, at 78, is a weave of many interests, from art and music to writing and the environment, politics and education.

At his Bug Hill Road home, where the 80-foot stone walkway from the 1771 Cape Cod house to the 1850 dairy barn-turned-studio meanders through an array of plantings, the hills and trees in the distance seem to be picture-perfect. 

“It’s called an irresistible curve; it’s very purposeful, a delight every time you walk it” the landscape designer says of the path, which subtly guides visitors toward a field looking southwest, across 100 acres — about 80 of them protected from development.

The gnome-like balding figure with neat white beard and hair points to “created views … walls bent and turned,” with some trees purposely placed in the field to visually break the tree line in the distance,  “so it’s not just a bowl. … It’s all thought out.”

Yet it’s “not formulaic; it is a process,” as his self-published book says of good design, and it inspires discovery.

It’s not surprising that Cudnohufsky, who in 1972 founded the Conway School of Landscape Design, from which he retired in 1992 to consulting work, also delights in painting watercolors, as well as doing pen-and-ink drawings of rural landscapes like the eight bare apple trees in varied positions that suggest dancers, or lakes where he’s fished.

The trees to the drawings to the subtle bend of the walkway, all these provide clues to the life Cudnohufsky has designed for himself.

From the time he was a boy in Orion in southeast Michigan, Cudnohufsky has kept his mind and body busy, surely influenced by his “high-energy” jack-of-all-trades/inventor father, and his mother, who looked after Cudnohufsky and his eight older brothers and sisters as he hoed the family’s 4-acre “garden” and raised meat chickens and rabbits.

“My first artwork was to take a piece of linoleum from the kitchen floor and make a sign, ‘Chickens for sale,” remembers Cudnohufsky, who also worked on a neighbor’s dairy farm from age 14, around the time he also began playing guitar and turning the square dancing of his large 4-H club into a lucrative hobby, patter-calling dances. 

Those calls, which he practiced on his family in their basement,  helped pay Cudnohufsky’s way when he went off to study landscape architecture at Michigan State University. He did well enough there that he was offered a landscape architecture fellowship  at the University of Illinois, but applied for a summer job in Toronto where he was hired on the spot and was told by his boss, “you’re not going” but should stay on at the international firm, which was connected with Cambridge-based Sasaki Associates. Afterward, they helped him get his master’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where company founder Hideo Sasaki chaired the landscape design department.

Sasaki, who became Cudnohufsky ’s mentor, was a charismatic, strong advocate of collaborative, interdisciplinary work. Cudnohufsky’s thesis  – a five-member, group examination of alternatives for improving how design education was taught – was so well received that its presentation won him a job offer from the University of Massachusetts and eventually led to a Ford Foundation grant for Harvard to study landscape architecture training. 

At UMass, where he began teaching in 1966 after an 18-month fellowship that took him to 26 countries including Australia and New Zealand,  Cudnohufsky found himself constrained by bureaucracy, competition for grades and inflexibility. 
“You’d have the most important conversation you’d had in class all year and the bell rings and it’s all over,” he said. “All these institutional things got in the way that didn’t help interdisciplinary work at all. If you look at the way the world works, there are all kinds of  team players on any issue that have to play a part, and you need to learn to work with others, not guarding your work.”

Instead of a working together on a “pseudo-realistic” project for which there was no real client, Cudnohufsky imagined having students working on actual projects where they’d have to learn “the idiosyncratic thing about clients, who are irrational, dumb, adamant, sweet, whatever they are. They’re going to learn, and they’ve got to wrestle with that. That’s what the world is about.”

After six years, he established Conway School in his Delabarre Avenue barn, with a liberal arts curriculum ensuring that students would emphasize written and spoken language along with design, ecology.

“The feed each other,” explains Cudnohufsky , who admits that word-oriented learning when he was earning his own master’s “would have been like pouring water on a duck’s back. But now I recognize how critical it is, and I wanted students to get at that earlier.”

Cudnohufsky, who says he loves “switching gears” and has always been “a doer” rather someone who theorizes, explains that his education model was “action before theory: doing it, then saying, ‘What does this mean? ‘What does it tell us about ourselves, about this kind of problem?”

It wasn’t until age 52 that he began to paint, and he’s now taught classes for 15 years, as well as immersing himself in his Walter Cudnohufsky Associates design firm. He’s sung bass chorus – with Greenfield Harmony for 12 years, Eventide hospice choir for 10 years – and traveled for most of that time to sing on Village Harmony trips in Macedonia, Bosnia, South Africa and elsewhere. With his daughter-in-law, he’s co-led singing, dancing, artwork and games at a Generations Camp at Rowe Conference Center for adults and their grandchildren.

And, as he’s done every 10 years or so, Cudnohufsky  is planning something new: egg tempera painting.

Friends have said he’s passionate about whatever he does. Cudnohufsky credits singing music with helping him concentrate and “bracket time,” just as he can memorize elements of a  landscape.

“To be effective, you have to bracket, to separate the pieces so you can see them more clearly,” Cudnohufsky says. “You have to take it apart to understand, and conceptualize the parts, diagram and ‘see’ them. If design is anything, it’s relationship. And to see what the relationships are, you need to slow down and parse it out, so it doesn’t get muddled.”

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