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  • Amador's terraced concrete garden blends in beautifully with its hillside setting, demonstrating how concrete can actually soften the landscape.
  • The curved retaining walls are stamped with an Italian slate pattern and stained in warm earth tones. Handcrafted iron railings echo the curves in the design.
  • Another view of the stained and stamped walls.
  • Amador hand sculpted some of the concrete features, including these waves splashing against the prow of a boat that carries garden plants as passengers.
  • A close-up of the iron handrails.

It's not often that a concrete contractor is given complete creative freedom on a client's project, unfettered by any design limitations. But when he is, the outcome can be spectacular.

That's what happened when Victor Amador of Soft Concrete was hired to landscape this backyard garden in Point Richmond, a quaint neighborhood in Richmond, Calif., near the eastern end of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

"I was asked to set up and pour three concrete steps and a landing-that's all," says Amador. "The clients liked the shape of the landing so much, they said 'Keep going.' Little did they know I was also an artist who really needed to create something BIG! They trusted my eye and gave me complete control of the project's direction-a rare opportunity."

And Amador did, indeed, create something big, building an elaborate terraced landscape sculpted by winding concrete stairways and curved retaining walls stained in warm earth-tone colors. The job took three years to complete, expanding well beyond the three concrete steps and landing initially requested by the clients to a project of 13,000 square feet. As with most artistic endeavors, the work wasn't over until the artist felt he had achieved perfection.

"I designed it on the fly," says Amador. "Nobody, including myself, knew where or when it would end."

Amador is a third-generation concrete finisher, so working with concrete is part of his heritage. "It's what I know best," he says. As a landscaping material, he admires concrete's strength, but also its ability to exhibit "softness." The name of his business, Soft Concrete, reflects that. "It describes how concrete can look soft on the landscape and soft to the eye," he explains. "There is a lot of concrete on this job, yet none of it looks intrusive—that's a tricky thing to do. 'Soft' design is the reason this garden is a joy to view."

All the concrete for this ambitious project was formed and poured in place. Amador also hand sculpted a few features, one of his favorite being the wall of "waves" appearing to splash against the prow of a boat. To give the concrete retaining walls a subtle stonelike texture, he covered them with a stampable wall coating from Americrete and then imprinted them with an Italian slate pattern. He applied all the color topically, using concrete stains from Smith Paints. Finally, he gave the surfaces a sheen using a clear, wet-look sealer. To further accent the walls, he installed beautiful, handcrafted iron rails created by a local blacksmith.

There were many challenges during construction, with the biggest being designing and forming the walls, which required "tons of rebar," says Amador. But equally challenging was dealing with the skeptics in the neighborhood.

"At first the job appeared gray and cold on the landscape, so I had to comfort neighboring residents that the garden would be beautiful when it was done," he says. "I even had people come right up to me and tell me they hated my work and that I was destroying the natural landscape. In the end, all were satisfied—even my worst critics."

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