Tag Archives: garden

Paths of Enlightenment

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, all gardens are alike … fundamentally. Of course, the Humes Stroll Garden would never be mistaken for, say, Dumbarton Oaks; and no one is going to be taken, blindfolded, to Chanticleer, have the mask removed, and think that he is in Bellefield. Size, style, history, level of theatricality – all these vary from one setting to another. But the building blocks are the same: a swath of land, designated and designed planting areas, and a ribbon or network of walkways to get you to things and around the place. It’s the similarities that define “garden”; it’s the differences that define “art” and “memorable.”

Of the elements that make up gardens, the one most overlooked and kicked around, literally, is the walkway. And, yet, it can be as vital to the entire garden-appreciation experience as the choice of perennials or the water feature. Where you view something and the way you move about it can be as intrinsic to pleasure and understanding as what is viewed: too close, too far, wrong angle, too high, too low, confusing circulation, too authoritarian a mandated traffic pattern – whether noticeably or subtly, all are ruiners.

But, even taking these characteristics into consideration and doing them smartly and well, most gardens we’ve been to – and we’ve just returned from a journey to some snazzy ones – seem to give little or no thought to what the walkways are made of. Gravel or cement, asphalt or mulch, or whatever, little preferential effort – beyond the imperative to keep visitors from stumbling over chunks of things – appears to have been  invested in garden-path design. If anything, sometimes you can see ecological philosophy at work – permeable surface vs. non, natural material vs. manmade – but not much more.

Everything counts, god is in the details, blah, blah, blah. We all know this, or have been told it. But the walkway in a garden? Who cares, right? It’s only the flowers and plants and trees that matter, no? Nobody goes to a garden to see the paths. A path is just “there,” not there to note.

But what a lost opportunity for added expression, distinctive identity and artfulness of place. I will not, I know, hold in memory for long the patches of green and colors that we walked through at Thuya Garden and the nearby and related Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, both on the ritzy south shore of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, beautiful though they were. What I will remember, and what I can see, vividly, in my mind’s eye even now, are the sculptural rakings of the crushed stone that makes up the gardens’ hardscape. 

Early in the morning, before visitors arrive, a worker rakes the narrow paths in a way that would please and even elicit admiration from a Japanese garden’s master artist. At Thuya, especially, the sweetly crafted but nearly imperceptible patterns vary from place to place: here, serpentine; there, herringbone; beyond, cross-hatch – and variations and combinations of those, and others. More: Once one notices the path art, it is already too late to avoid destroying it – you see the beautifully rendered squiggles and geometry now obliterated by your shoeprints, and you feel like a criminal, a defiler. But you also know that the path art is, like most earthworks, like much of the work of an Andy Goldsworthy, for example, designed to be ephemeral, to fade and disappear with time and the vagaries of nature … and the unthinking perambulations of man.

(A parenthetical here: One would be incredibly remiss if, in this discussion, he did not mention the notable efforts evident in Robert Dash’s wonderful Madoo Conservancy, in Sagaponack, New York – an elegant, whimsical one-off of an artist-fashioned garden highlighted by its paths composed of varied, surprising and unlikely materials. Perhaps our eye towards the importance of paths in a garden was opened in our visit to this Long Island landmark.)

This path art is so easy to be unaware of as one focuses on the flora – why look down? We rarely do, and especially if we’ve come a great distance to look up – and, yet, it is that extra something, that act that says that everything counts, that makes that garden a more magical place … that is a key ingredient in the formulation of its placeness. Not an accessory, but integral; more than a pleasant surprise at a casual gift, but an imperative relationship. Man’s intellectual beauty paired with and enhancing the natural. Arslocii.

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Between a Rock and a Car Place

Arslocii – this blog, the eponymous website, the concept itself – is, as we point out often, about pairings and duality, conjoined opposites combined in mutual impact, yin and yang, this and not this. Last installment, in writing about two quite different gardens, we discussed dominance over vs. partnership with the land, and light/dark, or sun/shadows.

With a little more time for reflection, we realize that we overlooked one important duo of elements that, frankly, lie at the heart of nearly every arslocii, not always but often acting as the key to the appreciation of the wedded art and site, not always but often the catalyst for drawing our attention to something special – bringing us into the tent, so to speak.

And that element is – surprise! – surprise, or, rather, the combo of expectation and surprise. This pairing – like the two terminals of a highly charged battery – is what gives us the jolt that causes us to be swept up by, say, a movie or play that we’ve been dragged to see against our better judgment, or by a book that we’ve had recommended to us but which we’ve avoided sinking into, or by a work of fine art that we believe is painfully outside our usual comfort zone … or even by a person who seems so unlikely to be someone we could be even remotely interested in – until we realize, recognize, that this is The One. Low expectations/high surprise, leading to the discovery of something new in the world that speaks to something deep within us –the shock of the new that makes contact with the shock of essential recognition. The assumption shattered by the out-of-left-field revelation, or challenge, or empathetic response. A contribution to placeness, and arslocii.

We think back on some of our intersections with arslocii subjects, and surprise-over-expectation is nearly always an aspect contributing to our receptivity and to its unforgettable nature: climbing the stairs and turning the corner to see Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, expecting to view no more than some artsy, ‘70s, one-note gimmick of a New York City office space filled with dirt – but finding, instead, a shocking space of noble silence, referential beauty and, remarkably, emotion; turning another corner (not a necessary action, this corner-turning, but a frequently surprise-inducing one) and being awed by the power of presence of a hulking Richard Serra piece, indoors, an unlikely captive in an enclosed Dia:Beacon hallway, both squeezed by the space and expanding it, defining the multiple implications of the word “enthralled”; walking through a parking lot of a featureless apartment complex, trying to find, hidden there, what’s left of Andrew Jackson Downing’s and Calvert Vaux’s Springside, expecting nothing but the weak suggestion of a once grand estate shoved now out of sight and left to ruin, like an afterthought forced upon a begrudging community – only to discover a magical, ghostly spot, perhaps the most placeness-redolent place we have come across in our journeys.

What brought up all this thinking about expectation vs. surprise was a visit we made to an auto mechanic new to us. (A note: One of the founding principles of arslocii – stated in what amounts to a manifesto of sorts – is that what we would delve into would be “intentional sites,” made interesting because of the “meaningful placement” of architecture, art and/or designed landscape.” Those were guiding tenets at the start, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that we’ve deviated from the original goal, and have found “placeness as art” in unintentional, accidental situations – in familiar sounds, for example, or in deceased relatives’ empty apartments – because a) our definition of “art” (if not “placeness”) has mutated over time to include the unintentional and the idea that “art” is something defined by being observed as much or more than by being purposely created, that art is a construct in the beholder and can include the incidental, the random and the unguided; and because b) these unintentional art-placeness places often have the highest level of surprise to them, and pleasure. Ergo, what follows.)

So – this visit to the mechanic. The garage and office reside in a low-slung building just outside the city limits on a twisty road that is home to various auto-service and -rental businesses, and other miscellaneous fringe enterprises. The garage/office “complex” is set to the back of a typically desolate, hard-surface stretch of cars and used-to-be cars, those being saved and those being cannibalized, accompanied by the sounds and smells and measured motion of any auto-repair shop – this one with a face towards the road and its back snuggled up against the high, craggy cliff-wall of a former quarry.

Having left our no-longer-sturdy, ancient van to be “rejuvenated” there some days before, we returned to discuss a few things and to communicate a few fears and desires to the garage’s owners, a middle-age couple, both well versed in the workings of cars but the man the chief mechanic. As we stood with him by the van, which was parked out in the car lot/boneyard, we noticed, in a large-ish nearby plot of land … a huge food garden, blanketed in protective black plastic and sprouting squash and peppers and tomatoes, basil and oregano and other herbs, and more – all this, adjacent to car carcasses and pools of oil and strewn auto parts. 

We expressed our amazement, to the mechanic’s obvious delight, and, in his thick, almost stereotypically theatrical foreign accent, he told us to follow him around behind the garage building – and, there, he gestured above him. On a rocky rise, against the stripped quarry wall, sat a structure, looking, at quick glance, for all the world like a Neutra or Irving Gill in the Hollywood hills, or like James Mason’s fantasy Modernist villa, pendent over Mount Rushmore, in North by Northwest. But this structure we were gazing up at was vague and diaphanous, and momentarily unprocessable, due to an expectation/surprise disconnect. For there, looking down on the greasy ugliness of the shop and the busy byway beyond was, astonishingly, a sprawling, glittering greenhouse.

The mechanic led the way, pointing out on our path the kiwi tree, and the persimmon, and the fig. And, climbing up and into the greenhouse, he casually but proudly guided us around his Eden of blooming and ripening fruits and vegetables, and, among them, trees bearing lemons the size of grapefruit. So much vibrant and colorful life a wrench’s throw from a revving engine and the haze of exhaust. He gave us one of the lemons, and back home it was practically sufficient by itself to make a quart of lemonade. And it was delicious.

Expectation – an auto repair shop. Surprise – a crystal cathedral between a garage and a cliff, burgeoning with food and life. And more – somehow, subconsciously, likely unintentionally, the mechanic had, in this alien terrain, collected up then deconstructed his Mediterranean world and recreated it, writ small, here. A work of personal art if we’d ever seen one, creating an arslocii full of biography and psychology, love and longing, and an assertion of placeness that not only defied and denied the distance from his homeland but reified the essence of it. For that moment, he shared with us his place, and wherever it was he wanted to be, we were there, too, full of wonder … and surprise.

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Grand Rapids Quag-Meijer

Half of the arslocii team has been eager to see as many sculpture parks as can be viewed. The resulting reviews for those already visited, most of them located on the east coast, and a couple in the midwestern United States, are a mixed bag of placeness criteria – some superb, others lacking. Of the parks previously seen, I would rate the top three, thus far, as, at number one, Storm King, The Fields at number two, and Nathan Manilow coming in third. Recently I journeyed to see Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The grandeur of the entrance, the constant movement of trams and the amount of parking slots being equal to the number of picnic areas – all of this made me a bit worried about what awaited inside. And the gardens, too: although they were nice collections and displays, the whole was a little too squeaky clean and informed by crowd-control planned movement. Plus, their big draw for the season was a comprehensive show of Dale Chihuly glass works – weaving through buildings, arranged in gardens, hanging from ceilings, poking out of ponds – so omnipresent that I wondered if this was his entire oeuvre carted here. Seeing that, I was still worried, maybe even more so. I have to say, I was starting to question why I had driven more than 600 miles for this when it was looking very much like Grounds for Sculpture, which I dislike but is only about one tenth the distance from home. Why go so far to be disappointed when you can do it close by?

What I didn’t realize going into this, is that the sculpture park is just one garden area in the entire park complex and is probably the least populated by visitors. The other gardens felt too coiffed while the sculpture park, despite being designed, was more naturalistic in its flowing hills and valleys, and seemed more probable in the surrounding landscape. Plus, the art within the sculpture park was better than I expected, based on what was around in the other garden areas. And, yes, the omnipresent Chihulys were scattered about there, too. But if you looked past them, the permanent sculpture collections and their varied settings were quite thoughtfully paired, and some were impressive.

Of particular note are two named sections of the sculpture park: The Hollow and The Gallery. (They appear to have named every walkway and designed area of the park, much like the hallowed grounds of Disney, but the sculptures these two areas contain are good works and well-sited.) The Gallery is a formal garden, in the European style, a series of small viewing galleries each with sculpture – similar to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, but with a little more risk-taking in color and design accents at Meijer. Many of The Gallery’s sites are geometric curbed islands filled with various interesting plant materials, ground-level green roofs or, rather, carpets designed to set off and enhance the hovering artworks. Tony Smith’s For J.W., a black, solid, oblique parallelogram is seated in an oblique shaped “bed” of yellow sedum. The contrasting textures, shapes and colors are kind of breathtaking.

Generally speaking, the pavers in The Gallery are too new and suburban looking, but the intelligent placement of the sculpture in its environment helps to overcome the connecting pathways. Not too far from Smith’s work is Anthony Caro’s Emma Sall, a geometric piece with a lot of movement, complemented by a nearly-as-complex installation – an angled pedestal, interlocking varying curb heights and a carpet of lavender alyssum against the teal blue of the painted steel.

The Hollow is, in contrast to The Gallery, a more in-the-rough site, with unmown grasses and wildflowers. The artworks still manage to have distinct areas even though they are not as well-defined. In this section, the sense of surprise is key, since it appears to be a wild area and not a real garden. In a small clearing of a woodland is Antony Gormley’s One and Other, a figure encased in iron, isolated, alienated, trapped – a kind of upright sarcophagus – a frightening vision found in a hidden glade.

A nearby open meadow offers Sophie Ryder’s Introspective, a bizarre grouping of figures that are half human/half rabbit, in some sort of stop-action poses, or, perhaps, a new take on the Ascent of Man. This work has a similar effect as the previous one, in that you don’t know whether you should be privy to what is taking place – both sculptures being perfectly placed and in synch with their environments.

Also “planted” in The Hollow is the Oldenburg and Van Bruggen Plantoir, another of their tools on steroids, this one comically painted up but standing erect on an untended hillock – looking completely in and out of place.

Back on the major encircling walkway of the sculpture park, and high on a rise, stands Andy Goldsworthy’s Grand Rapids Arch, like a huge red sandstone inchworm, as it surveys the landscape. Curious for the artist to have placed it in the road like he did – the blacktop, not the earth, acting as its pedestal – it is reminiscent of formations you might see in Arches National Park – but in the roadway. The two together, the sculpture and the asphalt, seem to be saying something about the West.

So, placeness does exist at Meijer Sculpture Park. I wouldn’t say it is the overriding theme of the park but someone there has given meaningful placement to many of the artworks, resulting in a symbiosis between art and site. And given so many other gratuitous displays throughout the gardens, the instances of arslocii become all the more special. In that way, Meijer’s park is a lot like life.

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Cultivating Our Garden

Gardens, no matter their size or consequence, create a sense of place. Just the act of establishing a garden is one of place-making, stake-claiming and root-setting. And although most gardens are made up of pretty much the same elements, the arrangement of those elements is what makes each one unique. Then, going beyond unique, there are gardens with an eye for something special – making placeness out of a place.

For us urbanites, finding enough land and available sunlight in a concrete-covered environment is not easy. Thankfully, community gardens – like the one we’re members of, just up the block – have appeared, rising from the dead on weed-filled, unwanted, unusable or simply unused and abandoned dumping grounds. A remarkable thing is how forgiving abused land and nature can be, given half a chance. A community garden already has a sense of place as reclamation, it having been rescued from a state of neglect and nurtured into one of care and reuse. Usually fenced, giving it the status of a place apart, the community garden has an arrangement of spaces – rectangles for planting beds and aisles for moving through and around. (Not unlike a cemetery, really, but for quite the opposite purpose.) Skillfully designed and laid out examples of community gardens have a more meaningful use of space and flow; others can be a bit helter-skelter with no plan to guide them. The same could be said about the individual plots.

A community garden is representative of its community: a diverse group of backgrounds and approaches all coming together in like-mindedness for interaction with nature’s forces and for mutual support. Each gardener in our community effort has her/his own method: some plant like a traditional farm, in long rows within the parameters of the plot; others apply a grid for a square-foot approach – divvying up the precious small area into even smaller portions; while still others have an innate sense of color and texture and ways of arranging and pairing the plants in a decorative way. Some people feel a need to populate their patch with elfin figures, frog statues and ceramic mushrooms, creating a bizarre scene among the shin-high foliage. And, as in “The Three Little Pigs,” a few build more permanent structures for their climbing foodstuffs, while others take their chances with prefab, mass-produced, easily replaceable temporary cages that could be susceptible to some huffing and puffing.

It is the human interaction with nature that creates the initial sense of place. Taking a rigidly defined parcel – a functional allotment of relatively flat ground with no distinguishing features, a subdivision of preceding subdivisions (similar to tract housing parcels on a smaller scale) – and making it have a real presence is a willful act by a human hand to work with and enhance the setting beyond its functional requirements: creating a place of sustenance for the body and soul. But, within the greater garden, certain rare gardens can project a sense of place all their own, an added dimension of place within place – the surprise inside the Cracker Jack box, unnecessary but totally welcome – a bonus. We have found a few that qualify.

One effort of note in our community garden is simple, straightforward and effective. The mini farm: A larger than average plot that lends itself well to its design motif, it has a focal point of an antique manual tiller (the before), long furrows of planted fields (the after), cold frames, simple bamboo tripod supports – it is a microcosm of a real farm, a place of food production, and a bit of theater. That someone would build a world inside another world, like nesting eggs, emphasizing the placeness of an already unique site, is laudatory. It is the exception for individual food gardens, albeit personalized or decorated, to rise above form as function and create place. A second example: Another simple garden within the larger one has an Asian theme, four squares of orderly, gridded, raised beds divided by bamboo poles, its paths made of gravel with nods to mountainous landscape. Again, a world, a place defined beyond practical need.

Although all gardens stimulate the senses, the food garden is the most sensible of gardens – especially now with industrialized food production trying to remove us from our essential connection with our most basic need. One of the most integrated food gardens we have ever seen is at Chanticleer, a former estate, now public gardens just outside Philadelphia, in Wayne, Pa. Touted as a pleasure garden, it is a textural and visually stimulating array of gardens, mostly decorative and consciously artistic and largely successful. But its greatest success is the “veg-edible garden,” its function and form intrinsically merged: the clever uses of food plants like asparagus for a long perimeter wall, trellised tomatoes climbing on and becoming the surrounding fences, espaliered pears creating a geometric screen, plant supports fabricated of simple bamboo, transitional arches graceful and ceremonial. The materials are mostly natural and are used in ways that remove the garden from the merely functional into the artful, making you want to spend time there. The care and design do not make the food grown there taste any better; however, you do devour it with your eyes. It is its own expression and shared interaction with nature – the stuff of true nourishment.

Both the literal and figurative definition of garden is one of life and source, a place of creation or cultivation and sustenance. It is even suggested as the answer to all of society’s ills in Voltaire’s Candide, as a respite from world upheavals and the only place where one can find contentment and, if not control, at least a semblance of being on an equal footing with destiny. Two hundred sixty years later, it still makes sense out of nonsense. Our search here is for inventive food gardens that set up a dialogue with nature, a thank you for the bounty, an offering to the partnership, a kind of shrine to garden-ness, a place to be and grow. Arslocii.

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