Friday, September 18, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Parks, Plants, and People

I went tonight to a lecture / book-signing party as part of the City of New York Parks & Recreation series, Uncommon Ground, -- "a series of events presenting the ideas of thoughtful and visionary planners and practitioners on how the park system of the future can grow and flourish." Tonight's event was a presentation by Lynden Miller, on the occasion of the publication of her book Parks, Plants, and People: Beautifying the Urban Landscape (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)

If you don't know Lynden Miller, her credits include the design and planting of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, the perennial gardens at the New York Botanical Garden, Wagner Park at Battery Park, the walk/bike path in Red Hook, Brooklyn adjacent to the Fairway -- among many others.

Lynden presented a very affecting argument for design, plants, and the public realm -- how it makes better communities and city spaces. It was very impressive to note her audience -- current parks commissioner Adrian Benepe and his predecessor, Henry Stern; Alex Garvin, formerly design director of the of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; architect Hugh Hardy; director of the Columbia University Landscape Design program, Joe Disponzio -- and about 100+ others.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another textscape: Gardens are speech acts

Strong positive recommendation: read Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

"This embodied notion of human order - taking as it does many diverse forms - links the garden to the polis, that is to say to the realm of those interactions in and through which human beings, through their own initiatives, give form and articulation to their historical worlds. To say that the transitory gardens of New York are speech acts means that they speak, in a public if nonverbal mode, of the human need to make ourselves at home on an earth that does not necessarily make room for us."

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: The best and the worst

I recently visited the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine - a new, significant resource that just opened to the public in 2007. I was both so delighted and enthused by this new 248 acre garden, and hurt/disappointed. The history of the development of the garden is well detailed in ASLA's Landscape Architecture, November 2008, "Of Rocks and Gardens," a feature/review by Jane Roy Brown.

The site, the plant materials, and the quality/quantity of the maintenance at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are all fabulous. The investment and care are extraordinary.

The overall site plan/design, however, is breath-takingly disappointing. There is no evidence that the designers expressed any homage / reference to the historic garden design tropes of any tradition. The overall plan as well as the circulation is disconnected and -- goofy. There are also stone, paving, and structural features that recall nothing beyond shopping mall mega-planters. I was quite frankly shocked that there was no historical resonance anywhere in the design.

The ASLA review suggests some issues. In the decade in which the gardens were under development before opening, they seem to have gone through at least a half dozen master planners and designers. I don't know the (inevitable) issues that must have been in play among the founders, funders, and developers. But while there was obviously a very successful vision for the gardens' mission, there is no evidence of any vision for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens to be a world-class work of landscape design art.

Just one (not the only) example. The gardens include a "meditation garden" with a motley assortment of granite slabs inserted vertically (unnaturally) around a centering device of a horizontally placed boulder, sliced in half to become a water feature. A water feature not connected in any way with the landscape around it. (In nature water doesn't bubble up from huge boulders cut in half.) Whoever designed / approved this garden did a bad job. It neither respected the terrain nor the historic / trational precedents. So it becomes a quirkly, awkward stopping place through the woods where one is supposed to "meditate." (Please -- if you're constructing a garden circuit over 200+ acres, in the first 1/4 you don't build a "meditation spot". The timing, the sequence is just so wrong. Unless, you're really just (in my shopping center analolgy) creating a theme park stop, and calling in the Meditation Garden, with no expecatation that any Buddhist or Catholic will ever really stop there to meditate.

I could go on. Each of the garden sites are equally goofy. Including the silly attempt to co-0pt the "fairy house" building which was an authentic feature of Monhegan Island. At MCBG this "fairy house" stop over is 100% not authentic and totally artificial, and -- reinforces the overall design concept that MCBG is a shopping mall with "stops" along the way.

But the horticulturalists working / maintaining the Midcoast Maine Botanical Gardens are geniuses / heroes. The health, vitality of the plant material -- along with the signage of plants is the best I've ever seen. And by that, I mean that I assert that MCBG is doing as good or better job as the New York Botanical Gardens, the Washington DC Botanical Gardens, and many others.

Final takeway. Please, you folks at the Maine Coastal Botanial Gardens, double the salararies you're spending on your horticultural team. And Fire your designers. And please, please find a landscape designer who can make this garden World Class.