Saturday, September 12, 2009

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.