Friday, October 31, 2008

Bellevue Botanical Garden

On Tuesday, my older daughter's school class had field trip to Bellevue Botanical gardens. I volunteered to help, and took the opportunity to take some pictures of this quite lovely garden located on the East side of Seattle and Lake Washington. It was a wonderfully foggy day, a complete contrast to my trip to the Olympic Sculpture Park a day earlier.

Spreading on an area of totally 53 acres, Bellevue Botanical Garden has all the "display elements"of a traditional botanical garden; the Northwest Perennial Alliance Border, Waterwise Garden, the Japanese Yao Garden, Alpine Rock Garden and summer displays of dahlias and fuchsias. In addition to this, it has large areas of woodlands, meadows and wetlands, much of which are unlandscaped and in their natural state. Especially the tall conifers, as western red-cedar, Douglas fir and native schrubs give a hint of how the wilderness further around Seattle looks like today and how it used to look like here earlier.
As it is situated in the middle of sprawling suburban area, the Bellevue Botanical Garden give the visitors and locals a wonderful possibility for recreation. For the festive season, it will be lit with 500 000 electrical lights, a fact that the volunteering ladies happily advertised while I was there, telling that this is the most popular event during the year. Feeling like a complete bore, I am very sceptical of this kind of waste of energy - looking like a floral Las Vegas does not quite satisfy my garden design appetite... Despite this, the gardens are well worth a visit while in Seattle.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle

Yesterday, I had a wonderful morning at the Olympic Sculpture Park on the shores of Elliott Bay in Seattle city centre. It is an impressive park, built on 9 acres of former industrial land close to rail lines, huge piers and diverse office buildings. More than that, it provides the only direct access point to the sea within Seattle city centre, and forms a continuation for the Myrtle Edwards Park North of it. The Olympic Sculpture Park was created with large donations from Seattle personalities, and is operated by the Seattle Art Museum. The aim was to return the site as much as possible to a functioning ecosystem, while providing a unique setting for outdoor sculpture and public recreation.

The park has a very strong form, consisting of what I experienced as "wedges" connected by a pathway leading to the seashore. As the SAM website states, the project’s lead designers, Weiss/Manfredi, developed an Z-shaped configuration connecting three parcels into a series of four distinct landscapes. According to it, this design "afforded a wide range of environmental restoration processes, including brownfield redevelopment, salmon habitat restoration, native plantings and sustainable design strategies". I did not quite catch all this while sauntering through the park; I only experienced three different areas, one up near the pavilion and the Serra sculpture, the second in the mid-level with the extensive lawn areas and the third at the seashore. I would never have understood that the waterfront (as seen above), so near a heavily trafficked city and a harbour, would be a salmon habitat restoration area. However, I think it's design reflects nicely the form of the piers south from it, built in an steep angle from the waterfront in order to hold better against the waves.

Like in so many contemporary parks, an important goal was to use native vegetation in the planting, not only because they are an integral part of the restoration effort, but also because the dense native vegetation is more sustainable and helps retain rainfall above the soil surface. As native plants often take years to establish and the park is still very young (it opened in January 2007), it still was very open and much of the vegetation seemed to the struggling in the exposed and quite harsh environment. The "bones", that is, the structure is there, but to get it to be more than that and become a real park, the Olympic Sculpture Park needs time, and maybe also some editing considering the planting palette. For example, the ferns used as undervegetation seemed to be longing for the trees to grow and shade them. Even snowberries, that usually are tough as anything, seemed to be struggling (picture below). Also, as it is late autumn, all the meadows were shorn very short and could not be experienced as they ought to, but it merely looked as the park consisted of huge areas of lawn.

And what about the sculptures? Check out the pictures. My favourite was probably the huge "Eagle" by Calder, looming like an ancient, red dinosaur between the city and the sea (picture above with the pavillion behind it; one other favorite place of mine, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, also has huge Calder sculptures in front of it). "Wake" by Richard Serra (further above) is made of huge sheets of curved steel welded together to a slight s-curve. It's monumental scale feels totally in proportion with it's site here, and in my mind, reflects the huge tankers anchored in the bay waiting to be unloaded. Dennis Oppenheim's huge "Cones" (below, in front of Teresita Fernandez's screen "Seattle Cloud Cover") give a playful note to the strictly contemporary park design - a nice touch of humour which all too often is forgotten in these high-profile landscape designs.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Genius loci in urban environments

Yesterday evening, Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson delivered a very interesting and inspirational lecture at the University of Washington. She called her lecture "Landscape in the Changing Environment" and discussed the different elements involved in creating the renowned designs her two landscape practices (in London and Seattle) are famous for.

During her lecture, Ms. Gustafson showed a large number of pictures of her completed and current projects around the world. "Landscape is always bigger than architecture" and "The core essence of the site" were two expressions used by Ms. Gustafson concerning the importance of understanding the site thoroughly before working with the actual design. Together with her companions, she goes through layers and layers of information concerning the site - historical, sociological, geological and horticultural, all of which provide a framework from which to distill the actual concept for the site. This concept evolves then though different planning stages - sketches, models and plans - to the final result. I couldn't help thinking of Ms. Gustafson as a modern equivalent to Alexander Pope, who wrote his famous words "In laying out a garden, the first and chief thing to be considered is the genius of place" already in 1728.

I was very impressed by the extreme complexity of the projects, both technical and aesthetic. Ms. Gustafson's pictures about the 3-D models (or "prefigurations" as she called them, after Le Nôtre's similar models when planning the Versailles gardens, quite a modest comparison...) they build for each project were intriguing. One of these models, for the Princess Diana memorial in Hyde Park, London, was developed at a car manufacturers premises to design and test the flowing patterns of the water. At a large project in the Netherlands, the site had to be decontaminated for several years before the project could be built. And in the huge project of landscaping a waterfront and a water reservoir in Singapore, the level of technical detail must have been enormous. Of course, the budget of these projects must also be impressive, considering the scale, work and knowledge that goes into them.

Interest for this lecture was amazing. Just sitting in the dark theater together with 1200 other garden professionals and amateurs, I just thought what a good example it was of the star status landscape architects can reach in today's world. In the view of this, I loved the way Ms. Gustafson delivered her lecture; clear thoughts delivered with understated humor and with a good distance to the fame that she has acquired.

For exciting pictures and more about Kathryn Gustafson and her practices in Seattle and London, check out

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Evergreens everywhere

A Japanese inspired garden with evergreens. I love the little opening in the hedge, which shows the lake below but hides the house behind.

It is quite amusing to think about one of the most common wishes by the customers when I was doing garden consulting and design in Sweden. "Ingen barr! Jag hatar barrväxter! "No conifers! I hate them!" was often expressed with such a feeling, that I felt there was no point of starting to argue for them and their good qualities in the Swedish climate with a growing season of about 5 months and a long and relatively cold winter.

A sea of needles... genuine stuff from the 1960s in Clyde Hill near Seattle.

A well-kept garden from 1960s near Stockholm, in Sweden - soon to become a rarity? (Picture taken in winter).
This "allergy" for conifers is probably a reaction against many gardens made in Sweden in the 70's, full of Thujas and Junipers and now overgrown beyond any recognition of the original design. Of course, these gardens can (or could, as they are disappearing in fast pace as the new owners rip them rapidly out) be quite monotonous and static, with little to show the changing seasons. And they quite seldom can be described as romantic or sensuous, which is something that many of us expect from their gardens. But for the ease of management and year-around interest, there is few plants in the Northern climates that can beat these stalwarts of the winter garden.

A front border with conifers, Ericas, Rhubarb (!), ferns and grasses. A modern composition with good structure and year-around interest.

The nickname of Washington state, where Seattle is located, is "the Evergreen State", which is quite becoming when looking at the local gardens. Many of my previous customers would wince at the thought of square meter after square meter (or square feet...) of conifers, interspersed with other evergreens, as Rhododendrons (the state flower is Pink Rhododendron, Rhododendron macrophyllum), Pieris, Callunas and Ericas. The soil in Seattle is mostly acidic, which gives these plants excellent growing conditions.

Huge pine trees surrounded by native Salals and Rhododendrons.

Here as well as in Sweden, the garden styles have evolved since the 60's and 70's, from flowing, borders filled with evergreens. These gardens seem often been influenced by the Japanese (and maybe Chinese) gardens, which I found very appealing, as it complements the houses from this era quite well. In the best cases, the contemporary styles combine conifers with hardy perennials and grasses for an elegant and graceful effect. In the worst cases, rows of Thujas are used as impenetrable barriers for privacy or to stand in line by the driveway as unhappy soldiers. Just by doing a small round in the neighbourhood yesterday, I found several gardens with interesting use of evergreens and conifers. Some of these (as shown above) could probably be used as inspiration by gardeners in Scandinavia, some might just be a little bit too freakish for anything else than providing a little smile...

An example of cloud pruning? looks more like a bunch of green balloons...

These poor Junipers would clearly need a break - I wonder what kind of a family lives behind these tightly clipped conifers?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Quote of the Day

In my nostrils still live the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.

- Mark Twain -

... or more than twenty; I just thought about my late grandfather, who asked me to smell a twig of Philadelphus flowers when I was 5 or 6 years old. He was almost blind, but he had been an avid gardener all of his life, growing day lilies, dahlias and agapanthus in Finland for more than a half century ago (he would have been 112 now if he still had lived). I still remember my surprise as he recognized the plant without barely seeing it. First later I realized how natural it would have been for him to orientate himself in the garden with the help of the most fragrant plants. He died when I was too little to really know him, but at least I know where my gardening genes come from.