Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Abkhazi Garden - the garden that love built

I've often thought that love and devotion are the two ingredients that separate unique gardens from fine ones; without them, knowledge and skill only produce superficial beauty that seldom resonates with our inner thoughts and emotions. So when a garden touches one's heart with its grace and beauty midst the leafless, numbing cold of late November, it is a sure sign that these two ingredients were abundant while it was created.

The story of the Abkhazi Garden in Victoria, British Columbia spans over seven decades, four countries and three continents. It is an exquisite tribute to the love and lives of its builders, Prince and Princess Abkhazi, who had originally met and learnt to know each other while living in Paris in the 1920s. Prince Nicolas Abkhazi had lost her home when his home became the Soviet state of Georgia, and lived in exile in Paris. Princess Abkhazi, or Peggy Pemberton Carter before her marriage, had grown up in Shanghai with wealthy adoptive parents, and she had been taken to Paris to learn more about European arts and culture. Her adoptive mother didn't want lose her to any suitor, prince or not, so Peggy was promptly transported back to Shanghai.

18 years exchange of letters was followed by a further separation caused by the Second World War, during which Peggy was imprisoned by the Japanese and Nicolas by the Germans. In 1946, both met again in New York and decided to marry briefly thereafter. The couple moved together to Victoria in Canadian British Columbia, where Peggy had bought a small but promising lot on a hilly slope filled with glacial cliffs. Soon they started to build their garden together. The couple remained childless and Peggy later admitted that the garden became the child they never got.
The Abkhazi garden soon became known for its exquisite plant collections and creative, artistic solutions that enhanced the natural, intricate beauty of the hilly site. Today, walking through the garden, moss-covered stone outcroppings reveals carefully installed, meandering pathways, and little ponds that mirror the clouds floating above, connecting the land to the sky. Every little crevice is filled with well-chosen alpines, bulbs and miniature conifers; below the cliffs, a lush grove of Rhododendrons, now with stems thick as thighs, spread their limbs above the accompanying woodland perennials. Thoughtfulness and calm seem to penetrate every corner of the garden, and there is a remarkable balance between the dramatic site and its planted companions. After Nicolas' and Peggy's deaths in the 1990s, high-density housing development threatened the gardens, but luckily some passionate garden lovers together with the Land Conservancy of British Columbia were able to rescue them.

A garden is a perpetual reminder that there are no shortcuts to the important things in life, wrote Peggy, Princess Abkhazi, once in her journals. No shortcuts were taken in the Abkhazi Garden, so lovingly and devotedly built over 40 years by Nicolas and Peggy who had experienced both ultimate splendour and extreme misery during their long lives. And so it became one of those unique gardens that are able to touch one's heart, even over a decade after its creators finally left its stone-clad, mossy hills and shadowy groves.
'The garden that love built' was a description that Peggy herself used of their garden.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A classical Chinese scholar's garden in Vancouver

View from the outer garden towards the Jade water pavilion and the Magnolia courtyard, the dark water reflecting the shapes of the buildings and the weeping willow.
During a brief visit to Vancouver in British Columbia last weekend, I finally got to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden that I had been curious about for some time. Named to honor of the first president of the Republic of China who also has been called the father of modern China, it was built for 24 years ago as a full-scale replica of a classical scholar's garden, using materials, tools and techniques that were almost identical to those used centuries ago.
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View from the Magnolia courtyard towards the outer garden.
Despite the grey, hanging Vancouver skies above and the busy commerce behind the surrounding high white walls so typical for classical Chinese gardens, my stroll around the garden seemed to transfer me to another time and place, where a whiff of orchid scent or a gentle stroke of a calligraphy brush could be contemplated for hours.
The Jade water pavilion and covered walkways seen from the inner Maple hall courtyard; sitting places were important for the delicate Chinese upperclass ladies who could barely walk with their tiny, bound feet.*
Inside the Jade water pavilion, two latticed wooden screens, constructed without any nails or screws, frame views to both outer and inner gardens. The screens, a circular one called Heaven gate (above) and a square Earth gate, illustrate the Daoist yin and yang found throughout the garden: light is balanced by dark, rugged and hard by soft and flowing, and small by large.
Gliding through the moon gates and latticed pavilion openings, the garden never revealed itself all at one glance, but was presented as a series of carefully orchestrated vistas, like miniature landscapes and scenes of a scroll painting. Even the white walls, wood, stone and plants kept to the same subtle color scheme of muted greys, browns and greens.
Despite its small size, all key elements of a classical Chinese garden could be found within this garden. Buildings - terraces, covered walkways, pavilions and lookout platforms - were all meticulously built without any nails and screws. Sculptural, pitted and convoluted Tai Hu limestone rocks were bought from Lake Tai near Suzhou. All plants had been carefully selected for their specific symbolic values; often, only one specimen of each plant was used as a way to heighten the sense of its particularity and distinctiveness, and for its place in the circle of seasons, adding to the experience of time passing within the closed, high walls. A pond with cloudy water created a tranquil atmosphere, reflecting the buildings, rocks and plants, and small notes with calligraphic signs offered inspiring words of poetry to those able to decipher their meanings.

The courtyards were covered by intricate stonework, created of pebbles and rocks that were cut by hand.
In a serene, connected courtyard with a study, I could easily imagine the scholar reading, writing, composing poetry and music, and painting on his elegant wooden desk; in China, the art of gardening was always inseparable from other forms of art. Behind the desk, three framed windows depicted scenes with the "three friends of winter" - bamboo symbolizing resiliency amid diversity, pine symbolizing strength and eternity, and winter-flowering plum standing for rebirth and renewal - all important symbols in the life of a classical Chinese scholar.

View from the Scholar's courtyard into the study; the scholar's table and chair are seen in the middle, with one of the "three friends of winter" windows behind.
Wandering around the garden, I thought of the many Japanese gardens that I've seen, both in Japan and in many other countries (most botanical and public gardens seem to think it is necessary to provide a Japanese garden, wherever in world they are situated). But Chinese gardens are much more rare; even in the Western coast of North America, where Chinese immigrants have formed an important part of the population since mid-1850s, only a handful of them exist, all in cities with historic Chinatowns like San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver and soon even Seattle.
Contemplating this disparity, I thought that maybe it is their reliance on often highly ornate architecture that made Chinese gardens so difficult to lift out of their context, while the sophisticated simplicity and conceived naturalness of the Japanese ones (successfully falling together with the 20th century ideals of Modernism) made them to object of our eager imitation even if the results are often mediocre at their best...?

The scholar's courtyard with Tai Hu river rocks from Lake Tai in China. These rocks were extremely popular in classical Chinese gardens, and their forms invite to different interpretations as the light changes during the days and seasons. The "leak window" behind leads the eye to something beyond, at the same time expanding the space.
Anyhow, I enjoyed greatly my initiation into the art of Chinese gardening, having so far experienced it only through art and in books. Certainly, I would be very happy to travel to China for that special experience that only seeing gardens in their original landscapes and contexts can give, but until that lucky day, I'll have some enjoyable days in front of me visiting the Chinese gardens of the West Coast. Which reminds me of words of Yuan Ye, a classic Chinese gardening manual published in 1634 that explained the benefits of private garden as following:

If one can thus find stillness in the midst of city turmoil, why should one then forego such an easily accessible spot and seek a more distant one? As soon as one has some leisure time then one can go and wander there, hand in hand with a friend.
I took all photos above; please don't copy without asking my permission - contact me through leaving a comment.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A lunchtime sunbath at the roof, anyone?

Office girls sunbathing and showering at the KF roof gardens in Stockholm. Photo by C. Gemler, early 1940s.
Since the mid-90s, roof gardens have been earning a escalating following. Browse any garden related magazines and newspaper articles, and you'll find numerous pictures of the latest and greatest; from high-rise roofs filled with eclectic, recycled planters brimming with edibles to ecologically designed, sustainable native sanctuaries topping the sky-scrapers of the busiest cosmopolitan city centers.
The KF roof gardens overlooking the islands and waterways of Stockholm. Photo by Bertil Norberg, early 1940s.
Looking at all this plenty, one might think that roof gardens are a new idea, something that our climate-change challenged generation thought out in quest to fight against the ever surging density and temperatures of the highest populated areas of the planet. But this is just an illusion: in fact, roof gardens were popular already in ancient Mesopotamia, Rome and India, where roof gardens were created for both private and public enjoyment and recreation. And in the modern world, when industrialization made land both scarcer and more valuable, gardens sometimes moved to roofs to satisfy the hunger for nature and beauty; not the earliest but one of the most well-known examples is Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1928-1929) with its streamlined, carefully orchestrated roof gardens. It was first in the 1960s that the trend of building roof gardens came into a halt, like so many other areas of gardening. Many existing roof gardens fell into disrepair and were abandoned because of financial reasons, and thus the idea of building gardens on the roofs was neglected (but not completely forgotten) for some decades.
**Framed views from the KF roof, similar to the ones Le Corbusier used in Villa Savoye - and the Chinese and Japanese framed views that probably influenced both... Photo by Bertil Norberg.
In mid-19th century Stockholm, a couple of glorious roof gardens were built to improve the environment of office workers. The most well-known of them was the roof garden of "The Swedish Co-operative Union" (Kooperativa Förbundet, KF). It was designed and built in the early 1940s, when the rest of the world was busy fighting the WWII; during the same period, the lucky Swedes were instead building out the welfare state, deeply concerned about the health and happiness of its inhabitants. Dwellings were designed to light and hygienic, and a healthy, sporty lifestyle was touted out as a remedy against most (if not all) evils of life. Kooperativa Förbundet with its member-owned grocery stores and educational efforts was an eager harbinger of a better life for the working classes of Sweden.
In the early 1940s, KF decided to renovate the roofs of its huge office buildings overlooking the skyline of Stockholm city centre with its islands and waterways. A new roof garden providing areas for both gymnastics and sun-bathing was to be included in the designs, which were provided by Ulla Bodorff, a young landscape architect with an exam from England who had travelled widely in many inspirational gardens of Europe. The gardens proved a huge success; groups of early risers exercised briskly at the dedicated area and then freshened themselves up in the showers provided, and office girls eagerly changed into their bathers for a fast lunchtime sunbath. The gardens included areas for walking and relaxation and even a small area called the "wilderness" with small trees and shrubs sprouting up from a carpet of grass.
View from the "wilderness" part of the KF roof gardens. Photo by Bertil Norberg.
Despite their popularity, the KF gardens also fell into disrepair and were dismantled by the 1970s because of economical reasons; their history followed that of so many other glorious roof gardens from the early and mid-19th century. The space is still there, but now without any plants or greenery, and the KF buildings are rented out to several smaller companies. But given the current huge popularity or all things related to gardens, especially on roofs, I think it would be a great idea to re-build the KF gardens. I'm sure they would prove to be as popular as ever in their earlier days of glory, providing at the same time a great platform for viewing the beauty of Stockholm, and a wonderful example of 19th century garden history, with or without the sunbathing office girls.
All photos from Trädgårdskonst. Den moderna trädgårdens och parkens form. Published by Natur och Kultur, Stockholm, 1948.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The lush playgrounds of a software giant

Entrance to one of the numerous dining areas at the Microsoft campus.
Living in Seattle, there is no escaping the presence of Microsoft, the international software giant familiar to everyone who has ever touched the keys of a computer. Together with the ever-present rain, Kurt Cobain and Starbucks Coffee, Microsoft is an inseparable part of the lives of Seattleites, either directly by paying the bills of its employees and their families, or indirectly by hiving off business opportunities for thousands of subcontractors and by providing a tax base that supports countless public causes. During its lifetime, Microsoft has generated wealth with an immeasurable effect on the city and the region.

High grasses combined with shrubs divide the soccer field from the surrounding office buildings.

Much less known is that the grounds of Microsoft's headquarters are one of the largest landscaped corporate parks in the US. In buildings scattered on 600 acres, over 30.000 employees spend their working hours amidst greenery tended daily by 300 garden workers. Since 1985, when Microsoft moved to Redmond, its goal has been to offer a relaxing environment to its employees who come from all parts of the world. The first buildings of what now forms the enormous "Microsoft campus' were raised amidst cleared forest land, with trails leading between the initial four buildings. As the company grew and the building density increased, preserving the character of the local Pacific Northwest nature still continued to be the most important design principle.

Pathways around the campus.

Intrigued by the variety and lushness of the huge corporate gardens, I talked to landscape architect Mark Brumbaugh, whose company Brumbaugh & Associates has been responsible for designing the grounds of Microsoft for years. Mark described how the design process has always been connected to the Northwest values: a love for nature and outdoor recreation. In the latest project, a new building area of 43 acres was designed to reflect the four regional habitat landscape types: coast, mountains, forests and meadows, each of them with their own distinct identity. Using local materials and plants suited to each habitat (not all of which are native), they were designed to provide interest during all 12 months of the year at the same time being reasonably easy to maintain.

Benches and chairs around one of the sports fields.

Microsoft's Senior facilities manager Michael Impala generously also took time to meet me, revealing some fascinating details about landscaping on this giant scale. For example, a full-sized soccer field, basketball, bocce and sand volley ball courts and an underground garage with 192.000 square foot green roof and a forest trail for running are all included in the design, all imposing their own requirements for planting and maintenance. Also, security of the employees who use the grounds has to be taken into account. Using hardy native plants is not only a matter of design, but it is also a way to keep the grounds sustainable maintenance- and irrigationwise. Despite its rainy reputation, over 90 percent of the precipitation in Seattle area falls between September and April, making special water-saving computerized irrigation systems necessary during the dry summer months.

Above plantings with forest theme; below entrance through the mountain themed plantings, with locally sourced boulders.

Wandering through the huge grounds of Microsoft, I was impressed both by the variety of detail and by their excellent connection with the surrounding landscape. Despite their scale, they felt at times almost intimate, an effect achieved mainly by skillful selection of vegetation. Huge grasses rustled besides curving paths and meadow like planting areas, with benches and seats scattered along the trail for moments of discussion or reflection of thought. Being a busy Tuesday morning, no-one was using the sports grounds, but many were enjoying their lattes by the dining area with water features providing a pleasant background for discussions.

Detail from the meadow plantings.

Deriving from the long tradition of university campuses in the US, where beautiful landscaping has for long been used to attract and retain students and staff (two wonderful examples of which are the campuses of Stanford and Berkeley), the Microsoft campus is built on a similar theme. Overall, it is an admirable display of the software giant's commitment to provide a great working environment for its employees.

Thank you, Mark and Michael, for taking time to tell about the Microsoft grounds!
I have no commercial interests in Microsoft and/or its products.