Thursday, March 25, 2010

From Dumbarton Oaks to Living Roofs

The living roof of California Academy of Sciences, photographed by me last August.
Last weekend I got my garden design kick as the energetic Northwest Horticultural Society organized their spring seminar with theme American Garden Design from Dumbarton Oaks to Living Roofs. Despite the glorious, warm day outside the dark auditorium, I happily sat through a full day of knowledgeable presentations, enjoying all wonderful pictures from the large estate gardens of the early 20th century to modern, sustainable designs and energy-saving living roofs.
A garden by Beatrix Farrand, a lantern slide from the Archive of American gardens. Beatrix also designed the famous gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, now a research centre for garden and landscape history.
The first presenter, Judith Tankard, is a well-known landscape historian specialized in the Arts and Crafts era together with the garden designing successors to this style in the US. The gardens of this wealthy period with all their architecturally designed garden rooms, evergreen hedges and billowing borders of perennials have almost been idolized to death, so it is easy to feel a bit weary about them. Concentrating on Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Shipman, the two most successful female garden designers of this period in the US, Judith was able to make her subject feel alive again, showing luxuriant gardens on hand-colored lantern slides, many of which came from the Archive of American gardens available for viewing online.
The Riverside garden in Carmel by Bernard Trainor, picture from
After Judith, two contemporary designers with completely different approaches told about their work and their design principles. Craig Bergmann works in traditional style, but despite his sympathetic presentation, I didn't quite warm up to the safe, predictable designs he showed. Bernard Trainor's sustainable designs felt more like something that might make their mark and be remembered from our period of gardening. Bernard, who originally comes from Victoria in Australia, is very sensitive to the context of his designs. He takes clues from the surrounding environment and nature and incorporates them into the gardens he makes. Native plants, used whenever possible, are complemented with carefully chosen exotics and clean, architectural forms that are built using natural materials. The results were a pleasure to my eyes. His designs felt completely contemporary and despite his many years in England and the US, still somehow very Australian. For some years ago, I lived in the area Bernard comes from, and his designs reminded me of some of the most beautiful gardens there, like Fiona Brockhoff's Karkalla and Jane Burke's Offshore on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. The sustainability issues have for some time been the core of modern Australian gardening, which has led to some beautiful results. I have to admit that after my years in Melbourne, I am quite biased and love most things Australian, even the accent in which Bernard delivered his presentation...
The greatest habitat for native plants within the San Francisco area... according to Paul Kephart. The grey gravel lines contain and cover the drainage system.
The last presentation was by Paul Kephart, who told about living architecture like vegetative roofs. Paul has for long researched the natural habitats of California, and applies now his knowledge as part of the cutting edge, ecological architecture of today. I was most impressed by Paul's perseverance in researching the best combinations of plants for every site, and then measuring the results, sitting for hours and counting the butterflies and birds that are attracted by their new urban habitats. The living roof of the Californian Academy of Sciences was one of the projects he showed, and when I saw it last August, I had no idea about the amount of research, preparation and work that went into that undulating, elegant living roof. I highly recommend checking out the project pictures on Paul's website showing the thousands of ecological "biotrays" with plants being assembled on the roof! What a living puzzle.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quote of the day

The snowy white Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Gem' is flowering now in my garden.

The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.

- Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) -

The perfection of my orderly shaped, pure white camellia is almost intimidating. From a pearly, tight bud, an endless spiral of impeccable petals open up one by one. How imperfect it makes me feel, its flawless beauty contrasting with all my shortcomings.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gardens at the Getty Villa

A sculpture of Hermes/Mercury in the Outer Peristyle garden.

Another extravagant place from California... A sister museum to the Getty Center that I posted about last week, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades near Los Angeles was born out of J. Paul Getty's passionate interest for antique Etruscan, Greek and Roman art. J. Paul Getty started exhibiting his huge art collections enabled by his family's oil money in a gallery adjacent to his home in 1954, but as the collections grew, a more suitable venue was needed.
The Inner Peristyle garden, with a narrow reflecting pool surrounded by statues of women who have come to draw water from a stream. The East Garden with the mosaic fountain (as seen below) forms the final focal point of the central axis.

The East Garden with a colorful mosaic fountain, copied from the House of the Large Fountain in Pompeii.
A man with lavish means and a vivid imagination, J. Paul Getty decided to model his new museum after the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman country house in Herculaneum buried under ashes and pumice by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Villa dei Papiri has only been partly excavated, so many details of the museum are copied from other ancient Roman homes in the Pompeii and Herculaneum area. The original Getty Villa opened to the public in 1974, and a modern addition to the museum was built during a long renovation from 1997 to 2006.

The Outer Peristyle Garden with a large, central pool and several sculptures, planted with Buxus hedges and Mediterranean shrubs as oleanders, Nerium oleander, and pomegranates, Punica granatum.
The Villa has four garden areas, all of which were typical for the larger, Roman country villas: the narrow, shady East Garden to be enjoyed during hot afternoon hours, the Inner Peristyle Garden offering a cool oasis in the middle of the house (peristyle means an open colonnade surrounding a court sometimes containing a garden), the Herb Garden planted with Mediterranean species for cooking and medicine, and the Outer Peristyle Garden with a large, central pool. All gardens contain fountains and sculptures, and are planted in a formal, historically correct style with plants that were used by the Romans: acanthus, laurels, lavender, pomegranates, palms, cherries, peaches and many others - the volcanic eruption that destroyed everything living, at the same time preserved pollen and casted impressions of the plants in the lava, making it possible for later generations to know exactly what was grown by the unfortunate gardeners of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Herb Garden, planted with Mediterranean plants for cooking and medicine; thyme, mint, sage, lavender, citrus, pomegranates, olives and many more. Note the magnificent pine against the house. The dripping sound of water offers a cool relief in this sunny, dry area.

Wandering around the impeccable villa and the well-manicured gardens was a curious experience. On one hand, the artifacts there are all first class treasures from ancient Greece and Rome. And the villa and gardens put them into a context by showing how things very well might have looked during the most glorious days of the Roman empire. Also, not everybody from this part of the world will be able to visit European museums or other extensive collections of antiquities, or the real, excavated cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, so the Getty Villa has a great educational value too. On the other hand, I couldn't quite shake off a feeling of wandering in some kind of ultra posh Disneyland: sophisticated, but a bit too sleek and perfect. Despite these quiet ponderings, the gardens were truly enjoyable, and the art collections and the setting of the Villa magnificent, so on the whole, the Getty Villa was a fascinating place to visit.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Quotes of the day

The glaucous Euphorbias are in full bloom, opening their lime-coloured and honey-scented flowers to the bees and the sun.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music the words make.

- Truman Capote, McCall's, November 1967 -

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.

- Vladimir Nabokov -

For some days, I've been feeling overwhelmed by the writing course I'm taking. The required textbooks teach different aspects of the creative process, and introduce techniques and tools necessary for telling good stories. I've waded through lessons in creating coherent structures, rendering convincing characters and crafting effective dialogue. And looking at all this clear, sophisticated, inspirational advice makes my heart sink: I'm almost paralysed by all things that I should consider before and while writing. "The chief enemy of creativity is good sense", said Pablo Picasso, who probably never let good advice come between him and his artwork. I feel tempted to agree with him, just to save my face from myself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gardens at the Getty Center

More Californian, hazy blue skies... Another amazing place I visited the previous week was the Getty Center, an enormous art center situated high up on a hilltop overlooking Beverly Hills and the immense metropolitan area of Los Angeles. The effect of seeing the center from below is a reversed version of my picture above: a streamlined, cream-colored fortress looming high above the busy everyday life of the congested, cosmopolitan city.

The Getty Center was designed in the '90s by architect Richard Meier and built of steel, glass and countless tons of travertine, shipped from Bagni di Tivoli in Italy. Visitors arrive to the center with a sleek, modern tram, which Meier designed to give them a feeling of 'being elevated out of their day-to-day experience'; this I completely agree with. In back of my head, a small voice whispered 'only in America...' as I entered this huge bastion of high culture and art, that was built with money earned from oil and with a budget that probably exceeded the annual GNP of any of the Scandinavian countries.

The Getty Center is a monumental place with superb collections of Western art, ranging from old manuscripts, sculptures, paintings and decorative arts to modern art, including photography. Many of the sculptures - Miros, Moores, Magrittes, Maillols... - are displayed outdoors, forming incredible focal points against the magnificent scenery. I was briefly reminded of the lovely Foundation Maeght on a hilltop in Saint Paul de Vence in southern France, as so many of the works are made by same artists, but a comparison is impossible. The Maeght Foundation was, despite the many visitors, a personal experience on a intimate scale, while the size and extent of the Getty Center and its collections make visiting it everything but intimate; still, it's a truly magnificent place in its own way.

The Central Garden is the largest garden area, designed by artist Robert Irwin. He once called it 'a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art', and it felt like the hybrid he wanted it to be. Meandering down from the upper level, a zigzag path followed a boulder-filled stream surrounded by London plane trees, reminiscent of a natural ravine. Here, Irwin concentrated on the experience of sound, provided by water running down the stream, and texture, provided by plants that he organized 'according to the complexity of their leaves'. Unfortunately, the stream remained dry during my visit, but I found the contrast between the sleek path and the rough boulders strong and attractive. The plantings were well-composed and contemporary, the plants had attractive forms and colors, even if I didn't quite catch anything really special in the leaf combinations.

The zigzagging path and the stream run down to a circular maze of Kurume azaleas planted in rusty steel containers in the water. It was coming to full bloom; a eye-catching blaze of colour, that felt almost aggressive amongst the otherwise restricted color scheme. So called 'specialty gardens' encircled the central pool with azaleas; looking at them, I caught myself thinking 'Oh no, not a kitchen garden here', as 'cottagey' as they were in their expression (the second picture above, on the half way level from the pool up). Irwin meant them to provide scale and intimacy, but somehow I just thought that they felt out of place with their small scale, completely dwarfed by their surroundings. Instead, I found the sculptural, rusted iron bar 'mushrooms' (above), with bougainvilleas climbing up them, in perfect scale with their environment, providing rest in well-needed shade in the white, Californian sun.
On the south side of the Center, several staircases with viewing platforms extended out from the building. A roof terrace planted with cacti made a great focal point in front of the boundless view; I thought that they mirrored the rounded forms of the leafy suburbs, suddenly changing into the spiky, high specimens, like the skyscrapers in the distant horizon. Gliding down to the garage in the silent tram, I was uncertain if I could ever get used to this kind of grandeur; like the great chateaus and museums of Europe, the Getty Center seemed like a place best enjoyed in small portions, carefully dealt out over convenient periods of time.