I’m not sure what I was expecting out of Chicago’s Lurie Garden in the middle of February.
The core of the garden is a space concentrating on perennials planted by Piet Oudolf, and the winter garden was defined by what perennials do in the winter. Even though Oudolf has selected plants that maintain strong profiles into the winter, the garden looks like it’s seen better days. But really, that’s the outlook that the designer brings to the garden: Things change. Plants grow, bloom, die back. (Oudolf’s book Designing with Plants, after all, even has a chapter called “Death.” What feel-good garden book would even dare to acknowledge such a thing?)
The path through the heart of the garden was off-limits—I guess they were worried about people slipping and falling on the frozen walkways. Still, you can experience the garden’s perimeter with the Chicago skyline behind it. There you see the died back remains of last year’s growth: tall, dark spires of foxglove relatives (probably Digitalis ferruginea or parviflora); light brown clumps of various grasses; delicate, expressive curtains of burnet (Sanguisorba officianalis alba).
No gardener can begin to know every plant on earth, so I’m depending on my identification on the garden’s terrific plant list that you can find online and on what I know from Oudolf’s books to be some of his favorite plants. (Actually, the Plant Life of the Lurie Garden pages have not only plant lists, but photos and cultural tips on most of the plants in the garden. It got to be one of the most impressive online guides to a garden.)
Although probably most famous in the garden community for the perennial plantings, the Lurie Garden was actually overseen by Kathryn Gustafson (with other members of her firm, Gustafson, Guthrie, Nicholand) with input from artist/set designer Robert Israel. Gustafson contributed the overall landscape design, while Israel is credited with the “conceptual review,” signalling that this is a garden of ideas as much as it is a garden of plantings.
The central garden features two sections, a “light plate” and a “dark plate,” representing tectonic geological forces. (Kustafson’s office is in Portland, Israel is based in Los Angeles. Both are locations where people think more about geological movement than they do here in Chicago.) Protecting the garden on two sides is this giant armature that will mature into a hedge that represents Chicago as the city of “broad shoulders,” as made famous in Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem, “Chicago.”
With Oudolf’s plants now retreating into the ground or only defined by ghosts of themselves, it’s Gustafson’s contribution that you notice most in the middle of winter. The curious structure of dark steel with dark metal cables looks like a zoo pen containing tightly planted alternating blocks of different arborvitae varieties and deciduous hornbeam and European beech. One of the deciduous trees is interesting in that it that holds on to its leaves through the winter. As the year progresses, I can see the deciduous plants leafing out at different times, reducing the contrast between the evergreens and the broadleaf trees.
The effect of the caged greenery is an odd effect, for sure. Any clipped hedge talks about the control of nature, and to put nature in a cage like this, like a botanical zoo, reinforces that almost violent act. It’s not a “pretty” effect, and I’m not sure I love it. But it catches my interest and reinforces this as a garden of ideas.
In the end I guess my reaction to the Lurie Garden in February is similar to what I feel when I hold a dormant bulb. I can appreciate the thing in its current state, but it’s the hope and knowledge of what it can do that really keeps me interested. It’s not really fair to try to give it a fair read in the middle of winter. Too bad I won’t be back every couple of months to check on its progress.
If staring at died-down perennials and caged shrubbery isn’t your cup of java, all you need to do to cross the street to the Art Institute of Chicago. There you’ll find all sorts of amazing artwork celebrating warm, green landscapes, including this lily pond by Monet…
Paintings and so much of what humans do is all about permanence and things not changing. We purposefully make things that resist change, whether it’s paint that doesn’t fade or Twinkies that will probably remain as edible in three decades as they are today. The garden across the street celebrates what does change.
Give the garden just a few months. The perennials will be spectacular once spring gets going. And the “hedge” will fill in over the next decade and read more like a hedge than a zoo exhibit.
When you’re visiting the Lurie Garden you’ll be just a few dozen steps from Frank Gehry’s brawny new shell for pops concerts on a lawn covered by this lattice trellis structure.
And then there’s this sculpture by Anish Kapoor titled “The Cloud Gate”–which the locals have dubbed “the bean.” It’s major fun to walk around its concave and convex surfaces that give you this cool, distorted reflection of the skyline.
With its convex exterior and concave interior, this is artwork that will make you look fat, a fact that this self-portrait can attest to…
I’m not sure whether it was intentional, but the Gehry bandshell and the Kapoor sculpture and the shoulder hedge of the garden all feature steel–a material that makes possible the skyline that rises around them. Chicago without steel? Unthinkable.
And now, Chicago without the Lurie Garden, the Gehry bandshell and the Kapoor Cloud Gate? Unthinkable, as well.