lurie garden in february


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.

chicago-lurie-monetIf 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…

chicago-lurie-gaughin-2…and this Tahit­ian land­scape by Gaughin.

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.

5 thoughts on “lurie garden in february

  1. Lynn

    Hey thanks for the tour–not sure I love the hedge cage, either, but it does get you think­ing. Sculp­ture that makes you look fat? Sound like the city of broad shoul­ders and broad beams hahahaa.

  2. Philip

    I have been enjoy­ing your posts that I have missed.
    Caged greenery…interesting to con­sider. The paint­ings at the Art insti­tute look sub­lime. What a treat. We have not been to Chicago, so I loved this tour.

  3. lostlandscape Post author

    Lynn, ooh, ouch, groan… :)

    Philip, while I’ve only been to Chicago ac cou­ple times as an adult, I’ve been impressed both times. The lake-side set­ting and indoor cul­tural oppor­tu­ni­ties are stun­ning. Peo­ple I know who are from there miss it, unlike peo­ple who are from many other large cities.

  4. Pam/Digging

    It’s been very inter­est­ing to see your pics and hear your impres­sions of the Lurie gar­den and sur­round­ings from a win­ter visit. I was there in the fall of 2007, when the Lurie was at its golden, grassy peak. I’ll be back in May dur­ing Spring Fling Chicago, and I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing it in its fresh­est season.

    Did you make it to the Chicago Botanic Gar­den too? What a treat that is.

  5. Cool Garden Things

    I went to Chicago for the first time last fall and am myself in the gar­den­ing busi­ness of gar­den main­te­nance. I thought the Lurie Gar­dens were tremen­dously beau­ti­ful with a won­der­ful use of native and low main­te­nance plants land­scaped in an open and nat­ural way…I was inspired! Maybe I have not been around that much, but I was cer­tainly impressed!

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