The Six Year Plan - Lurie Garden

Today is a lazy Saturday. Instead of writing something off the top of my head, I'll leave you with an essay I wrote earlier this semester. Landscape Architecture for the win. Enjoy.

Lurie Garden is one of America’s modern landscape designs. Constructed in 2004, this garden is one of the defining green spaces in downtown Chicago. Lying on top of Millennium Park’s parking garage, this garden is a contemporary green roof with a variety of plant species, planting arrangements, and several unique features. According to Gustafson’s design partner, Shannon Nichol, Lurie Garden symbolizes how it went “from wild, marshy shoreline to railroad yard, to parking garage, to roof garden. The design allows people to experience the contrasts between past and present forms of the site” (Amidon 186). Designed by Kathryn Gustafson, Lurie Garden was made to “delve deep into the natural and cultural history of Chicago’s shoreline to suggest an optimistic future” (Amidon 184). Gustafson clearly intended to represent Chicago’s dynamic history through this garden, and by doing so, represents other themes from landscape architectural history as well. This essay aims at discovering which elements of landscape architectural history Lurie Garden represents via its four sections: The Shoulder Hedge, The Light Plate, The Dark Plate, and The Seam.

The Shoulder Hedge is the first section of Lurie Garden. Large, long hedge rows make up the general layout. Several tree species are planted in these hedgerows, which help define the inner sections of the garden. The hedges are restrained by steel cages, which are intended to guide the growth throughout the years. When asked about them, Gustafson said “Louie XIV had to wait for his garden too” (Kent 110). She suggests that this system of steel cages has been used as a tool as far back as the seventeenth century, in French Classical gardens such as the topiary of Vaux Le Vicomte. The steel cages are also intended to be used as physical and visual barriers. Once the hedges grow in fully, they will display a uniquely textured green wall which will act as a guard for the inner sections of the garden. This idea of visual screening was common during the early nineteenth century, from designers such as Andrew Jackson Downing, a member of the Picturesque movement. The notion of controlling where one moves, what one sees, and how one enters the garden is very characteristic of traditional Japanese gardens as well; Gustafson wants visitors to experience the garden in a sequential order, much like in the Katsura Imperial Villa. The Shoulder Hedge leads visitors into the Light Plate.

The Light Plate is an open, prairie like garden located just inside the Shoulder Hedge. Gustafson chose to work with native prairie grasses, for they represent the regions horticultural history, and act as “the light on top of the world, as it was on the Great Plains” (Kent 110). These informal planting patterns resonate with nineteenth century Romanticism Philosophy: large, sporadic, aesthetic plantings to grow in and appear as if they were planted naturally, without human intervention. Several thin gravel paths run their course throughout these prairie grass beds. These meandering paths are meant to engage the visitors, evoking feelings of comfort which allow the visitors to turn inward and contemplate their day. These meandering paths are very reminiscent of the Medieval Cloister Gardens, with their Labyrinth walkways and set pathways. These feelings of comfort and contemplation are also typical of Japanese Zen Gardens such as Ryoan-Ji. The Light Plate is a space meant to engage the visitor on an intimate, personal level.

The Seam, while binding the Light Plate and the Dark Plate physically, divides Lurie Garden diagonally into two opposing themes. A long, curved wooden decked walkway defines the Seam. On the eastern edge of the walkway, there is a step downward so that people can get closer to the water. This use of terracing in combination with a water feature is very typical of Italian Gardens during the Renaissance period. Not only is the water inviting, but the terrace also allows the visitor to engage the water, to sit and linger for a moment. While enjoying the Seam, the environment provides the visitor with a subtle sensory overload. As Cheryl Kent states, “This garden is meant to engage and please all the senses. These is a faint sound of water lapping, unseen, beneath the boardwalk that bisects the garden and the water’s cooling breath on feet and legs as it rises through the boards. There is the barely detectable scent of limestone moistened by water. In the spring and summer, there are bees and butterflies to see. And of course, there are the plants, flowering and non-flowering, to see and smell, to hear the rustling in the breeze. You are in a meadow…in the heart of downtown Chicago.” (Kent 103). All of these subtle pleasantries are designed to capture the visitor’s attention and give them a taste of paradise. Sensory elements, like the ones mentioned above, we’re dominant features in Islamic gardens; these elements we’re meant to distract the visitor from worldly worries and help focus on more intimate, personal matters. The Seam very well may be the most engaging, and the most historically represented section in Lurie Park.

The Dark Plate is the final section of Lurie Park. The main feature of this section, once fully grown, will be the impenetrable shade canopy, woven together with the branches of redbuds, cherry, and black locust trees. Gustafson chose to utilize these trees because they symbolize Chicago as an early city, while also visually reinforcing the shoreline. These trees produce beautiful foliage, flowers, and scents; as with The Seam, the Dark Plate represents some of the features typical of Islamic Gardens: sensory pleasantries to engage the visitors. Visitors are guaranteed an intimate experience while in the Dark Plate: the shade canopy engulfs the visitor, completely isolating them from the outside world. This arrangement of trees is representative of French Classical garden plantings: the Dark Plate is quite reminiscent of the allees and bosquets that define the gardens of Versailles. The robust, close tree plantings found in the Dark Plate add a beautiful contrast to the rest of the park.

While Kathryn Gustafson aimed to solely represent the dynamic history of Chicago as an American city, she inevitably, and possibly unintentionally, represented several periods of landscape architecture as well. Some of these features are extremely dominant, while others are merely suggestions, open to interpretation. Whatever the case, Lurie Garden symbolizes and showcases the beauty and history of downtown Chicago.


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