Land Matters: Would You Pray in This Garden?

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Anticipation quickly turned to disappointment on that Baltimore street as the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden came into full view. “It’s next to a parking garage!” exclaimed my companion.

Yes, and the garage’s looming presence is more than an aesthetic issue. The potential for garage customers, as well as office workers in surrounding buildings, to peer down at the garden is part of the reason it may fail as a place to pray (see this month’s Critic at Large, page 120).

But people of faith can pray anywhere they happen to be, regardless of surroundings, can’t they? Not exactly. “When thou prayest,” said Jesus, “enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). I think Jesus was pretty clear: You need a solitary spot for all but the most perfunctory prayer. So how does a site next to a parking garage at the corner of Charles and Franklin streets sound?

Regardless of your religious persuasion, Pope John Paul deserves to be remembered as a dynamic and courageous world leader. But this is specifically a prayer garden, not a memorial garden, and Cardinal William Keeler stated that people of all religions are invited to pray here. Would John Paul’s statue help Catholics, much less non-Catholics, connect with their Creator in this setting?

One oddity of the garden is that it’s locked up tighter than Fort Knox on major religious holidays—at least it was on Christmas Day, when photographer Mike Tan went there. (He had to shoot the photos hanging over the security fence.) It wasn’t open on New Year’s Day, when I went, either, but I understand why. Baltimore, this grand, culturally rich old city, is plagued by crime. Downtown parks become venues for drug deals or worse unless they’re only open when the surrounding businesses are open and can provide some informal surveillance. Still, I wonder if the security fence around this tennis-court-sized space doesn’t create the feeling of being in a cage. Would anyone even want to eat lunch here, much less pray? I would love to see someone do a post-occupancy evaluation to determine if anyone uses the garden and, if so, for what.

I’m reminded of another new prayer garden of sorts in the region—the Pentagon Memorial (see “The Pentagon Memorial Story,” Landscape Architecture, January), which, despite its equally hemmed-in site, may be an effective place for prayer because of its scale: There are enough memorial benches that a visitor can find a spot where he or she can enjoy some solitude.

As we ended our visit to the Prayer Garden, my companion, who happens to be a praying person, gave her final verdict: “I’ll bet nobody ever prays here.”

Who chose this site for the Prayer Garden, anyway? The site was by no means a given—in fact, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had to tear down a historic building to create it. Even so, it’s not directly connected to the Baltimore Basilica; you have to walk around the block to get there. So why couldn’t the garden have been sited in some empty lot within walking distance?

I do hope it wasn’t the landscape architects who chose this site. That raises a bigger issue, however—that designers often have no part in choosing the sites they design. How can landscape architects better position themselves to be on site selection teams?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA, Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine

What gardens or other outdoor spaces have you found conducive to meditation or prayer?

One thought on “Land Matters: Would You Pray in This Garden?

  1. T.Johnson 01/16/2009 / 11:52 am

    It seems like the problem is not so much the parking structure but rather it’s treatment. These small pocket parks can be wonderful surprises to stumble upon and it is their sense of enclosure and security that is created by the surrounding buildings. One has to wonder why the garage wasn’t recognized and addressed. Perhaps the designer wasn’t able to work with the owner of the garage to create a solution. It would still be easy to design a screen, living or otherwise, that would give the visitors privacy and enhance the beauty of the park while making the garage disappear from sight and mind.

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