A Playful New Monks Garden


The newly-redesigned Monks Garden just opened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. At just 7,500 square feet, this intimate jewel of a garden shows how Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is both a master of the large park and small garden.

A tall brick wall encloses the space. Within, Van Valkenburgh maximizes circulation with a serpentine path of black brick, a play on Boston’s ubiquitous brick architecture. The winding trail, which also shines with mica schist, is the garden’s most striking feature.

And one can feel that it’s intentionally designed to be impractical. Instead of being a means to get from Point A to Point B, the path is designed for aimless wandering. Van Valkenburgh said “he thought of the garden as a place to get lost.”

Favoring whimsy over function is really a response to the museum itself, which was considered outlandish for its time and is still not organized around traditional themes. As Van Valkenburgh described, the museum isn’t practical, nor was Isabella Stewart Gardner a particularly practical woman. With his design, he wanted to “do something that lives up to the museum.”

In keeping with the unconventional approach, Van Valkenburgh wanted the space to appeal to children. Feeling that “kids hate museums,” he designed the garden as a place for them to run, hide, and play amid the 60-plus miniature Stewartia, Paperback Maple, and grey birch trees.

Van Valkenburgh emphasized that while the garden’s form is beautiful from an aerial perspective, it’s really about the sensory experience being in the space. To that end, the garden’s planting design stresses seasonal variation, making it appealing year-round. There are bulbs for the spring, late summer day lilies, winter-blooming Lenten roses, and four varieties of Camellias. There are nice places to sit and have those experiences, on basic grey chairs that are both there and not there.

Far from a rarefied courtyard, Monks Garden’s playful design enters a dialogue with the eccentric museum it inhabits. Appropriately, Van Valkenburgh declared, “I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun designing a garden.”

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, ASLA 2012 summer intern and master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

2 thoughts on “A Playful New Monks Garden

  1. Michael Van Valkenburgh 09/21/2013 / 4:40 am

    Thanks for this story. I so often cringe when I am about to read an article about my work and I think you got it just right.

    When I was starting to break out on my own—when I was in my late 20s … Kevin Lynch (I had worked for him just before…. he wrote…image of the city, what time is this place, etc.) … Kevin told me to design small gardens because they got built fast and helped young designers understand the medium of landscape, but also as a means to understand if one’s design thinking (as Kevin called it) was in fact delivered with the medium of landscape. I got hooked on small scale, never stopped doing it. And small scale has for me a wonderful way of recalibrating what I do at larger scales.

    BTW, when I say “I”, I use it interchangably as a way to refer to MVVA and all of my co-workers at MVVA who are always a huge part of the work we do. For the Monks Garden, a shout out has to go to Matt Girard at MVVA, who worked every bit as hard as I did on this one, at times more so.

  2. Linda Lucchesi Cody 01/08/2014 / 3:36 pm

    Just sat down during the winter chill to catch up on some bookmarked posts. I have always enjoyed the work of MVVA, large and small scale but honestly it is in the small scale where they work their magic. Thank you for this.

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