Designing a Garden, the new book written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single project: the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Of course a garden is more than the sum of its ingredients, and a design brief is not a soluble equation. But the book’s generous number of sketches, photos, construction documents, and written correspondence help immeasurably to illustrate a general process “common to the making of nearly all built landscapes.”
This process of redesigning the existing Monk’s Garden at the museum in the early 2010s begins with a frenetic diagram sketched on a yellow file folder. Here, Van Valkenburgh faces his first challenge: how do you wander in a space so constrained? The space for the Monk’s garden, hemmed in by the museum, is a mere 52 feet by 150 feet. The wandering path becomes not only a central design element but also a device with which to engage the space.
It is also this story’s charismatic central character. Van Valkenburgh and his team get to work tailoring it to the site. Instinct and experience help generate the first ideas, but those must be refined through design inquiry. For the path’s material, the idea of pine needles is considered and quickly withdrawn, deemed impractical. Bricks, initially dismissed as too common, come back in to the fold. But what size and material? Samples are procured and configured into mock-ups. The design team scrutinizes them from every angle and in every quality of light. Van Valkenburgh remarks that he’ll even hold the materials to his nose, testing for a scent and another data point. He admits it doesn’t usually help, but it probably doesn’t hurt. Black manganese bricks, rich in color with a clean edge, are settled on for the moment. But material is a question the team will regularly revisit.
Meanwhile, path layout tests are staged on site with a garden hose. When the result is too imperfect, the team falls back on surveyor string, until finally getting their hands on the bricks. Hundreds of iterations are born and fizzle on site, in scale models and sketches. Planting ideas begin to take shape and inform the path.
Van Valkenburgh, a renowned planting designer, illustrates his approach to plant selection in vivid terms. Branches are scaffolding, and the space between them is air. “Airiness,” like figure and spread, is a quality by which a tree can be judged, Van Valkenburgh assures us. “Don’t be confounded by the difficulty of finding words to describe what the space of a tree feels like.” Those fluid qualities are worth consideration and cannot be specified in a drawing.
All of these decisions are made via trial, error, and regular conversation between Van Valkenburgh and Anne Hawley, the museum director at the time. The book opens with a semi-formal letter from Hawley to Van Valkenburgh requesting his services and describing the desired outcome for the garden. Among other attributes, it should be a garden “where Proust could contemplate.”
As for the path, Michael and his team feel it come to life when they decide to incorporate schist as a balance and foil to the manganese. In an email to Hawley explaining the decision, Van Valkenburgh, writes: “All too often people reduce Proust to madeleines, forgetting that the real magic is found in madeleines and mint tea together.”
Designing a Garden is a small but outstanding text culminating in a smaller outstanding text, The Gardner Gets a Garden, an essay by Laurie Olin, FASLA. Olin offers effusive appreciation. He contextualizes the garden in relation to other art works and Van Valkenburgh’s own body of work. Van Valkenburgh, Olin writes, has demonstrated a career-long interest in the sensual and perceptual. In this book rich with illustrated and photographic insight, we can understand that conclusion.