Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden
If you spent lime in Chicago's Lurie Garden when it first opened, I it's worth another visit to experience the garden in its maturity. The garden is an explosion of perennials, a gently Rowing water course, and a network of wood and crushed-stone pathways in the I shadows of skyscrapers. This colorful and text lira I live acres is part of Millennium Park, Chicago's ambitious and multi faceted design showcase completed in 2004.11 has ostentatious neighbors — Frank Gehry's billowing stainless-steel music pavilion, artist Jaume Plensa's interactive Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor's mirror-smooth Cloud Cole (affectionately called "the bean") — but the Lurie Garden holds its own by being more subdued, more contemplative.

That's not to say the garden isn't powerful. The 14-foot-tall hedge of cedar, beech and hornbeam trees, structured even before it reaches its full height by a rigid steel armature, is a bold edge that both encloses the garden and ties it to the grand scale of the city. The main walkway seems to slice straight through and into the earth, exposing rough-hewn limestone and a ribbon of water.
Lurie Garden
The work of Seattle-based landscape architecture office Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. and stage set and cos­tume designer Robert Israel, the garden's design team came together in 2000 to respond to an invited competition. Their scheme, titled "Shoulder Garden" — in part for the way the great hedge dips along its northern edge to seemingly support the "head" of Gehry's pavilion — had deep references to Chicago's history, and a palette of more than 130 kinds of perennials designed to change and evolve through the seasons and over time.
This lush landscape is actually a roof garden, but it is almost impos­sible to tell. It sits on top of the Millennium parking garage, which in turn sits on top of railroad tracks. The undulating landforms arc accomplished with Styrofoam under a layer of soil, since great mounds of dirt would have been too heavy for the underlying struc­ture. The garden is a rectangle split in half by the main walkway, called the "seam" by the designers. This cleaving of the site is highly symbolic. Chicago is a city that was literally raised from the marsh, and the Lake Michigan shoreline has repeatedly changed location and character. Shannon Nichol, GCN's lead designer for the project within their collaborative office, learned everything she could about that shoreline. She found references to wooden boardwalks that the city installed to raise pedestrian paths out of the shoreline muck. She pored over old maps and pictures, and discovered old seawalls built by the railroad that passed very close to the Lurie Garden site.

The seam represents the boundary between the soft, wet shoreline and the high-and-dry city. From the seam, the land is on one side and the water is on the other. The designers call these halves the "light plate" and the "dark plate." the latter referencing the water and the marshy past. The dark plate's perennial beds include ferns, angelicas and other broad-leaved species; there are trees scattered through­out, growing up from the flower beds and pavement. The light plate is open and sunny, with prairie plants dominating. It is home to grasses, spring bulbs, coneflowers, prairie-smoke and not a single tree. Through both plates cut linear (though not gridded) crushed-stone pathways. These paths are set below the undulating surface of the ground, bringing the plants closer to eye level. The contrast is readily visible. While the light plate is a fine-textured upland, the dark plate is a thick wetland. Or, as an early GGN sketch jotted down, where the dark plate is wild, naughty and hidden, the light plate is clean, noble and prominent.

The seam reinforces this water-to-land metaphor. It is a minimal­ist boardwalk built literally over the top of a shallow runnel that is exposed on the lake side of the seam. The water edge of the board­walk steps down to create a scat. Facing the step is the smooth face of the limestone wall that supports the planting beds of the dark plate. Steel bridges cross die water. The seam ends at a large still pool and celebrates the view of the Art Institute of Chicago across the way.

It's not unusual to see people lounging on the boardwalk with their feet in the water, as if they were sitting on the edge of a dock. In fact, the garden has become perhaps the most popular site for simple relaxation in downtown Chicago. According to Lurie Garden director Jennifer Davit, the site sees 4 million visitors per year. That's due in part to the garden's management. It is actually curated like a perennials museum, with Davit and her staff— in consultation with planting designer Oudolf on big changes — altering and improving the plantings over time. While the structure of the seam was always an attraction, today the plants provide the necessary counterpoint. And the hedge is already nearly to the top of its armature, complet­ing die intended sense of enclosure.

Davit says the visitation exposes people to the garden's environ­mentally sustainable maintenance: no chemicals, limited water and the use of compost tea for fertilizer. Davit, who began in March, hopes to expand programming at Lurie on both green gardening and design. "This is an excellent place where you can learn lots of differ­ent design principles in a small setting," she says. "We're an outdoor classroom for focusing on design."
Lurie Garden
Perhaps the most significant challenge to the designers — and the greatest success of the design — has been location. The Lurie Garden sits right between Millennium Park's major event space (the music pavilion) and the entrances to the subterranean parking ramps. What's remarkable is that all the historic symbolism, the exquisite plantsmmanship and the subtle detailing don't interfere with the movement of thou­sands of people at once through the park site at large. The seam and the two other major pathways {one cutting through the eastern edge of the dark plate and another just outside the western hedge) are almost completely unobstructed but still manage to feel more like plazas than sidewalks.

The Lurie Garden is successful for those moving through and those who decide to linger, which is perfect reference to die city itself. Chicago was a city that grew in place, despite the challenges of its landscape. It has also always been a city of innovation: the skyscraper built with an iron-and-steel skeleton, the Ferris wheel and the elevated elec­tric train, and now this organic addition.

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