Monday, June 16, 2008

Style

NATURE; Softening a City With Grit and Grass

Published: July 15, 2004

KATHRYN GUSTAFSON, the American-born landscape architect known for her sculptured parks and lively waterworks, was embraced by France, Britain and the Netherlands before her native country recognized her bold, minimalist sensibility.

That changed when she designed the Arthur Ross Terrace, with its exquisite interplay of lights and fountains, behind the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2000. Two years later, she won the competition for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, which opened last week in London.

Her newest creation is a 2.5-acre garden, which opens tomorrow in Millennium Park, Chicago's $475 million celebration of design. It also includes a music pavilion by Frank Gehry, sculpture by Anish Kapoor and a Jaume Plensa interactive fountain.

Last week, I passed beneath Mr. Kapoor's gleaming stainless steel ellipsis, which forms a grand entrance to the park, and stood agog at the Gehry pavilion. Its maw of curling steel looks like a celestial gateway to another universe. I had to remind myself this 25-acre park park is a roof garden over a parking garage and commuter rail lines. It runs along Michigan Avenue, just north of the Art Institute and Grant Park and is a stone's throw from Lake Michigan.

Ms. Gustafson's contribution, a collaboration with Piet Oudolf, the Dutch master of perennials, and Robert Israel, the lighting and set designer, is called the Lurie Garden, after its donor, Ann Lurie. It is tucked behind a soft wall of evergreens at the south end of the music pavilion and Mr. Gehry's arching steel trellis, which spans a great oval lawn, where 7,000 people can sit and enjoy a performance. This trellis not only frames the sky but also leads the eye toward the Lurie Garden's great green hedge -- and what secrets may lie behind it.

Ms. Gustafson first envisioned this hedge as powerful shoulders supporting the head of the Gehry pavilion. It is a hedgerow, really -- a collection of yew, cedar, beech and hornbeam. But it has years to grow before it reaches the top of the 15-foot steel frame, which will guide pruners to clip its sides and top in a smooth line.

The frame, intended to support branches laden with snow, is a monumental sculpture in itself. Quite capable of standing up to Mr. Gehry's animated pavilion, it curves around the garden like muscular arms.

Through the openings in it I could reach a wide boardwalk that runs along a five-foot-wide canal flanked by a limestone wall. The wall, intentionally rough, is a reference to the sea wall that once held back the lake, and the boardwalk, or seam, as Ms. Gustafson calls it, harks back to the first wooden boardwalks built over the swampy shore that was to become Chicago. Jets enliven the water, and a wide step invites visitors to sit down, take their shoes off and dangle their feet in the cool water.

Ms. Gustafson, whose landscapes are rooted in their geography and cultural history, has layered this garden with Chicago's past -- from those first boardwalks over the mud to the railroad tracks still visible from Monroe Street and the skyscrapers that rose above me as I climbed the gentle slope of a bright prairie. Newly planted coneflowers, little bluestem and hundreds of other perennials and grasses were widely spaced in blocks and swirls to form a patchwork of contrasting textures and colors.

To the east, across the boardwalk and above the limestone walk, lies a darker, cooler world of ferns, angelicas, joe-pye weed and other moisture-loving plants. Ms. Gustafson envisioned the two planes -- light and dark -- as the muscular torso of her shoulder garden.

This garden will open a week after Ms. Gustafson's Diana fountain opened in Hyde Park in London, and children raced to splash in its rushing waters.

''The TV cameramen got frustrated because the children all stripped off their clothes, and they couldn't photograph them,'' Ms. Gustafson said by cellphone while on a train to Paris.

The children did not have to know the metaphor Ms. Gustafson was working with there -- that the changing waters, from effervescent bubbles to roiling cascade and a final quiet pool, were meant to reflect Diana's personality. ''She reached out to people,'' Ms. Gustafson said. ''She was very inclusive.'' The fountain is meant to be interactive, so no child could resist.

 

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