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In Praise of Lurie Garden, Millennium Park’s Quiet Corner

How Chicago’s public gardens evolved from Burnham to Jensen to Ouldolf, and how they reflect the ambitions of our urbs in horto.

Horticulturalist Laura Ekasetya digs out a few compass flower plants Tuesday, June 24, 2014 in the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Millennium Park is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and writers are reflecting on its history and meaning—from the politics of the park to its civic role to its meaning. As usual, one aspect of the park gets overlooked, or at best a quiet nod.

Well, the two signature attractions for the casual visitor — Crown Fountain and the Bean — were, in so many ways, perfectly designed for the new experiential, touch-obsessed moment. The Bean has turned out to be the ultimate smartphone-friendly destination, its shiny surface offering so many chances for the self-chronicler, its reflective surface offering a selfie within a selfie within a selfie, and beloved for that.

OK, two parts. There’s the Millennium Park Monument, which is overlooked because it’s deadly boring—but interesting in its own way, as a testament to the aesthetic tendentiousness of power.

Then there’s the Lurie Garden. Mind, it’s not necessarily bad that it’s overlooked. Sheltered from the city and the riotous expanse of the park by a dark curtain of evergreens, it’s less trod and less often regarded than the Bean’s plaza and the Crown Fountain, as appropriate for a sanctuary. It doesn’t get enough attention; it gets enough people.

I might not have thought about the Lurie Garden if a couple books hadn’t turned up in the office: Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury; and Gardening With Perennials: Lessons From Chicago’s Lurie Garden, by Kingsbury alone. Oudolf is the garden and landscape designer behind the Lurie Garden [Clarification: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. was the lead landscape design firm for Lurie Garden as a whole, working in collaboration with Oudolf]; a legend in his field, he’s also done work on the Battery and High Line in New York and Potters Fields in London. Kingsbury, Oudolf’s amanuensis for Planting, is a writer as well as a designer in his own right.

Another reason for Lurie Garden’s metaphorical solitude, aside from its physical separation, is its subtlety, a mark of Oudolf’s work:

He has done the planting design for important new gardens in Millennium Park in Chicago and the Battery in New York, and for the park that will cover the elevated High Line rail bed in Lower Manhattan when it opens in September. These landscapes, like all his projects, embody and advertise his fundamental aesthetic doctrine: that a plant’s structure and form are more important than its color.

“He’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower,” said Charles Waldheim, the director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Toronto. “He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of the year,” and how it relates to the plants around it. Like a good marriage, his compositions must work well together as its members age.

Oudolf’s own pithy way of putting it: “a plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it’s dead.”

The Dutch master has become a star through his simultaneously subdued and cacaphonous aesthetic, which reflects a certain modesty towards the natural environment by way of the urban role within and around it. (There’s a similar vein running through Studio Gang’s work on Northerly Island.)  That’s combined with a desire to reflect the natural world as a tumultous, changing medium—while at the same time shaping and arranging that medium along our own, inevitable, aesthetic instinct.

“Those who wish the plantings they make or commission to look tidy and ordered—ebullient nature controlled and organized for the human eye—stand in the majority tradition of garden history,” Kingsbury writes in Planting: A New Perspective. “The more recent tradition, which I see Piet Oudolf and myself as part of, is about the opposite—how to create the sensation of nature, often in urban or suburban areas. As we know all too well, this does not mean letting things go by allowing natural processes to take over. When people say they want some nature, what they usually mean is a particular vision of nature, one that looks nice, fitting in to a distinctly human-centered idea of what nature is or should look like…. The task for the gardener or designer is to create an enhanced nature… one that supports an acceptable level of biodiversity and looks just a little bit wild.”

The way we design our urban spaces reflects the ambitions and tensions of the city. In his book on the great Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen, Robert Grese documents how the Burnham plan of Chicago—still the yardstick by which the city’s power brokers define Chicago—and the Columbian Exposition looked to Europe’s world cities to frame the aspirations of the growing city.

But there was, almost immediately, a backlash, grounded in native confidence in Chicago and America as worthy in their own merits:

Burnham and Bennett’s Chicago plan, with its Beaux-Arts emphasis, did not sit well with many Chicagoans, however. Louis Sullivan was adamant in his resistance, describing the postfair emphasis on classical and Renaissance architectural traditions as a virus that “slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched both at its source and outward.” He predicted that the neoclassical architecture of the fair would set back the development of American architecture by fifty years. Jensen noted that the plan emphasized glamorous “civic centers and magnificent boulevards” while overlooking the “filth and squalor” that permeated the remainder of the city. He declared that the “formal show city” proposed by Burnham and Bennett was “distinctly imperialistic” and ultimately “destructive to the morals of its people.”

Sullivan and Jensen responded by creating a Midwestern language of design. The latter’s regionalism was so strong that even the style of collaborator Frank Lloyd Wright was too exotic for Jensen, who “questioned what he perceived to be an increasingly Oriental influence and a turning away from vernacular forms more appropriate to the Midwest.”

As Jensen matured—dismissing his Humboldt Park rose garden as a “folly"—he became more adamant about the use of native plants as a preservation of the spirit of the native local landscape as Chicago strained to become a world city. “Its vegetation, its wild life are due to natural selection for fitness for thousands of years,” Jensen wrote. “To destroy it is to destroy the real America. To corrupt it is the work of stupidity—it is vandalism.”

Jensen’s philosophically provincial approach still has its adherents. “Fundamental to the idea of the garden as wild space has been the role of native plants; the native plant movement has been a vibrant but at times controversial part of the American gardening scene,” Kingsbury writes in Planting With Perennials. “It has been forcefully stated that gardeners should grow more, or even exclusively, native plants.”

Lurie Garden presents us with something different—a dense, sculptural garden in an international style, designed by a Dutch gardener, who employed native plants for about half the garden, in what Kingsbury describes as “a possible resolution to the native/nonnative plant debate,” a “stylized representation of prairie habitat.” Kathryn Gustafson, a fashion designer turned landscape designer, framed Oudolf’s work with a “Shoulder Hedge” explicitly meant to reference Carl Sandburg’s old chestnut, and within is a gradually rolling landscape mirroring the city’s topography and that of the wider region.

But what it frames is also something urbane, cosmopolitan, reflecting old, resurgent ambitions of the city and its power brokers to establish Chicago as a world city, as the boosters behind the Burnham plan tried to do by following European architecture and civic planning. Jensen and his comrades fomented a homegrown rebellion (and the instructively banal Millennium Park Monument is a convenient reminder of why). Lurie Garden is a synthesis—a world garden in a world city.

 

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