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Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Michael Van Valkenburgh

Designing a Garden by Michael Van Valkenburgh

In 2013 I attended the opening of the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was a sunny September day and Museum Director Anne Hawley and landscape designer Michael Van Valkenburgh were on hand to explain how the garden came to be.

It was certainly not the Monk’s Garden that I had seen a few years earlier. The day I saw that space I could not understand why it was called any kind of garden. I admit it was a gray day, late in the fall, but all I could see was an empty enclosed space with a lawn and a magnificent katsura tree. Not much of a garden. It seems that Isabella Stewart Gardner herself could never achieve a garden that pleased her in that space.

Happily in 2013 there was a grove of trees, underplantings, paths, and places to sit alone or with companions. The katsura and a saucer magnolia remained and were joined by many paperbark maples, gray birches, Japanese stewartia and Hetz Wintergreen arborvitae. The low growing underplanting featured ajuga, ferns, hellebores, hostas, periwinkle as well as the promised foliage of lilies, daylilies, and daffodils. There was a quiet magic in the grove that made up the Monk’s Garden.

Before they started construction Anne Hawley told Van Valkenburgh about the new addition and entryway to the Museum, and the view of the garden space from new social space in the building, as well as the galleries. The view of the garden came from many directions. She wanted visitors to experience the garden from inside the museum as well as strolling through the garden.

On opening day Van Valkenburgh spoke to the assembled press about his approach. He concluded by saying that that he always remembers the advice given him by Kevin Lynch, the noted urban planner. “Make as many gardens as you can.” After we strolled in the dappled shade of the garden we saw that he truly understood the intimacy and solitude that a small garden can provide.

Now Van Valkenburgh has written Designing a Garden (Monacelli Press $40.) with many stunning photographs describing how this garden was created. The photographs capture the woodland with its textured underplantings in every season.

Monk's Garden

Ariel View of the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum

But to begin, Van Valkenburgh looked at the space, 52 feet wide and 150 feet long and thought how he would create a space where people could wander. “I had a hunch that the answer might be found in the shape of the paths. By signaling where to go, the notion of a path drives the experience of the garden.”

If you have a path you must have pavers. I found myself fascinated by all the decisions regarding the paths, and every other element. After I wandered through the garden, feeling almost solitary, and felt the rise and fall of the path I could see the difficulties of laying it out. When reading the book I remembered Van Valkenburgh’s answer to a man in the audience. “Well, there was a lot of build and design going on.” I realized that phrase meant not everything was organized at the beginning.

Path at Monk's Garden

Construction of path at Monk;’s Garden

The book describes the creation of the swirling design of the path. Decisions had to be made about materials, and the pattern. Schist and black manganese pavers were chosen reflecting the sun and shade created.

In his book Van Valkenburgh describes his thoughts about building the path and said, “My design process requires a kind of creative optimism – I have to believe that a solution is out there while realizing that the way to a final goal is open ended.”

Once the paths were laid down it was time for the plants. “The first time I stood in the emptiness of the Monk’s Garden site, with its imposing walls and the katsura tree spreading overhead, I imagined a thicket of small trees filling the space with movement and a sense of mystery,” he said. I certainly felt the mystery when I walked the garden.

In addition to being a brilliant designer, knowledgeable about materials and effects, Van Valkenburgh is a brilliant writer, painting pictures of the garden, and hinting at the responses to this captivating space.

My friend Peter Beck was a student at Cornell University at the same time as Van Valkenburgh. They became friends because Peter was taking design classes that were not officially available to Van Valkenburgh. Peter said design was not much thought of in those days. It was all about materials, and plant names, not how to use either. “Michael bemoaned the lack of design history and theory in his program,” Peter said. “However simply by thinking about design and engaging (with architecture students) in long, late night discussions about design theory and history, Michael was clearly providing his own education while at Cornell.”

Peter’s words made clear to me that from the beginning Van Valkenburgh’s thoughts were always about the responses to the gardens and park spaces he would design.

Van Valkenburgh was successful in creating a garden that delights everyone  who enters. He also left us with thoughts about what we might consider in our own gardens. ###

Between the Rows   October 19, 2019