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Designing the Lurie Garden

by Timber Press on January 4, 2019

in Design, Gardening

Chicago’s Lurie Garden opened to great fanfare in 2004, and has since become an integral part of both the famed Millennium Park, the lakefront, and the larger city, embracing the Windy City’s motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden). Learn more about how this sophisticated, elegant, and inspiring space was designed.

Sited between the Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry & Associates and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing by Renzo Piano, the garden occupies prime and busy real estate above a parking garage. Critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen immediately recognized the garden’s strongest attributes: “Architecturally controlled, spatially and topographically varied…a powerful experience of quietude within the city, moments full of wildness, wildflowers, and an ever-changing story about the climate and flora of the Midwestern plains.”

Commissioned by Millennium Park, Inc., under the direction of Edward Uhlir, the design project and construction was led by GGN in collaboration with the plantsman Piet Oudolf and lighting designer Robert Israel. Ann Lurie’s gift of $10 million as a maintenance endowment, with the stewardship of remarkable gardeners and guidance from GGN and Oudolf, has helped the garden mature over fifteen years into a sophisticated, elegant, and inspiring space—a powerful model for urban parks and gardens in cities around the world.

This 3.3-acre botanical garden in Grant Park on Lake Michigan, just south of the Pritzker Pavilion, was one of the last additions to the initial Millennium Park Project. Eighteen firms were invited to submit proposals in 1999 for a “forward-looking garden with rare and unusual plantings” that would be “unique to the region and different from other Chicago venues.” The jury found GGN’s winning proposal for the Shoulder Garden, recalling Carl Sandburg’s 1914 description of Chicago as a “City of Big Shoulders,” as “bold, intellectual, daring, cutting edge.”

The site was challenging due to its context, scale, and the engineering requirements of a significant landscape over structure. The Lurie Garden is experienced against the strong skyline of downtown Chicago as one of multiple focal points and event spaces within Millennium Park itself. Additionally, it was constructed above a vast underground parking garage, train tracks, and bus tunnels. Chicago’s stunning architecture and grand public landscapes needed to be met head-on with clear confidence, while the relatively small and intimate garden was to perform as a connective pedestrian corridor between the Pritzker Pavilion, the Chicago Music and Dance Theater, Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, and to the south, Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing for the Art Institute.

Furthermore, to honor its role as a botanical garden, the garden needed to nurture and display a broad collection of plants in a manner that would encourage exploration and investigation. Human scale would also be critical, as the Lurie Garden had to embrace and comfort the individual while at the same time providing areas for hosting large gatherings and events. While GGN’s principals had designed gardens and urban parks before, the complexities of this project were particularly challenging as well as inspiring for a young firm.

Shannon and Kathryn collaborated on the competition design and strategy, working as a team to tackle the challenges and realize the potential of the project. The complexities of the site were evident, and they soon defined the primary problem as how to create a series of raised rooftop planters that would not become isolated beds but rather be experienced as contiguous ground sliced by paths and water. The site would need to be designed as one broad landform.

The GGN team began by trying to understand the land that lay underneath the blank parking lots and rail yards that had dominated the location for decades. They explored the natural ecologies and topographies of the region as well as the plant associations. They dug deeply into the history of how the land had been shaped and transformed as the city expanded and the waterfront site developed. They were particularly drawn to the narrative of Chicago as a city that built itself up “from marshy origins… to rise ambitiously skyward.” This would eventually offer a fitting allegory for a parcel of land that was once a shoreline, now deemed to become a complex and intensively planted garden.

Emerging from the broad investigations of the site’s history was the concept of the land formed to recall the historic shoreline’s deposits and shifting landscapes as well as the long history of railroads and transportation amenities. The historic shoreline would be reimagined by the Seam, a water channel with a boardwalk evoking earlier railway tracks that crossed the site, as well as an old retaining wall that once rose between the city and its lake. The new landscape would rise above street level to envelop the visitor in a lush and richly textured garden and gathering space.

Working together through multiple iterations in sketches and then in clay and plaster to render the landform for the final competition interview, GGN sought to shape the garden both as a part of Chicago’s broader urban landscape and as a distinct space with its own clarity and strength.

Shannon meets periodically with Scott Stewart, Piet Oudolf, and the stewardship team.

The necessary connections to the street at ground level were as important as the various ways in which people would need to be able to cross the garden on foot. The designers created paths cut from the ground to allow pedestrians to cross it, and also minimized the walls that hold the landform so they appear to visitors as subtractions from the larger ground. Once GGN was awarded the project, Shannon and Kathryn led the design process, with Jennifer managing the team and overseeing documentation the project moved into construction. The team approach came to define the firm.

The garden is composed in two parts that draw from the history of the landscape, the Dark Plate and the Light Plate, with the Seam stitching them together. To the east, the Dark Plate’s land swells to a ridgeline, subtly referencing the oak swamps that once thrived at the mouth of the Chicago River. This landform is punched up from the ground, overflowing with grasses mixed with small trees. To the west, the Light Plate overflows with flowering plants and grasses, creating a garden full of nature at its lightest and brightest.

It forms a bowl over which plants sweep in masses, recalling the tallgrass prairie and oak savannah, a familiar regional landscape. The botanical collection’s species were provided by Roy Diblik’s Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, and arranged to convey ancient ecologies. The Seam stitches the Dark and Light Plates together while the boardwalk offers a gracious route through the garden from the art museum to the music pavilion. This journey suggests a passage through the region’s natural history with its familiar “over hill and dale” character.

To underscore the landscape as a contiguous ground, the limestone walls were carefully detailed to appear as unobtrusive slices in the landform. The walls define the paths that flow across the garden. The top surfaces of the limestone walls are either minimized to a three-inchwide, tapered top—to mimic a knife slice down through soil and plants—or exposed as threefoot-wide surfaces for seating. The latter subtly suggests that the limestone might have risen out of the ground naturally, conveying a narrative about upheaval and surface erosion. The Seam is similarly designed as a slice through the landform, revealed in the layers of ground that serve as a series of linear surfaces for seating and viewing.

To enclose the garden, a high and substantial hedge was constructed on three sides, serving to separate the interior space from the surrounding city bustle. The hedge in its robust form and careful positioning also frames the steel structure of Gehry’s Pavilion, suggesting Sandburg’s “broad shoulders” capable of holding up Chicago’s architectural splendor. Composed of wide sections of arborvitae and staccato sections of European beech trees, it is outlined by a rectangular steel scaffold of horizontal braces and vertical guides.

The hedge and its armature serves to guide the foot traffic of up to 10,000 event attendees around the garden and to park exits and parking, all while protecting the plantings. While the horizontal braces and clips have since been removed, the structure continues to underscore the architectural character of the living hedge, framing the garden’s entrances, and providing a clear guideline for trimming.

Intimate nooks in the hedge, centered by wooden benches, invite people-watching or repose. Generous openings in the hedge offer access to the garden as well as two Exelon Pavilions, designed by Renzo Piano, housing the entries to the parking garage below. Holding the garden in, metaphorically and literally, this hedge resembles a breastplate in plan, suggesting its role as protectress of the garden and a haven for small animals and birds as well as visitors seeking a moment of quiet.

Selected materials both reflect the design concept and can stand up to public use through the seasons. The renewable ipe wood used for the boardwalk is practical, and also weathers to a shimmering gray that echoes the lake beyond.

End-grain blocks are stacked to create the boardwalk as well as wood seating platforms, recalling the look of rock strata exposed over time. The wood also more directly recalls the logged forests that once covered the region. The stone used in the retaining and seating walls is limestone from a local Midwestern quarry, a nod to the underlying geology. The limestone is finished in a “saw cut” on vertical faces and a “modified rock face” on horizontal finishes, which draw attention to the stone’s texture and heft; it feels almost extruded, evoking the upward energy of Chicago’s skyline. Granite is used as paving and walls in the water channel. These stones not only suggest deep geological histories, but also the history of stone as a primary building material featured in some of the magnificent nearby facades of Chicago’s skyline. At night, the garden again defies expectations.

Robert Israel’s lighting design, done in collaboration with Shuler & Shook and GGN, is dramatic. The lights, set on tall poles, illuminate the landscape like a gallery, while the trees are carefully orchestrated to create moonlight effects suggesting a romantic garden hideaway. In 1933, the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago featured a garden designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders that was one of the first to be lit by electricity; the Lurie design recalls that spectacle at a grander scale.

The Lurie Garden is a true urban public botanical garden. Its modern abstraction of the regional prairies, its interpretation of the materials evident from Chicago’s past, and its direct engagement with its urban environment also update the genre and make it uniquely American. By approaching each of the challenges that came with the complex site and its many audiences, as well as the downtown context as potential design inspirations, Shannon, Kathryn, and Jennifer arrived at something unique. This urban garden succeeds because of its generosity of spirit and its engagement with its community; these will nurture its long future as Chicago’s front yard.

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) is a landscape architecture firm based in Seattle, Washington. GGN was founded in 1999 by Jennifer Guthrie, Shannon Nichol, and Kathryn Gustafson. The firm has been recognized with the 2017 ASLA National Landscape Architecture Firm Award, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture, the ASLA National Awards of Excellence, ASLA and AIA Honor Awards for Design, Tucker Design Awards, Society for Campus and University Planning Awards, Great Places Awards from the Environmental Design Research Association, and more. Learn more at ggnltd.com.


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