In late July, I made a short visit to some friends in Chicago whom I hadn’t seen in many years. High on my list of sights to take in were two iconic but very different gardens – the Chicago Botanic Garden about twenty miles north of the city, and the Lurie Garden, sited downtown on the south side of Millennium Park. Happily, I was able to work in a visit to both, but let’s take a look in this post at the award-winning Lurie Garden, built about ten years ago on top of the Lakefront Millennium parking garage – right, a parking garage – smack in the middle of downtown, next to the Chicago Art Institute and a stone’s throw from the famous “bean” sculpture.
Visible from the second floor of the new modern wing of the Art Institute, the 3-acre public ‘botanic garden’ adjoins a bandshell ‘headdress’ sculpture designed by Frank Gehry that anchors the Great Lawn, a public venue for concerts and other events. The garden is divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ Plates, separated by what is (somewhat preciously) called ‘the Seam,’ a boardwalk boundary between the two.
Two outer edges of most of the garden are visually enclosed by what is called the ‘Shoulder Hedge,’ taking its name from the Carl Sandberg poem which referred to Chicago as the “city of big shoulders.” The hedge is big indeed, fifteen feet high (there are metal girders that act as frame and guide for pruning) plantings of dark evergreens, designed to protect the lower perennial plantings from visitors leaving the Great Lawn after events there. When I visited, mid-summer plantings of ornamental grasses, Amsonia hubrechtii, coneflowers and daisies were in full bloom in the Light Plate area.
The Lurie Garden won the 2008 American Society of Landscape Architects General Design Award of Excellence, honoring the Seattle landscape architecture team of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. and the planting genius of Piet Oudolf (who was responsible for the perennial planting design). The following description of the garden comes from the ASLA website:
Chicago built itself up from marshy origins and continues to rise ambitiously skyward. A refinement of nature and natural resources has accompanied Chicago’s willful development. Similarly, the site of the Lurie Garden has been built up over time. It has been elevated from wild shoreline, to railroad yard, to parking garage, to roof garden. Lurie Garden celebrates the exciting contrast between the past and present that lay within this site.
The strong grid layout of Chicago’s streets highlights striking physical features that are not orthogonal. Railways form sensuous braids that merge and swell through the grid. Angled roads radiate out of Chicago like crooked spokes from Grant Park’s location in the center of the city. The paths and other forms of the Lurie Garden, and their relationships to the formal grid structure of Grant Park, are inspired by these patterns and by the strong forms of Chicago’s bold, urban, and Midwestern landscape.
Although I visited in mid-summer, the garden’s website photographs demonstrate clearly the beauty of the landscape year-round. If you’re visiting downtown Chicago in the coming year, I urge you to stop by the Lurie Garden and experience its pleasures for yourself.