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The evolving modern landscape: legacies of the Getty and the Gulbenkian

by Ann Semaan Beisch
photographs by Ann Semaan Beisch

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 92, April 2018

In her article Ann Beisch analyses and compares two iconic museum gardens from the twentieth century.

Getty Center
The designs of the gardens surrounding the Getty Center were put in the hands of the architect, Richard Meier, and an artist, Robert Irwin.

Ann writes: While Meier’s naturalistic landscape is so appropriate to this hillside site, Robert Irwin’s Central Garden breaks all the rules of gardens, horticulture and the expectations of the modern landscape. Irwin had never designed a landscape, planted a garden or studied horticulture before he was commissioned by the Getty Board to create the Central Garden – to the horror of the architect, Richard Meier. It was quite a gamble to have an artist create a garden as art. Needless to say, there was much controversy, a lot of speculation on how it would fail, yet the Central Garden is a delight.

Walking through the upper part of the Irwin garden, known as the “stream garden”, one descends a gentle slope, on a path zigzagging above a stream of water that rushes over tile stones carefully laid in a repeated rectangular pattern that is fascinating to observe. The planting here consists of low-growing grasses, succulents and small trees ...

The stream through the stream garden

"a stream of water that rushes over tile stones carefully laid in a
repeated rectangular pattern that is fascinating to observe"

Sloping lawns on either side welcome visitors to stop and rest. The walkway leads down to a gravel terrace and an overview of the lower garden, the “bowl garden”. Its bowl captures the water cascading over a stone wall deep into the pool of azalea mazes (Kurume azaleas). This “bowl garden” is surrounded by its own paths that circle around the lower pool which is often visited by migrating ducks. The terrace is shaded by huge structures made of rebar rods and dense with colourful bougainvilleas (Bougainvillea spectabilis).

Pool of Kurume azalea mazes

Huge structure dense with colourful bougainvilleas

Gulbenkian Foundation
The Gulbenkian Foundation museum and gardens were built in Lisbon, Portugal a generation earlier in the 1960s.

Ann writes: The Gulbenkian garden is a hanging garden. It has eyes, in the form of a succession of round mirrors of water flat in the landscape which reflect everything that comes their way.  There are birds throughout the garden, and bursts of light and of shade in mature woods and open glades.

Some of the circular ‘eye’ pools

… I walked through dense vegetation that conceals and protects the beautifully situated pond west of the Gulbenkian amphitheatre, up against the Auditorium with its huge windows overlooking the water.

Pool west of the Gulbenkian amphitheatre

A most striking element of a walk through this public space is the relationship between the stark, impressive mid-century modern Foundation buildings and the groves of trees that encapsulate the whole space.

The Gulbenkian Architecture and landscape blend to create one environment

A walk through groves of trees

Ann concludes: The Getty Center and the Gulbenkian are prime examples of the mid-century modern and its evolution into the post-modern landscape as developed in the Getty’s Central Garden. They are artificial landscapes built above extensive infrastructures of buildings and parking lot spaces. Both the Getty and the Gulbenkian have made an impact on their respective cities’ cultural, architectural and landscape profile, reflecting a restrained modernism on a grand but functional scale and providing an urban space for art, the performing arts, study, fine art restoration and landscapes that change the way we think of gardens. These men, Getty and Gulbenkian, succeeded in defining their legacies by having spaces created that open the door to everyone to enjoy the beauty of art and nature in their names.
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