More than the Lurie Garden

Note how the giant hedge encloses and separates this small part of the Lurie Garden from
the massive trellis-like structure and Frank Gehry’s visually dominating Pritzker Pavillion behind.

In Chicago for a family event last weekend, I hoped to see Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden for the first time. Unfortunately Chicago had its first major snow storm that week. The garden was closed. But all wasn’t lost.

We started with a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, across the street from the Lurie Garden, entering through the new wing designed by Renzo Piano. The new building is a tall metal and glass structure with a light and elegant bearing. It’s quite beautiful though this image doesn’t do it justice.


The entry hall is of towering height, suggestive of the high nave of a cathedral, and full of light.


As you stand in the vast space, the view out from this new wing centers on Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavillion, the signature structure of Millenium Park. This strong faux axial arrangement (not actually a formal axis) visually unifies the Art Institute with Millenium Park.

The view out from the Art Institute creates a faux axis with the large structures in Millenium Park.


When we finished our museum visit, it was snowing as we crossed the street and entered the park. The first thing I encountered was one of the massive hedges (below) designed by Kathryn Gustafson.


These hedges are all caged in metal frameworks, now mostly filled in. I’ve seen many photos of the Lurie Garden and Oudolf’s plantings, and I  never liked the hedges, I couldn’t understand why they had those hard metal frames. I couldn’t imagine what purpose they served because my focus was exclusively on the Lurie Garden’s plantings.

Here you can see how the scale of the hedge is important in place-making, separating the park from
a surrounding built environment of immense scale and creating separate “rooms” in the park.

With Lurie Garden closed and therefore not competing for my attention, I was better able to see the framed hedges’ aesthetic and spatial purpose, separating, hiding, place-making, creating drama–also a practical purpose, so un- or low-skilled workers can easily prune. This effect may be more pronounced in falling snow, which suppresses detail.

This was a powerful recognition for me immediately upon leaving the museum and entering the park, a moment of epiphany.

Almost everything about the park is over scale. Note the fat support column for the immense trellis-like structure
that “roofs” the performance space in front of the Pritzker Pavillion.

The hedges are, I believe, fourteen feet high, and many feet deep, massive things, and the moment I stepped into the park, then looked back across the street to Piano’s masterful building, then back to the hedges, I could see the hedges are almost like buildings in scale. On the Art Institute side, they relate directly to the Piano building’s mass and presence. On the other two city sides, they respond visually to the walls of tall skyscrapers that edge the park. And to the lakefront side, they present a presence that prevents the huge open space from dissipating into nothingness. In the wide open area of the  park, the hedges are like rock cliffs or natural landscape phenomena. Apart from dividing up the park into useful areas and screening winds from the lakefront, they give the open space of the park weight and heft.

They also separate the garden from this huge public performance space with its over scaled support “trellis” bearing lights and speakers; they become a wall, turning this large open area into a concert hall.


Fortunately, we did see a little of the Lurie Garden.


All the internal paths were closed off and impassable, but the perimeter was walkable.


I could immediately see, at least at the edges, that Oudolf had used  large scale plants of a size to visually balance the scale of the hedges, primarily a lot of Silphium laciniatum.


The other plants I could make out were also prairie plants–appropriate for this former prairie–Baptisia, Eryngium yuccafolium, grasses buried in snow, probably Sporobolis heterolepsis.


Though I didn’t really get to see the Lurie Garden, its inaccessibility forced me to give attention to other successful elements of this great urban space. I’ll try to get back to Chicago in the spring.

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23 thoughts on “More than the Lurie Garden

  1. All this looks great and reeks of enormous amounts of money! I have not been to Chicago but my garden has in the way of photographs for an exhibition at the Botanic gardens! Anyway I love the snow effect on these gardens!

          1. I reckon the ‘degraded’ (the winter look) look of plants look much better against the built landscape and it might have a lot to do with all those unifying browns!!! Perhaps even Prince Oudolphs plantings at HL may well be same. The cold part of the equation does not interest me much but I would most certainly visit this garden when it look like this if ever in the neighbourhood!! Here is 28c on xmas day and the garden is in full flight after a very gentle Spring/early Summer and the browns in abundance are the many Bronze fennel ..what a wonderful hazy plant it is.

  2. Enjoying your visit to that garden..unique because it’s in winter dormancy, plus views of the overall bones. The building scale hedges and forms seem fine, given the huge buildings. I’ve only been to Chicago 1x, so another trip sounds in order. Now, Fargo in February was even OK (to visit, then return to 60’s in Abq…), so I’m sure I could handle Chicago…

    1. The southwest is another area I’ve never seen. A friend from Tucson recently visited and I’m itching to get there. I’d love to see it in the spring when the desert blooms, but, frankly, I’d love to live there and make a new garden in that climate. Not likely though.

  3. Hope you make it back in spring. There are lots and lots of bulbs, including a spring equivalent of the garden’s “Salvia River.” I agree that late spring and fall are probably the best times to view the garden.

    1. I hope we can get back in the spring. Chicago’s a beautiful city, with much better architecture than New York. I haven’t seen the botanic garden in many years, and I know it’s changed dramatically since I was there.

  4. I love this city! Only second to my love for NYC. I remember my days there and the Chicago Botanic Garden with great fondness! Gabriela

  5. I love the juxtapostion of the first-rate architecture with the first-rate plantings, especially in the photo that’s third from the bottom. When I lived in Chicago I was always struck by how civic-minded it was of early city planners to leave such a large ‘front lawn’ downtown.

    I saw the Lurie Garden two years ago in September and was amazed. Even my non-gardening friends could see what a masterpiece it is.

    1. I have to admit I was disappointed in being able to see only a slight “remainder” of the Lurie Garden. But that loss was well compensated by better understanding its setting. Can’t wait to get back in summer.

  6. I think the snow adds an interesting dimension. Some photos appear virtually black and white and are quite dramatic. I especially like the shots of trellis with the pavilion behind and skyscrapers looming over it all. I visited Lurie in the summer, I think only one or two years after it opened, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend. It was full of echinacea, I do remember that. Your take on hedge seems apt.

    BTW, I visited your garden this past Fall on Oct GC day, my friend and I were the first ones to arrive (we had driven up from DC area after attending Swarthmore Perennial symposium) and you helped me w/ my camera (to jog your memory). You have so many beautiful photos of your garden you may not need any more, but I have some decent (?) ones if you’re interested. The garden did NOT disappoint. I thought maybe it wouldn’t live up to the photos on your blog but it did and more, and I’m glad we could see it in the Fall. I will email you. Happy New Year! Sarah

    1. Sarah, I do remember your arrival. We had over 300 people that day, but your being the first made an impression. It pleases me that you thought the garden was communicated via the photos. I always wonder whether the photos don’t over glamorize reality. Just putting something in the frame of the photo seems to do that. I’d love to see your photos.

  7. Glad you see the purpose of the hedges now! They give structure to any garden. A garden without structure (most often in the form of a hedge) is a like hanging wallpaper without a wall. Without the structure, none of it makes sense.
    Did the hedges or axiality of the site give you any ideas for your own garden?

      1. AJ, who are you? Are you really saying all gardens MUST have hedges? Axiality always intrigues me, but I couldn’t get into the Lurie garden (all entrances were blocked and the paths snow covered) to see anything at all about its internal structure.

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