Truly modernist Garden

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Robert Irwin Getty Garden  by Lawrence Weschler. Continue reading to learn more about Truly modernist Garden​, thanks to the author.

Enticing You Down; The Raku Experience; A Conditional Art; Choosing The Trees And What That Choice Led To; A Truly Modernist Garden. 

Lawrence Weschler: Well, Bob, this might be a good place to begin.  It’s the start of winter, a bit over a year since the Getty’s opening, and the garden is down, as it were; subdued, muted.  And here we are looking down on it from the plaza above, and it seems to be beckoning us down. 

Robert Irwin: one of the elements of the garden is this process of enticing and pulling you down.  Your first view of it, of course, from up here or one of the other vista points, is as this really strong graphic element, which is one of the reasons why I left the green around the side, so that you’d get this really clear configuration in the middle.  That’s what supplies much of the scale of the garden, as up against the grand scale of the surrounding architecture.  But what you see is, hopefully, interesting enough that you are being enticed to come down to the path over there to the side.  And then the path itself draws you down to the plaza, and the plaza then lets you look down on the bowl, and then, hopefully, you have the desire to want to descend into the bowl.  So the whole thing is a series of descents, becoming, in a sense, more intimate as you go along. 

I think intimacy was really one of the key elements that were missing from the whole Getty experience, especially with regard to the architecture.  This was not necessarily the job of the architecture.  But it was one of   the things the architecture didn’t really take into consideration—and that even went for the people who work here: a place where you could go that was essentially quiet and sort of down-in and surrounded and… 

Weschler: Nested. 

Irwin:  yeah, nested.  And the garden really does go through a process of nesting itself as it goes down.  It starts with the big scale up here the overall bang and then hopefully takes you by degrees—in terms of your willingness to participate—down to a more and more intimate level 

It all reminds me of my early days as an abstract expressionist, when I was first exposed to Raku ware which was very interesting for me because abstract Expressionism, as you know, was so committed to this idea of large scale And for good reason when you took the figure out, scale became an element in and of itself a thing.  You know, a real thing so I was doing huge painting, but one of my first introductions to Raku was this guy who would— 

Weschler: What is Raku, by the way?

Irwin:  Raku is a Japanese tea-ceremony bawl that has a kind of almost… I mean, it’s become a national treasure in Japan.  With very much of a kind of a Zen overtone to it and the thing about it was that this person who had collected these bowls, if you karma was right, he would let you see a tea bowl.  And the way he would do it is you would have dinner with him and at the end of the dinner.  He would set on the table this box with a beautiful little tie on it—very Japanese—and you untied it, you opened up the box, he let you do that.  And then inside of it was a cloth sack.  You took the sack out, and it had a drawstring, and you opened up the drawstring and you reached inside and took out the bowl.  By that time, the bowl had you at a level where the most incidental detail—maybe even just a thumb mark—registered as a powerful statement.

modern garden
modern garden

And this whole idea of how you bring somebody down to a level of awareness where they can deal with intimacy, they can deal with the most subtle kind of nuance—that kind of thing is normally lost in the bigger scale So the idea there is that even though you start out with this kind of grand scale, hopefully, by the end, you’re able to really look—and l’ll show you when we get down there—to really gaze in wonder upon a single flower: this petal, that stalk.  One of the reasons for raising the platforms of the flowers in some areas down there is so that you don’t even have to bend down:  You can really just, look at a flower up close. 

Weschler: you speak of this project’s having been generated in a “conditional”, as opposed, say, to a conceptual, manner.  Can you talk a little bit about what: you mean by that. 

Irwin:  Well, the idea of a conditional art—an art, that is, conditioned by the specific phenomenological circum-stances of its site and occasion, as opposed to one governed by prior biases and doctrines and conceptual imperatives—is something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time:  in fact, I’ve been going around declaring the elaboration of such an approach to be the central project of modern art for our time.  So the challenge for me with this particular opportunity was going to be to finally put my money where my mouth was, to find out if I could make real-world decisions from the intimacy of a phenomenological conditionality, in real time and at this scale.  Oddly enough, working with Richard Meier—or in occasional opposition to him, as the case may be-helped put all of this in sharper focus.  Because despite the seemingly modernist look of his work, Richard is in fact strictly a classicist in his approach and thus proved the perfect foil for the kind of exercise I was trying to advance.  On top of which, he is really good at what he does. 

Weschler: Can you give a specific example of this conditional sort of approach? 

Irwin: Well, early on, as I say, I knew that from up here the garden would have to evince a really powerful sense of scale.  And of course, one of the key ways that one can do that is with trees.  I mean, a tree is a great way to gain scale—certainly the least expensive way possible.  So early on I committed myself to this idea of a curving allee of trees, which would eventually be boxed on the outside, giving the garden an element of geometry to rival the surrounding architecture’s. 

Now, the trees we chose-and I should say here that in this I was relying on Barry Coati, this great arborist was able to find; if I hadn’t found him I’d have bought all the wrong trees in the first place—anyway, we chose London plane sycamores, a very statuesque kind of tree with a lot of strength to them.  I wanted them to be able to grow together in the center.  And the center is going to remain just that, very organic.  But then they’re going to be very carefully clipped so as to be boxlike on the outside.  Now, I don’t want it to be hedge like.  Hedge like would be the way you normally see these trees when they’re shaped, say the way you see them along the champs-Elysees in  Paris:  they’re totally opaque, because they have a large leaf.  So we’re not only having to continuously shape the trees on the outside, we’re also opening them up on the inside so that they’re very open and lacelike. 

Weschler: You’re pruning them continuously on the inside? 

Irwin: Exactly. 

Weschler:  So that inside, instead of there being fifty branches, there’ll be ten branches, or something like that.

Irwin: Right.  See the guys down there?  That’s what they’re doing—again, with Coates’ expert advice and guidance.  Now that the trees have just about lost all their leaves, they’re undergoing their winter haircut; we take off all the little extraneous branches inside and open it up and keep it open so that it’s a very open and lacy tree.  And then—see that one there?  See all the branches along the edge?  You have to encourage that everywhere, so that when we start to trim it square, all those little tips come far enough out to that point and there’s enough of them so that you see the shape. 

Weschler:  So you want a lot of branches on the top and the sides, but not in the middle.


Irwin:  Right.  So they’re doing what they call budding them.  Look at that tree, right in there where that one little leaf is.  It’s a weak spot.  So you’ll snip that one.  Next spring there’ll be two branches there.  And then you come back later and you snip it again and there’ll be four branches there.  So you multiply it at the edges, so at the end we have the ability to have a subtle tracing of a square on the outside edge rather than its being like a solid hedge. 

The point about all this in terms of conditionality is that the ability to be able to do all that became key for choosing this particular tree.  It was the only tree which really had that potential to it, that stature that would take that kind of pruning and clipping.  But once you had the tree, very quickly other decisions followed in a conditional manner:  To get them to grow together, they coulldn’t be planted any farther apart than about twenty-three-feet, which in turn established restrictions:  suddenly a stream flowing down the center of the allee, because of that strict twenty-tree-foot, limit, could no longer be a meandering natural stream, which is sort of what I thought.  Of at the beginning—that was no longer practical.  So then I looked at the idea of its being possibly very formal, but that was completely out of character for this garden in terms of what I was trying to accomplish, and so the idea finally became to approach it as a sculpture and not as a stream.  It has natural aspects to it, but if you look at it, the whole thing is really put together as a single piece of visual and auditory sculpture. 

The point is, once you’d decided on the character of the tree, which is really a main element in this thing, that defined the character of the stream, which had to respond to that initial decision and which in turn, interestingly enough, was better than the first two thoughts I had had about it.  Much better than its being a natural stream for this situation.  Much better than being very overtly formal.  Finally, it essentially evolved into what it is. 

Weschler: The sculptural quality of the garden seems to me especially evident seasonally, which is to say, as now, in winter. 

Irwin: well, to me, the winter begins with a tree that is particularly nice when it’s bare.  I mean, these are just small trees now, so they haven’t taken on the real statuesque quality they will have eventually they’ll be forty-five feet tall.  Also, they have a very beautiful trunk, a very beautiful exfoliating trunk.  But it’s a tree that I really liked bare. 

And everything goes backwards, In other words, I found a tree that has the right, characteristic which can live in this climate and which I can do what I want with it.  Along with that comes the fact that it turns out to be deciduous.  Suddenly I realized I had a tree which has a winter condition.  Even though it’s in California, it has a winter condition.  And the same is true with the other main stand of trees, the crape myrtles down below in the bowl which also turned out to be deciduous which then in a sense spoke to me about the possibility of doing a garden that had a winter character to it.  

Weschler: Which is unusual?  One of the things, standing here, and looking out over the neighboring vista—Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica—is that I’m seeing thousands of trees in the distance, and they’re all— 

Irwin: And they’re pretty much all evergreen.  Right. 

Weschler: So that this up here is very unusual. 

Irwin: very unusual.  Essentially, we are working on this garden with the idea that it will have four distinct seasons, one of which will be a winter season, which requires a lot of rather unusual ways of approaching a garden, because in California no one even thinks in those terms in fact, most people around here are conditioned to actually think that if it isn’t green, it’s dead, and that at the very least this is a bad time for gardening, when of course just the reverse is true.  People in the east know that when you see a garden bare or with snow on it, that it has a wonderful melancholy aspect, but with a rich filigreed character to it.  But, to get that to take place here, we’re have to go to some lengths to find plants that will reinforce that. 

Weschler: The skeletal undergirding of the garden in particular gets reinforced now.

Irwin:  Well, in the simplest sense, my feeling was that these deciduous trees gave me a chance to let two things happen.  One is the in the winter, you get this—well, you say.  “Skeletal” quality, but it’s also that the sculptural quality of the garden really reads through.  This is when you see all the stuff, not just the trees that I did to establish the so-called bones of the place.  But all of that in turn allows me to do the opposite in summer, which is what I really wanted to do, to let the garden be completely taken over by its plant material.  At that point I will allow the garden to obliterate the boundaries, to ignore all the geometry and go for complete exuberance, which may be the one critical difference between this and other ideas about gardening, say, a French garden, where the boundaries are held at all times, or a zen garden, which is just in a sense a series of staging event.  So it’s none of those, though it partakes of all of them. 


Maybe, in a sense—and this is just between you and me—but I think no one’s really attempted a truly modern garden in this sense before.  You see either a more contemporary version of one of the traditional garden approaches or else someone makes a garden which looks like a modern painting.  You know, having the geometry of a Cubist painting in a way. 

Weschler: Say, a Cubist herb garden 

Irwin:  Right But without any of the underlying rationale; how one looks at things, how one participates in things from a phenomenological point of view.  Which is strange, because there’s nothing more phenomenological than a garden. 

Weschler: What do you mean by “phenomenological”? 

Irwin: well, in the simplest sense, it has to do with seeing, from a kind of a tactile, purely perceptual point of view, rather than seeing as passed through an intellectual, conceptual, literal-minded filter.  It’s seeing that requires an individual to weigh the unique qualities of things, a realm where feelings are the equal of intellect, and beauty the equal of truth.  Everything is phenomenological to begin with, while at the same time having the potential to be seen as a sign or a symbol and understood in that other sense, so that they’re both true.  The emphasis in this case, however, is on the phenomenological qualities of things intersecting over time. 

Weschler: And what cubism was about, for example, is getting us closer and closer to a— 

Irwin: Well, Cubism was a step along the way, though not the final step.  What cubism did was move you from understanding the painting purely from a pictorial point of view—i.e., a reading of the painting with its separation of figure and ground—to that very critical idea of marrying the figure and ground, with its inevitable consequence of a reality made up of conditioned relation.  That is, you’re suddenly looking not at a picture of something, but at a picture.  Okay?  And the humanistic core of the experience comes not through the sign of the human being in the painting, but rather through you, as a human being, participating in the process of the painting. 

Weschler: So a Cubist garden that simply did a replication of Cubist shapes in vegetable would— 

Irwin: Miss the point, l’m afraid.  In other words, it would take on the style of Cubism without necessarily taking on the reasoning of it.  

I mean, once you seriously buy into Cubism’s marriage of figure and ground, you’re not just honoring a style—you’re honoring a whole change in how you thing about things.  A whole new set of values.  A whole new set of values.  A whole new way of going in the world.  And I find it very peculiar, how many people honor those paintings without somehow being affected by them.  People have just accepted those paintings without consciously accepting their implications. 

Weschler: Well, having said that, however—you’re saying you don’t want to have a frame anymore, but this garden, if anything, seems to have an exaggerated sense of frame, established by the perimeter of the surrounding buildings. 

Irwin: But that was the best part of the whole garden project in a way; it was about things already existing in sets of conditioned relations and not in some sort of vacuum.  That was my first dilemma from the beginning, because if you looked at the edge of the garden, you’d say to yourself, “who in their right mind would’ve designed that?” 

Weschler:  You’re talking about the contour of the surrounding walls and the resultant shape of the- 

Irwin: In the simple sense, the space of the garden was not planned. The architecture was planned, all very carefully articulated: how the buildings ended and the edges on them and everything.  But there was no consideration of the space that  was left in the middle.  When I got the space, what was left over is essentially what I got.  So in a funny way, the beauty of that situation was, if you could somehow capture that space and make its eccentricities work for you, you would have something which is a total surprise.  I mean, it’s wondrous in a way, because who would have thought to do that? No one would think to do it.  it goes beyond anybody’s ability to conceive it.  But if you can take it and, as it were, caress it into being a piece and a part of this whole thing, then suddenly you have this great element of surprise. 

At first, it wasn’t so clear how I was going to be able to do that.  At first, I was just going to have the path going down beside the stream.  But once I got the requirement of the zigzag foisted upon me, for reasons of handicap access, I suddenly realized that that was how I was going to be able to engage the whole space, weaving in and out, and developing the interplay between the curved and the straight, and more to the point, occasioning an active interplay between the descending viewer and the curved and the straight of the architectural surround.  So in a way, I’m in harmony with the place all around, and more so than if I had just aped and repeated the contours, which would’ve been really uninteresting.  In other words, the solution did not ignore the architecture at all.  In fact, it totally took it into account. 

First section of the path curves. Straight. Straight. straight. Curve. Down to there. curve. Straight. Straight. Straight. Curve. Continuous interaction between curves and straights, which is exactly what the architecture is like.  

Weschler: One other thought  before we start moving down, and this goes back to your Raku point. From here, from above, you don’t have any sense that there’s going to be that azalea maze at the bottom. 

Irwin: No.  

Weschler:  That’s all withheld. 

Irwin: That’s a surprise and a reward for making the trip. 

Weschler: In Raku terms, that is the cup in the path. 

Irwin: In a sense, yes, it is. 

Weschler: That’s one of them. Another one being the individual flower later on. 

Irwin: Right. Exactly. 

Weschler: So at some level, this  whole garden is a machine for preparing you to be able to receive things in some sense. 

Irwin: In a sense. Now, a Japanese garden would, for example- and they do it very beautifully, and this is not an either/or – but they would bring you all the way down and then at the bottom there would be, precisely, maybe a small pot. 

Weschler: Right. 

Irwin: A thing, you know, there. Whereas I bring you down, by a series of stages, to where you can appreciate a single flower. It’s the plant material. In other words, it’s not the overlay of that kind of man-made design element. I’d rather, in a sense, you ended up with a flower garden. And finally the piece de resistance of this garden, especially in the summertime, is just its dazzling display of plant material, rich in color and texture and sounds and smells and feelings. 

Weschler: Okay, let’s start going down.

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Truly modernist Garden