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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Appointss Michael Van Valkenburgh as Landscape Architect to Redesign Monks Garden

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum announced today that Michael Van Valkenburgh has been commissioned to redesign its Monks Garden, the cloistered garden adjacent to the historic building and connected to the exterior gardens which surround the Museum’s new wing designed by Renzo Piano. Mr. Van Valkenburgh is founder and president of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, one of the nation’s leading landscape architecture firms with offices in Cambridge, MA and Brooklyn, NY.

“The Monks Garden is the heart of the Museum’s outdoor spaces—visible from within both the new wing and the historic building and steeped in history and meaning. Among the world’s leading landscape architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh’s work combines an artist’s perspective and a love of plants in the making of a garden,” said Anne Hawley, Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Museum.

Reflecting on the potential for the garden to expand the experience of the Museum, Mr. Van Valkenburgh said, “I share with Isabella Stewart Gardner a love of horticulture and art. The redesign of the Monks Garden is a wonderful opportunity to bring these two interests together. I look forward to working with the Gardner staff to create a memorable and enduring garden and a place Bostonians will hopefully cherish.”

His work has earned multiple honors, including the American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) Design Excellence Award for the Alumnae Valley Landscape Restoration at Wellesley College, a 2008 ASLA Design Honor Award for the Boston Children’s Museum Plaza, and a 1994 Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the Harvard Yard Restoration. Recent work includes Teardrop Park in New York City, Bailey Plaza at Cornell University, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, in Brooklyn.

As part of the historic campus, the Monks Garden now holds a special place of higher visibility and prominence for the visitors thanks to the reorientation of the Museum’s front entrance and the addition of a wing which includes a transparent first floor as well as the expanded exterior gardens that will open to the public this summer. Historically, the Monks Garden was a warm season destination for visitors although it was visible from the Chinese Loggia, East Cloister, and the former Gardner Café.

The Monks Garden has been a part of the Museum since its opening in 1903 and still bears the same footprint as it did in Gardner’s day but the plantings have changed over the last century. Originally Isabella Gardner installed the Monks Garden in an Italianate style with tall, vertical evergreen trees in rows along part of the main walk and along the edge of the brick wall. Over time she added a large pergola covered with vines and the beds along the pergola were planted with flowers.

Following her death, the Garden was replanted by the Museum’s first director Morris Carter whose most significant changes were accomplished in 1941 when he notes simply “Monks Garden completely rebuilt by W. C. Curtis, Sudbury.” Curtis, not well known today, created a Japanese-style garden with New England wildflower beds. By the 1970s, the Monks Garden was reconceived as part of a campus plan by Sasaki Associates and it was re-graded and a layered planting of trees, shrubs and ground covers was installed along the wide bluestone path edged by wooden benches. This is the look that contemporary visitors will remember of the Monks Garden. As recently as the 2000s, the Monks Garden included overgrown rhododendrons and Bradford Pear trees. Today, the Garden boasts three older trees: a Katsura tree, a honey locust, and a pine. The site was prepared for the redesign as part of the construction of the Piano-designed wing.

For the new design, the Gardner Museum has asked Van Valkenburgh to create a space that will offer year round interest while also harmonizing with the interior spaces of the historic building and the new Piano-designed wing. The new Garden will be a destination for quiet contemplation, strolling, relaxing and informal gatherings.
Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s firm was chosen after a search that involved national and international candidates. Working with Charles Waldheim, Consulting Curator of Landscape, and Robert Campbell, architecture critic and consultant, the Gardner Museum’s new building committee with the Director Anne Hawley selected top candidates from a list of nominees. The committee visited gardens by these candidates before choosing MVVA for the commission.
The newly designed Monks Garden is expected to open to the public in 2013.

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