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Into the Woods
Michael Van Valkenburgh's winding garden for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opens in Boston.
Elizabeth Felicella; Alex S. MacLean

The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum is one of Boston’s most idiosyncratic and beloved cultural institutions. A couple of years ago, Renzo Piano completed a much admired but characteristically buttoned-up expansion there. In mid September, Michael Van Valkenburgh completed a redesign of the museum’s tiny Monk’s Garden to create a visually surprising, experiential landscape. “It’s a small-scale forest—with trees that will remain relatively small—with a series of meandering paths that let you get lost in a very small space,” Van Valkenburgh told AN.


Within the walled space of the garden, Van Valkenburgh’s effusive, curvilinear design makes the space appear larger and more mysterious than a more restrained, orthogonal scheme would have. “I love playing with scale,” he said, “and I like curves a lot right now. A curve helps push the landscape to the foreground.” Van Valkenburgh selected the trees, a mix of multi-stem stewartia, grey birch, paper bark maple, and arborvitae, to create visual interest throughout the seasons.


The composition contrasts with Piano’s austere building. “It’s one of the best Piano buildings I’ve seen,” said Van Valkenburgh. “This garden reflects my admiration. It’s a compliment through contrast.”

Alan G. Brake