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Design 2001

Sparkling Gardens

Recycled-glass pebbles pave path to France for L.A. designer Andy Cao.


To construct his startling and surreal landscape at the Festival de Jardins in the Loire Valley of France, Los Angeles designer Andy Cao imported 10 tons of recycled glass from his hometown, seven miles of rope from Manila and eight huge blown-glass spheres from Brooklyn. The rope ended up at the wrong port, and three of the spheres broke. Labor problems forced him to work long days with student volunteers, and even then they barely finished in time for the grand opening. His initial plans submitted to this competition sat for weeks in customs. And a few days before his flight home, his pocket was picked on a train to Belgium.

But, hey, he's happy. The garden designer and glass artist had a great spring break in Europe. When he stepped off United flight 937 from Paris two weeks ago, he was the conquering hero returning home to Los Angeles, a wad of triumphs in his back pocket. Dressed in jeans and a black Armani shirt, the slender, 35-year-old landscape designer may have looked more tired than triumphant, but his installation at the French festival was the only American design at the prestigious summer-long event.

Held at Chaumont-sur-Loire, about 114 miles southwest of Paris, the festival is known for its innovative, sometimes jarring designs. The event director, Jean-Paul Pigeat, said that when the annual festival debuted 10 years ago, visitors expected traditional gardens and were often angry at the avant-garde designs they found. Now that's precisely what they come to see.

There are 30 individual "gardens" at the festival, each housed inside a tulip-shaped plot, separated by yards of greenery. They were chosen from 1,000 initial applicants, which were narrowed down to 300 and then only 30.

Cao's sparkly garden became a favorite of French TV and of visiting schoolchildren. "You should see their eyes light up when they spot the glass marbles," said Cao. They liked the glass so much that too much was disappearing into little pockets, so the event organizers blocked off the path into the garden. Now visitors can only peer at the garden, not walk though it.

The garden attracted the attention of Cristallerie du Val Saint-Lanbert, one of Belgium's premier makers of fine crystal, who had heard of Cao's recycled-glass garden at Chaumont and wondered if he might make one at their chateau in Liege, using crystal instead. That's why he was on the train to Belgium days before flying home.

Soon he will begin a yearlong fellowship in landscape architecture at the American Academy in Rome, where Andrew Than-Son Cao was awarded a Rome Prize that allows advanced or creative study in a variety of fields.

He has designed glass gardens for inside the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, as centerpieces on tables at Spago, around the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard and in a number of backyards. Andre Balazs, owner of the Marmont, "was impressed with how [Cao] used the reflective qualities of glass" to brighten "darker, tighter outdoor spaces."

Not bad for someone who "barely survived" the landscape architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona.

He, his mother and five siblings had left Vietnam in 1979, casting off into the Pacific in a rickety craft with other boat people. They eventually joined two older brothers who had left earlier and settled in Houston, which is where Cao started his architecture training.

He later moved to California and changed his major to landscape architecture at Cal Poly, "where I was one of the worst students," he said. He did better in the art classes he was taking concurrently at Orange Coast College.

Cao had little interest in planning lawns and hedges--he wanted to make dramatically different gardens that would verge on being environmental art. He had been thinking about a garden that would be a map-like representation of his native Vietnam. While trying to figure out how to represent the piles of drying salt typically seen along the Vietnamese coast, he came up with the idea of using crushed white glass. He had seen glass used as a sculptural material in museum installations.

The glass made convincing salt piles, and he soon found other ways of using glass in his landscape. He made cobalt-blue glass seas, yellow and green glass hills and plastered crushed glass on walls to represent sky. He even made glass steppingstones. He became mesmerized by "the sparkle of glass in gardens." The Times first showed his innovative Echo Park garden in 1989. Public television's Huell Howser would later visit and so would House and Garden magazine. Howser even ended up using glass in the garden of his Palm Springs residence. Other garden designers apparently took note because glass is appearing in limited ways in other gardens.

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