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Garden Party

ROBERT IRWIN GETTY GARDEN, By Lawrence Weschler, Photographs by Becky Cohen, Getty Publications: 174 pp., $45

September 22, 2002|WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI | Witold Rybczynski is the author of many books, including "The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Architect Andrea Palladio." He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

When I first heard that Robert Irwin had been commissioned to lay out the central garden at the Getty Center, I inwardly groaned. I imagined one of those cheerless, concrete constructions that characterize so much cutting-edge landscape architecture today. Landscape architects, casting an envious eye on architects, now want us to appreciate their work as art. But modern art, as everyone knows, reflects the angst and distress of modern life, which is hard to do with bougainvillea. Hence we have gardens without prettiness or charm, that is, not much of gardens at all.

I hope that Irwin does not take it amiss if I report that whatever else it is, the Getty garden appears to be pretty and charming. Irwin, sometimes called an environmental artist, is one of the founders of California's light and space movement, and although he is known for site installations, he is definitely not a landscape architect. That may be why he didn't avoid using traditional garden elements--benches, arbors, paths, a stream, rocks, bridges. And a veritable riot of flowers. There hasn't been an artist's garden this colorful since Monet's Giverny.

"Robert Irwin Getty Garden" is the work of three people: Lawrence Weschler, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker and an Irwin biographer; Irwin himself, whose extended conversation with Weschler forms the main body of the book; and Becky Cohen, whose exquisite photographs made me, who has not seen the garden, feel I was there. The conversation between Irwin and Weschler takes place during several consecutive walks through the garden, so what we get is a comprehensive tour: Irwin talks in detail about how the various parts were created, explaining what he was trying to achieve, practically and aesthetically; Weschler asks questions and generally pushes things along; and Cohen's accompanying photographs show us what the pair are talking about. It is a simple organizing concept, and it works beautifully.

The bright colors of the Getty garden are in sharp contrast to Richard Meier's monochrome architecture, but the relationship between the garden and the buildings is a complicated one. Irwin's geometrical plan, for example, is clearly meant to complement the architecture. Some of his fussy details--the bronze handrails, the teak benches, the limestone path--appear to be a sympathetic response to Meier's obsessive attention to detail. At the same time, the garden is very much Irwin's creation and stands apart from the assertive architecture.

Understandably, relations between the artist and the architect became strained during the project. Irwin is not an architectural critic, but he has a good eye. Observing that Meier used travertine as well as his signature white metal panels, he points out: "Instead of really, say, maybe taking on the challenge and going away from his most familiar material and expanding his aesthetic: he didn't do that, he passed up the opportunity." Which is a good summation of the reason for the Getty's rather limited architectural success.

Irwin describes his own work at the Getty as "a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art." This is not landscape architecture in the conventional sense. It does not easily fit either of the two main historical garden traditions: British picturesqueness and French formality (although Irwin manages to include a bit of both). Yet his approach at the Getty puts me in mind of Frederick Law Olmsted, the great 19th century park builder. Like Olmsted, Irwin is not a plants man; what interests him is the visual effect of planting. Like Olmsted, he is concerned with orchestrating the entire garden experience: the sound of burbling water, the textures of boulders, the dappled shadows cast by trees. Like Olmsted, he is not above resorting to contrivances to enhance natural effects. And like Olmsted, Irwin always places us--not himself or his design--at the center of things.

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