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Please trample the grass

And jump in the fountain and drop some rocks. The Huntington's new hands-on kids' garden is play-friendly.

June 18, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Ned KAHN says some pretty strange things for a man who has spent the last six years helping to design the brand new, $2-million Helen and Peter Bing Children's Garden, which opens Saturday at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Things like, he doesn't much believe in the concept of children's exhibits or children's museums, and he's not really crazy about the term "educational" either.

"I think that if you build good things, everyone will be into it," Kahn says. "Kids and nuclear physicists."

What he does believe in is the power of art to illuminate, if not quite absolutely explain, science. From 1982 until 1996, Kahn was the artist in residence at San Francisco's Exploratorium, creating exhibits with names like "Confused Sea," "Fluttering Silk," "Seismic Sand" and "Fountain of Instability" that made abstract principles -- oscillation, aerodynamics, vibrational patterns -- not just tangible but beautiful. He has since started his own studio, creating many public artworks; last year, he won a MacArthur "genius" grant for work that reminds "the viewer of nature's capacity to inspire apprehension, serenity, wonder, and awe."

This is exactly what James Folsom had in mind. As director of botanical gardens for the Huntington, Folsom actually lives on the property with his family, and after a few years of watching young children -- his and others' -- try to stay on the paths and out of the koi pond, he decided it was time the Huntington had a space designed specifically for children.

Folsom had met Kahn at the Exploratorium when the children's garden was still in the wish stage; when it moved to the planning stage with a theme of earth, air, water and fire, the first person Folsom thought of was Kahn. After years of studying children's gardens around the country, Folsom wanted statuary elements that were completely accessible.

"Things you cannot touch are just uninteresting to children," Folsom says. "And Ned knows what indestructibility means."

Indestructible means a prism tunnel through a juniper hill that kids can climb through and over, an exhibit of water bells that they can stick their heads in and sit on, and a set of chimes that requires them to drop handfuls of stones into a metal slot.

Wandering through the Rainbow Room and Fog Grotto, the fountains and topiary, there is much to be learned about all four areas of the garden's theme, but don't expect to do much reading. One of the reasons Kahn has so much trouble with the concept of "educational exhibits," he says, is there's usually way too much reading involved.

"You go to these places and you've got to wade through five walls' worth of text before you know what's going on," he says, speaking by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif. "I like to provide more of a sensory experience, where you can notice certain patterns, certain tendencies. I also am a fan of enigmas," he adds. "I think it's good to leave some things unexplained because it gets the parents and kids talking to one another, trying to figure it out together."

Kahn has done public and museum installations all over the world, but this was his first garden. It was a challenge to come up with a series of exhibits that would be integrated into a larger picture, but Kahn found Folsom and the other "plant people" very sympathetic to his creative process.

"I guess because they're gardeners, they know that sometimes things look good on paper but don't work out in real life," Kahn says. "I'm a big prototyper, and my projects tend to change as I work on them. With some public commissions, this can make people very nervous because they want to know exactly what it will look like three years before I get there."

The people at the Huntington, he says, were completely the opposite. There was no problem with Kahn mocking up a dozen or so ideas that didn't work out -- including a mud pot similar to the sumps in Yellowstone. Oh, there were about six bad months when they had a lot of sketches and prototypes but no money, and Kahn thought, "Great, another drawing exercise." Then Helen Bing stepped in with a nice big check, and it became a question of waiting to take their place on the list of expansion projects. Unlike his experiences with other commissioned projects, Kahn found no nervous committee and very few bosses. "If Jim [Folsom] was happy and Mrs. Bing was happy, everyone was happy. It was great."

Although the children's garden officially opens Saturday, both Kahn and Folsom see it as a work in progress. All along, they have been testing their ideas on children, theirs and other staff members' -- "Mine are so bored with my work," Kahn says. "They're like, 'Oh, Dad, still doing the cloud thing?' -- and making many changes to accommodate the difference between what grown-ups think children will do and what they actually do.

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