title seeing red  

photo irwing

The buzz has been building in the horticultural community since the day artist Robert Irwin won the commission to create the new Getty Center's showplace garden. Although some professionals welcomed an artist's vision to the field of landscape design, many were miffed.
It didn't help that Irwin trumpeted what he called the Getty's "adventurous choice."
"It's a slap in the face," said one designer who -- like so many others -- asked to remain anonymous. After all, prominent designers and landscape architects are considered by many to be artists, too -- artists in a particularly tricky medium.
There was consensus on one thing, though, as details of Irwin's "Central Garden" leaked out in the press: the man doesn't know his plants. Even those who had no problem with Irwin admitted that the focal point of his design -- his "floating" maze of azaleas -- made an inviting and vulnerable target.
None of this presumably mattered to the Getty management, who would seem to have hired Irwin for much the same reason they acquired their Alexis Smith and Edward Ruscha: to "collect" the token contemporary, Southern California-based artist. And Irwin has the credentials that made a certain sense.
Lecturer, theorist and leader of the late 60's West Coast movement Light and Space, Irwin has been noted since the '70s for his use of "phenomenological" materials such as scrim, lighting and orientation in his exploration of luminary, perceptual and experiential effects. More recently, he's carried his concerns into the landscape in a series of site-specific installations, most famously in "Two Running Violet V Forms" (1982), where he chain-linked a eucalyptus grove.
It's also been rumored that Irwin was hired for the job because his ego was big enough to stand up to Richard Meier, the Getty Center's architect. There certainly was a clash between the two, with Meier complaining bitterly of Irwin's extravagant, $8 million garden and of the firing of his landscape architect, the East Coast-based Dan Kiley.
Presumably the Getty also liked Irwin's experience on a major engineering project. In his on-going efforts to free his art from the confines of museums, Irwin spent a portion of the 80's on a redesign of the Miami International Airport. Although unrealized due to a change in management, Irwin's background must've come in handy during construction of the three-acre "Central Garden." Commuting three times a week by plane from the San Diego area (charges of Getty "elitism" could stick here, too), Irwin had fourteen consulting firms working for him -- including civil, soil and structural engineers, a landscape architecture firm for help with design development and technical support, plus a number of plant suppliers and searchers. At his request one nursery was even given a special collections budget so that he could choose the plants he wanted by actually seeing them in the flesh. Looking at photos just didn't work.
Which suggests a final reason the Getty chose Irwin for the project: he wasn't afraid to spend.
Although Irwin intends the garden to be a place to relax, visitors might be advised to pack the Valium. It's an extremely busy garden, with little place for the over-taxed eye to rest. "Confused," a prominent landscape architect describes it. "Spatial overload."
Besides the controversial azalea maze, the central feature in the garden is a stream flanked by plane trees and criss- crossed by a path that cuts so severely into the slope that it's retained with a special steel known for its deliberate patina of rust.
In this short and uncomfortably narrow space -- in Irwin's defense, the whole site is awkward and likened memorably to a toilet bowl -- the visitor is exposed to the first of hundreds of varieties of plants, in four successive combinations of height and color. Competing for attention: the bark and structure of the plane trees that are being `sculpted' by Irwin on the exterior of their mass. The idea: to form a enclosed, geometric canopy over the stream.
"If I succeed in getting [the plane trees] to take the shape I envision them having," Irwin has said, "it will be something you'd come a thousand miles to see."
The stream itself is equally complicated. The great slabs of Northern California stone that `tumble' down its center have been hand-picked and positioned by Irwin himself in an effort to acoustically "tune" the sound of water five different ways in its course downhill. After exiting the grove, the stream passes through a plaza dotted with bowers of bougainvillea before finally spilling over a wall of granite to a shallow pool at the base of the garden. It is in this pool of water -- at the bottom of a sort of terraced amphitheatre filled with perennials and annuals and arbors and trellises and benches of Burmese teak -- that the maze of 460 flowering azaleas appears to float.
Those azaleas. Native to temperate climates and wanting a rich and acid soil, the plants wouldn't last two minutes in the site's natural habitat, the south-facing slope of the Santa Monica coastal range. This spot is (was) home to rattlesnakes and coyote and a soft chaparral of sage, artemisia and other muted and silvery natives adapted to its poor soil and arid conditions.
Even more dubiously, Irwin has placed his red, purple and pink azaleas in the full glare of the sun. But not to worry. The pool at their feet isn't so much a design element as a life support system to increase ambient humidity. And then the azaleas have been planted in peat (one of the most endangered living systems on earth), so they'll probably survive if constantly watered and fed. All bets are off, though, when a killer Santa Ana blows. Anyone who's read the novels of Raymond Chandler knows the local phenomenon, how the electrically dry air from the interior causes residents to go haywire and reach for their carving knives. Getty gardeners will be reaching for weapons, too -- spray guns -- to pump a special anti-transpirant onto the azalea beds. And it won't be the first time.
It's enough to make more than horticulturalists see red.
Irwin's choice for his other two mass plantings aren't exactly suited to the site, either. Native plant enthusiasts wonder why he selected the London plane tree, Platanus x acerifolia, a common hybrid grown throughout the world, instead of the California P. racemosa, a much more distinctive tree and stronger in this habitat. But then the London plane has an upright structure more easily shaped into Irwin's desired form.
The other tree used en masse by Irwin, the crape mrytle or Lagerstroemia indica, is a real surprise. Chosen for its summer bloom and especially for its character during its deciduous period, lagerstroemia is a delicious tree in the right spot. But this native of China is notoriously subject to mildew in this fog-prone part of L.A.
When asked to respond to his azalea critics, Irwin laughs. "I was told they were bulletproof," he says amiably. An energetic and charismatic 69-year-old, you can sense Irwin's enthusiasm for his garden -- and see how it translated into such an exuberant spot. He believes, though, that plants are "fickle," and concedes that just in case those azaleas don't work, his azalea specialist is growing a supply of back-ups.
In fact, according to Jim Duggan, a nurseryman from the San Diego area who was a prominent influence in Irwin's plant selection and arrangement, there are back-ups for everything. "Lots of people tell us `you can't grow that here.' We say we can. We don't care if a plant lasts. It's a display garden -- it needs to be nice all the time. Plants have to look good or they're gone."
To that end, plants are tightly spaced in amended plots, annuals will be replaced twice a year, pernennials treated as annuals, and even shrubs such as Cornus stolonifera dug up after their desired seasonal effect has peaked.
Irwin is not an installation artist for nothing, but with this sort of modus operandi and explosion of bloom, he risks a parallel with the conspicuous consumption of the Victorian era and the practice of bedding out. Or, in a more contemporary vein: of looking like a trade display at an annual flower show.
Luckily, for every rose bush, hydrangea, canna and bog rush that feels so out of context here, there are some terrific plants at the show that are more sensitive to the site. Like the California native grass Muhlenbergia rigens and succulent Dudleya pulverulenta, Cotyledon orbiculata (South Africa), and Helleborus lividus (Corsica) with its textured foliage and chartreuse bloom.
But better visit soon. With Irwin's interest in "stretching the envelope," plants like Convolvulus cneorum and Sedum spathulifolium that won't tolerate the conditions of rich soil and summer irrigation are likely to succumb to root rot.
Other species in the garden are vulnerable because of the use of clones in mass plantings. Mildew that hits one lagerstroemia, for example, will quickly spread to all. Cultivars bred for resistance offer only a limited warranty.
So was Duggan serious, then, when he said there'd be no nursing of plants, just replacing?
Not entirely.
"We'll use chemicals against pests if we have to, as a last resort," he said. "And for plants susceptible to root rot, we'll need to apply fungicide preventatively. We can't wait for a problem to arrive."
This is a garden so little rooted to the soil, both literally and figuratively, it's a good thing the Getty has money to burn. Maintenance costs alone will be sky high. Besides the heavy use of irrigation, and the fertilizers, fungicides and other petrochemicals required to keep it looking good (ironically, oil is the source of the Getty fortune), the constant shuffling of plants and the pruning of the trees and azaleas will keep its staff of four, full-time gardeners occupied.
Luckily, Irwin was able to secure a maintenance budget. He has complained publicly about the upkeep of his past projects. "I've learned my lesson," he's said.
If only the cost were just in dollars. The loss of undeveloped land is always hard to take, but to add insult to injury, the coastal scrub previously here has been replaced with an abstracted and artificial construct. Or, as Irwin himself calls it, "a sculpture in the form of a garden that's aspiring to be art."
Getty Museum Director John Walsh put his finger inadvertantly on the essential problem when he said, "Bob's garden...is ultimately a man-made garden about the man-made, and as such, it speaks to the mind." Intellectuals speak to the mind; what we ask of artists is that they also speak to the soul. And Irwin, in his refusal to look at life -- in his defiance of the underlying nature of his site and of the plants he has placed there -- has created a sterile garden without resonance, a garden that's ultimately nowhere.
For a more site-specific experience, check out the cactus garden that's also in the complex by Dennis McGlade of the Olin Partnership, one of the three landscape architecture firms that worked on the project. This, along with the 8,000 California live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) planted on the grounds, will give you a whiff of where you are.
Ironically, despite the hoopla, the winner in all this may be the gardening industry itself. After all, "Central Garden" is a "work in progress," and Irwin and Duggan, who are hoping to "curate" the garden for the next three years, may end up with something more satisfying. As one horticulturalist put it (anonymously, of course): "Irwin will learn in time that you can't fool nature. In the meanwhile the Getty is paying for a test garden for the good of the whole profession. And if plants need to be replaced, well that's all right. It'll keep a whole lot of people employed."


(c) Copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.