The Lurie Garden: An Urban Masterpiece

August 11th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

Chicago's magnificent Lurie Garden

Last summer I got my first glimpse of Chicago’s Lurie Garden, which nestles downtown in Millennium Park. It would be hard to imagine a more spectacular urban setting, with skyscrapers both old and new ringing the park, not to mention Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing of the Art Institute rising in austere splendor along the garden’s southern edge. Then of course there’s the garden itself, designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf, and Robert Israel. At the moment, it’s probably the best example in North America of the “new European style,” which Oudolf has been so successful in promoting. And it’s gorgeous—subtle and sensuous in its use of color and texture and wonderfully evocative of the almost-vanished midwestern prairie. It takes the merest glance to see why people love Oudolf’s gardens. Moreover, it’s a style perfectly suited to Chicago’s continental climate, with its long, frigid winters and brutal, humid summers.

If I lived in Chicago (actually, I did for nine years), or anywhere in the Midwest for that matter, I’d want a garden like the Lurie Garden—full of hardy prairie grasses and tough, tall perennials. But I don’t think it would translate well to the Pacific Northwest. Our gardens are—or can be—nearly evergreen. Here, it doesn’t make sense to have a garden that’s blank for four or five months of the year. We also have to cope with a three-month period in the summer when we get almost no rain. And so the question becomes how to create the spectacular effect of one of Oudolf’s designs using a completely different plant palette—one that relies principally on Western North American natives along with a generous helping of Southern Hemisphere and Mediterranean plants.

This is the sort of effect I'm after--all those glowing blues.

I’ve embarked on an experiment to see whether I can achieve a quasi-Oudolfian effect in my back garden, but the jury is still very much out. I’m encouraged, though, by the drifts of powder-blue Elymus magellanicus and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) that I planted this spring, as well as by the grass-friendly qualities of various kniphofias, crocosmias, dieramas, and agapanthus. I’ll never achieve Oudolf’s artistry, that’s for sure, but maybe—just maybe—I’ll be able to capture a hint of the glowing, rippling beauty that so enthralled me in the Lurie Garden. Stay tuned.

3 Responses

  1. Scott Weeber says:

    Great photos, I really need to visit these gardens soon…Love Piet Oudolf…he is such an inspiration.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    I have been messing with this style of gardening since I saw my first Oehme and Van Sweden garden in a magazine..a while back (not telling how long). I have found it difficult to execute in a smallish space. But, I will keep trying. Meanwhile, I was at the Lurie last Tuesday. What a place! What a masterpiece!

  3. Denise says:

    Oh, yes, this is the public garden that’s spawning countless regional experiments. Looking forward to your photos.

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