Book Review: Tree Gardens: Architecture and the Forest

By on March 14, 2013.

Tree Gardens: Architecture and the Forest, written by Gina Crandell, is a sweeping exploration of projects that changed the way we think about trees in the landscape. Beginning with the wooded defense embankments of Renaissance Lucca, Italy and reaching to the powerful Memorial Forest of New York’s 9/11 Memorial, Tree Gardens examines not only the experience of each garden, but also the hidden story of care and nurturing that they have endured. The gardens of the book tell a story of an artistic statement whose success is measured not by the fashion of the day, but by the ever changing effects of time.

Tree Gardens outlines 15 projects that exemplify the idea that trees and their arrangements can become the architecture of a garden. Crandell explores the different impetuses for the gardens construction – defensive fortifications in Lucca, vanity in the case of Versailles, and the adaptive reuse of a airport in Munich.

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Maintenance and Longevity

As an idea, trees in groves and tight arrangements are some of the most difficult designs to pull off. Trees when planted are often not as big as reflected in the original design and it takes years to grow to maturity. On top of this, as the trees age the growth becomes more dense and interior space makes sustaining growth year after year difficult. The book explores the many ways that designers have addressed maintenance and how the sites have been altered over time to react to the obstacles of growth.

Versailles is an interesting case study because of its polarized historical significance. To many, cutting down a 100 year old tree seems like a crime against nature. However, many trees are reaching the end of their life cycle at about that age and it benefits the rest of a design to sometimes remove and replant. Versailles has done an exemplary job of this and subsequently the towering walls of growth keep their original intention.

One instance where a proper maintenance schedule was not maintained is Dan Kiley’s Gateway Memorial Park. According to Crandell, “Kiley employed various spacing schemes for the massing of particular species to draw attention to the tree’s character. These sculptural masses then perform spacial functions within his landscapes, such as compression and expansion.” Due to budget cuts and changes made by the National Park Service – some species and spacing of trees were changed. These and other problems negatively affect the design envisioned by Kiley – an issue that will hopefully be resolved in the new design by Michael Van Valkenburg and Associates.

Tree Gardens - Gina Crandell

Modern Tree Gardens

While Tree Gardens explores a few historical precedents, the meat of the book is about more modern projects. Crandell aims to show how contemporary landscape architects are utilizing the impact of tree form to create spaces for the next generation of open spaces. One of the themes of many of these projects is a large swath of space that is dominated by a monoculture tree grid. The 9/11 Memorial, Reimer Park, Oerliker Park, Parc de l’Ancien Palais, and Novartis Headquarters all utilize this convention with varying degrees of success. And while the impact of these bosques is immense, one cant help but wonder if designers are evoking the same generational design trend. The advantage of such design is that the rest of a scheme’s elements seem to be emphasized in their derivation from the grid. However, trees can also make a similar architectural impact in a more curved scheme such as Van Valkenburg’s Brooklyn Bridge Park. It seems that a grid can be the solution when immersion is the goal whereas forms that flank a space can give importance to a view.

Gina Crandell currently practices landscape architecture in Brookline, MA. She has previously taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the University of California at Berkeley, Iowa State University and the Rhode Island School of Design. The American Society of Landscape Architects honored Crandell with the Award of Excellence in 2006 and the Bradford Williams Medal in 1984.

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