For a landscape architect, “unique design” and “rare and unusual” are both, ideally, natural outcomes on any site – but only if a design team can successfully allow the rich history and conditions of the site to drive the design process.

At the time of commissioning for the Lurie Garden, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) was a young firm. With the team of Piet Oudolf, perennial planting design, and Robert Israel, conceptual design collaborator, we were excited to submit our vision for the design competition that was initially referred to as ”Monroe Garden”.

The competition invitation was clear in setting two goals for the landscape design of the future botanical garden: first, it would be a bold and unique design, and secondly, it would showcase “rare and unusual plants.”

Original Site of Millennium Park

Original Site of Millennium Park (red box)

In the case of the Lurie Garden site, we soon found that we had a wonderfully particular story to tell in the design: this site – and much of downtown Chicago – was on the shoreline of a broad marsh around the delta of the Chicago River. The deep, moist soils fostered a place thick with plants and animals – and slow for people to traverse in canoes.

Juxtaposition of natural and constructed elements tell the exciting story of Chicago as both a center of commerce and sustainability.

Sinking and mixing into this original landscape, Chicago’s earliest streets were a muddy mess. In a heroic and extreme transformation, the entire city ground was filled in, raised up, and entirely decked over to become a perfect, crisp surface for a future sky-scraping city.

The watery Lurie Garden site was accordingly filled (mostly with the rubble of the old city burned in the Great Fire), framed, and decked to its current elevation on the rooftop of a parking garage – awaiting the Garden that would tell the layered story buried beneath it.

Lurie Garden Light Plate, Dark Plate and Seam

The Light Plate (left) and Dark Plate (right) meet and are separated by The Seam – a linear “crack” in the surface that conceptually extends down, as watery void, straight through the parking garage and the fill material, to the original lake waters directly below.

The bold contrast between the original and the created landscapes of the Lurie Garden site and the city could hardly be more exciting. We wanted visitors to the Garden to experience the feeling of moving their bodies between a thick, cool, and primitive place, brushing through strange foliage and mysterious life – and an open, warm, and modern place, shimmering with lower and finer textures, a new tapestry made for man. The Dark and Light Plates concept – the old vs. new, thick vs. open, wet vs. dry experience – was developed to tell this story.

Juxtaposition of natural and constructed elements tells the exciting story of Chicago as both a center of commerce and sustainability.

The Dark and Light Plates meet and are separated by The Seam – a linear “crack” in the surface that conceptually extends down, as watery void, straight through the parking garage and the fill material, to the original lake waters directly below.

The Seam is covered with a wood deck, in the spirit of the city’s first streets to leave the natural ground – a key step in raising the entire city and forever changing the outdoor experience in Chicago. It marks the historic “change angle” of a diagonal, lake-fill retaining wall that is buried beneath the site. The wood deck at The Seam also allows us to create a place for people to sit and enjoy the water on hot days.

GGN Early Concept Water 600x400

The Seam feature is enjoyed by everyone for its cooling water and peaceful lapping sounds.

We recently visited Lurie Garden to assess how our early design decisions are at work over a decade later. Chicago has changed a lot – it has gotten busier and more metropolitan, but we hope by listening carefully to history and conditions, Lurie Garden will continue to inspire those who today make a pulse of a great city.

Shannon Nichol will be joining Piet Oudolf to reflect on their collaboration the week of August 29, 2016. Join us for a panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, that includes these two designers, Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennials and our Head Horticulturalist, Laura Ekasetya, to discuss the evolution of Lurie Garden.