A Garden of Glass

Lisa C. Roberts
Garden and Glass

Imagine a garden of glass, planted under glass, nestled among lacy ferns, soaring palms, spiny cacti, and fruiting bananas. To see Dale Chihuly's magnificent artwork displayed amid the plant kingdom from which so many of his forms seem to emanate is to see both art and plants in a new light. Each reflects the other in a shimmery mix of tendrils, buds, and fronds. The fact that this dance takes place within the walls of a historic glasshouse makes it that much more resonant, as though someone had subverted the boundaries between the house and its leafy occupants.

And why not? Conservatories are, after all, exquisitely crafted re-creations of natural environments. Introducing Chihuly's glasswork takes the manipulation to another level, one that aspires to stimulation, not simulation. It startles expectation, stretches the imagination, and provides a new way of experiencing both plants and art.

There was a time when conservatories did just that, providing an experience that was not just new but a leap from people's daily lives. Tropical plants were strange, exotic, and richly evocative of faraway lands. Conservatories were places of refuge and recreation, where people could indulge romantic fantasies about nature and the world. Those fantasies were enhanced by the manner in which plants were exhibited.

This was especially true in the nineteenth century, an age of great exploration and widespread collecting. It was not uncommon to find plants displayed alongside animals, artifacts, and other curios from newly discovered lands. Music and artwork also found their way into conservatory settings, which provided an idyllic venue for cultural pursuits. In many ways, Chihuly's installations hark back to these precedents. He has resurrected, in a beautiful and seemingly effortless way, what was once an easy union between the muses of culture and horticulture.

It was not until the nineteenth century that glasshouses, as they were known, came to play a large role in social and cultural life. By this time, they were common in botanical gardens and universities, where they were primarily used for cultivating, studying, and experimenting with newly discovered plants. They had also become an accessory of the landed gentry, built on private estates for the purpose of growing the exotic and sometimes tender plants that some aristocrat had brought back from foreign travels. Often extensions of the home itself, it was only a matter of time before private glasshouses were used by family residents for reading, strolling, and entertaining. This was a social function that was markedly non-horticultural. It changed the way plants were treated forever, as they took on a much wider universe of meaning and significance.

No longer were plants simply horticultural specimens. They were also something to be experienced: decorative props, eccentric curiosities, totems of paradisiacal isles and conquered lands. While their botanical aspects remained paramount among students of the plant kingdom, their symbolic aspects were embraced by men and women of leisure.

This fact had its own redolent symbolism. Because large, heated glasshouses could be afforded only by a privileged class of people, they came to signify a certain exalted stature in society. The aristocracy often collected or purchased entire plant collections, much as early collectors might amass paintings or sculptures. As glass and iron technology advanced, private glasshouses grew in size to the point that they became detached from the living quarters. By the mid-nineteenth century, conservatories dotted Europe, each outdoing the last with elaborately designed interiors that included streams, fountains, birds, fish, waterfalls, and statues. King Ludwig II of Bavaria went so far as to install a small lake with a boat, a fisherman's hut, a silk tent, a kiosk, and a painted vista of the Himalayas. Others introduced into their spaces garden furniture, divans, candelabra, and oriental carpets, creating a kind of salon for relaxation and entertaining.

At the same time that private glasshouses were proliferating, a new type of glass building began to appear for the general public. “Winter gardens” incorporated social spaces as diverse as cafés, art galleries, and libraries. The plants were largely embellishments to recreational activities such as concerts, billiards, reading, eating, even dancing. Men could smoke and play cards, and people would promenade amid the plants, perhaps even listening to music and poetry.

Entertainment may have been the focus here, but the plants were what made it all work. People wanted to relax in a setting that gave relief from the crowded, overbuilt city outside, particularly during the winter months when the light was poor and the weather cold. In some winter gardens, the effect of the greenery was enhanced by adding objets d'art, butterflies, songbirds, and even caged beasts.

Meanwhile, glasshouses continued to evolve in association with botanical gardens and horticultural societies to support a scientific mission. Plants in these settings were arranged in a more systematic manner that took into account their botanical families or habitats. Many establishments opened their doors to the public, given the important social function that the great winter gardens had come to play. It is probably here that a happy medium was struck between the interests of science and those of the public, and this model was widely adopted by North American public conservatories.

The earliest public conservatories in the United States appeared in the later nineteenth century and included Garfield Park Conservatory. First constructed in 1886, Garfield's original building was one of several conservatories established in the major parks ringing Chicago, including Lincoln, Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas, Washington, and Jackson parks. It was later razed, along with the Humboldt and Douglas Park Conservatories, and a huge, centralized facility was erected in their place. Opened in 1908, the new Garfield Park Conservatory was the largest in the world, the vision of celebrated landscape architect and then parks superintendent Jens Jensen.

Jensen's ideas for the great conservatory were considered revolutionary at the time. Bucking the Victorian tradition of displaying plants in groupings of pots, he designed each room as a natural-looking landscape. It was not the first time plants had been placed directly into the soil, but Jensen made the practice his signature, taking care to place stonework, lagoons, and plants to mask the mechanical structures supporting them and create the illusion of a natural setting. So effective was his artistry that visitors to the newly opened Fern Room marveled at the feat of erecting a glass structure over an existing lagoon.

Twentieth-century conservatories have largely followed this tradition. Plant collections are usually organized for public display according to botanically based themes such as plant family, native origin, or habitat, and they are exhibited in pleasing, scenic arrangements that mimic nature. Most try to balance their scientific and public dimensions, and many have made education a central part of their mission. The experience they impart, however, has changed from days gone by—in part a function of the fact that they now inhabit a changed world.

Today, mass media and world travel have brought the farthest corners of the globe within reach, making the strange increasingly familiar. While conservatories still present unfamiliar plants with which many people have had no direct contact, they also contain things about which most people have a variety of images and references. The environmental movement has turned rain forests and other endangered habitats into current affairs. Palm trees, coconuts, and saguaros have taken root in popular culture and are widely portrayed in cartoons, travel brochures, movies, and advertising. Commercial ventures from the Banana Republic to the Rainforest Café have borrowed heavily from images of tropical havens to fuel people's fantasies of exploration and adventure.

The result is that conservatories are no longer experienced in quite the same way as their nineteenth-century predecessors. Their power now comes not so much from their presentation of the strange as from their embodiment of the real. In a culture that has perfected the art of simulation, where people can experience pyramids in Las Vegas and safari at Disney, and where nature has been re-created everywhere from restaurants to theme parks to museum exhibits, conservatories stand apart in their preservation of the real thing. Living plants grow and die. Banana trees fruit, flowers bloom and fade, leaves curl. Pests fight for a stronghold as they munch their way through their own culinary nirvana. The whole thing is alive, imperfect, and real.

The presumption, of course, is that all of this reality truly represents what is real. Conservatories may look and feel like the real thing, but they are still re-creations of something even more original—namely, rain forests, deserts, and ponds that exist naturally in the world. Their power lies in the accuracy of the reproduction, built, as it is, of living plants, fertile soil, and craggy rocks. It is a supreme artistry in its own right, whose medium happens to be the stuff of nature.

Now, into all this reality, Dale Chihuly has introduced his arresting and lustrous forms. And suddenly the point is not reality but enchantment. Magic. Pure, heart-stopping beauty. And not just the artwork, which is dazzling unto itself. The plants themselves are transformed by their new neighbors so that viewers see nature in a whole new light. It is a remarkable achievement, a throwback to former days when conservatories presented people with a sight that was utterly new.

What is so novel here? Why is this display enthralling nearly every visitor who comes to see it? Beauty has fallen out of favor in recent years, though we would never admit it. We think we value it, but what gets put forth in this culture is usually about something else, such as fashion, design, or entertainment. So to encounter something of true beauty—however that may strike one—can be a deeply moving experience.

Somehow, this seems to have been achieved at the conservatory by bringing plants and glass together in a blurring of boundaries. Two things that are so essentially different—one animate, the other inanimate; one pliable and textured, the other hard and shiny; one natural, the other cultural—come together and turn our expectations on their heads. Long-standing categories mingle together: gallery and greenhouse; exhibit and garden; art and nature. The result is that one begins to see with new eyes.

We now suddenly notice what a vast range of greens nature presents when her foliage is juxtaposed with a vast range of glassy yellows. Or how straight and upright is the stance of a banana tree, a grove of soldiers standing at attention, which becomes apparent when interspersed with a regiment of straight, upright glass rods. And that the effect works both ways, so that in another setting, those same glass rods reflect the character of the plants, bringing to mind the prickly spines of the cacti surrounding them.

There is also the matter of language, how names alter what we see. By discovering that the rods are actually called reeds, a far more botanical designation, we are introduced to a completely different yet fitting image. We read the name Macchia Forest, and conjure an image to the eye of an understory—in this case, of brightly colored vessels.

There are also the unnamed pieces, the bulbous onions, curly tendrils, and arching stalks that emerge colorfully and gracefully from within the foliage, and whose forms are so essentially organic that they seem to belong there, side by side with the plants.

In the end, we have been treated to a feast of the eyes, and never again will we look at either Chihuly or plants in quite the same way.

So why is this important? Why is it valued? Why are people walking away saying this is an experience not to be missed? And how does it further our purpose as a conservatory?

Conservatories in this day and age have multiple identities which rest, in the main, on two key activities: collecting and exhibiting plants. Some conservatories do research; Garfield does not. Ours is a wholly public endeavor. We educate, establish community relations, and give out technical advice. We are a display garden and a party palace. We do it all because we love plants, and believe that they are central to what life is all about.

That is quite a claim—but the fact is, we could not live without plants. Plants are the basis of life itself. They produce our food, our medicine, and the oxygen that we breathe. They are a source of artistic inspiration and religious symbolism. They even gave rise to new forms of life, as plants evolved into animals and, in turn, ourselves.

Is it any wonder that people have made the conservatory into a site of ritual and ceremony, where wedding vows are exchanged, life events celebrated, holiday pilgrimages made? Every holiday has its pilgrims to the conservatory. For that matter, every day finds its pilgrims—people in search of a certain kind of place or experience that the conservatory satisfies.

This is an aspect of the conservatory that is profoundly spiritual in nature, and that appeals to people's most primal instincts and needs. This is perhaps the hardest identity to tease out, yet in some ways it is fundamental to all the others. It has to do with the spark ignited in one's heart by the experience of engaging with plants and making some personal connection. It may be an aesthetic appreciation, it may be a personal insight, it may be new information. It is what makes people care about plants and want them in their lives. And it is something that is deeply affective in nature.

It is not something, however, that conservatories find easy to address. Typically they have defined and interpreted their collections in botanical, horticultural, or ecological terms. Plant sciences constitute their dominant paradigm and standard of discourse. Yet visitors' primary experiences tend to be affective, not cognitive; they are as quick to report on how they feel as on what they learned. When they enter a conservatory they stop, linger, wander, inhale, and relax. It is because of this that Garfield Park Conservatory has made a central feature of its mission, “providing a botanical haven in the city.” For many people, that's what the conservatory is. A green sanctuary where they can get away and recharge. A place to slow down, converse, ponder life.

It would follow that activities of display and interpretation need to be developed to support this aspect, to treat the plant collections in a way that heightens their affective as opposed to their scientific qualities. What better tool for such treatment than the arts? After all, the arts by their nature have deep roots in the affective part of the mind. And really, plants are as much about art as they are about science.

This notion, of course, is hardly new. It stands at the core of the work of gardeners and designers who arrange plants into artful displays. It has roots in the winter gardens of bygone days when plants mixed freely with the arts. It is the governing precept of a handful of contemporary artists who take as their medium plants and other natural elements. And it is the fundamental notion behind Chihuly's elegant garden under glass.

Published in Chihuly Gardens & Glass, Portland Press, 2002

Also from Chihuly Gardens & Glass:
The Earthly Delights of the Garden of Glass, Barbara Rose
Chihuly Under Glass, Mark McDonnell