The Wild Grid

Dan Kiley’s South Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago has seasoned over nearly 50 years into a rugged, magical hawthorn canopy.

By Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA 

There is nothing quite like sitting beneath the almost fully connective canopy of 50-year-old cockspur hawthorns in Dan Kiley’s South Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago in early summer. The 32 trees at the center of the garden, set in a 20-foot grid, reached their natural maximum height long ago. Their wily trunks have thickened and twisted with age; their craggy, wandering branches continued to elongate, eventually overlapping and intertwining, creating a space that has a level of repose perhaps unequaled in a midcentury urban landscape space. Crataegus crus-galli has narrow, waxy, obovate leaves, which are naturally held upright at the tops of the branches, suggesting intolerance for shade; they filter a kaleidos

cope of sunlight and shadow onto the warm brown crushed-stone paving below. Reflections from the water surface and gravel color the air. Though generally I find the modernist conceit of describing “rooms” in landscapes inadequate or ill-suited, this canopy explicitly creates a ceiling and produces a dazzling sense of interiority within the garden’s sunken court space. It’s hard to believe you are sitting within 150 feet of Chicago’s main drag.

Michigan Avenue, the historic eastern anchor of Chicago’s exalted grid, attracts hordes of traffic and tourists to its institutions, architectural sites, and parks. There are excellent urban landscapes to see here, including the Lurie Garden, Maggie Daley Park, Grant Park, and the grounds of the Field Museum. None is more tranquil than the South Garden. Peter Schaudt, one of Chicago’s most admired landscape architects, considered it Chicago’s best landscape space. This year, ASLA conferred its Landmark Award to the project, which recognizes works between 15 and 50 years old that retain their design integrity and benefit to the public realm. At about its 50-year mark, the South Garden more than deserves the recognition, and it’s an occasion to revisit some of the particular qualities that distinguish this space among midcentury modernist urban gardens and Kiley’s own body of work.

The original Art Institute building fronts on Michigan Avenue between East Monroe Street and East Jackson Drive and bridges over the tracks of the Metra Electric and the South Shore lines. The Art Institute invited Kiley to design the project in 1963 alongside the new Morton Wing, which completed new gallery space for the museum to the south of its main lobby. The Morton’s long mass landed in a north–south direction, parallel with the rail tracks, effectively using the building as a buffer from the trains and restoring approximate symmetry to the institute’s Michigan Avenue front by matching an earlier wing on the museum’s north side. A new subterranean parking garage was to be placed between the Morton and Michigan Avenue. The project brief mandated the garden as a rooftop sanctuary.

A sanctuary it is. On a recent visit, I was reminded that the garden is one of those design triumphs where formidable constraints are turned into ingenious assets. It contains details and material conditions that I almost never like: raised planters (which always denote a lack of sufficient provision for soil at grade); court space that’s sunk below street level (famously railed against by William H. Whyte and a generation of followers); and vines climbing tree trunks (usually considered detrimental to tree health). But Kiley’s raised planters and sunken space here combine as the garden’s tour de force, and the vines in this case produce a wildness that comes as a complete and delightful surprise in the city.

The parking deck roof didn’t allow for sufficient soil depth for trees, so Kiley raised the South Garden’s hawthorns to capture more volume. The matter of organizing vegetation in architectural cages was somewhat common for Kiley in the 1960s and 1970s—think of Lincoln Center and the Ford Foundation Headquarters in New York, or of the massive rooftop gardens at the Oakland Museum of California. These configurations were always tied to structural grid conditions in the supporting architecture beneath them. Though architects have imagined trees conforming to the forces of load and support for centuries, as in ancient Babylon or in Gaudí’s Barcelona, the 1960s brought forward new and varied manifestations of the tree atop the column. Not surprising, Kiley’s well-formed convictions around geometric orders accommodated well to the spatial dimensions and cross-sectional mechanics suited to these landscapes over structure. In Kiley’s hands—with the support of two other great design talents in his office, Ian Tyndall and Joe Karr, FASLA—the precisely balanced plan configuration and cross section of the South Garden may be the most finely resolved example of this typology.

This resolve—the calm, beautifully matured relationship among the canopy, trunks, water, and ground plane—is partly rooted in Kiley’s early plan decision to organize the grid of hawthorns on the axial sight line toward Lorado Taft’s 1913 allegorical Fountain of the Great Lakes, which was relocated from its earlier position of centrality in the space to the middle of the Morton’s facade. This was a somewhat rare instance of bilateral symmetry for Kiley, coming around the same time as his symmetrical scheme for 700 honey locusts at the Third Block of Independence Mall in Philadelphia (now lost). More often, Kiley’s grids in this period are deployed to bring a sophisticated underlying order to carefully balanced, well-proportioned asymmetries, as in the North Court at Lincoln Center (also demolished) or the Philosopher’s Garden at New York’s Rockefeller University.

In my view, the tour de force move was achieved with the cross-sectional condition of the hawthorn planters. The 24-inch depth of the containers appears on approach from the street to reside at curb height, a modest and conventional six-inch lift. But along the opposing sides of the planters, the ground plane descends by three equal risers to arrive at the level of the sunken court. At that point, the full height of the planter box is revealed—on the “inside” of the hawthorn bosque. This reinforces the sense of interiority in the space, and makes it seem like a destination—an outdoor room, if you like. There’s no disputing it: You are inside.

The raised terrace on the north side of the hawthorns and the additional hawthorn bracket along the East Jackson Drive side quietly foil the central court’s symmetry. The second group of Crataegus is organized in a quincunx. Beneath these trees, a great tangle of Euonymus covers the ground and travels upward onto each hawthorn trunk. With a tall masonry wall behind to delimit your view, this space is nothing short of a manufactured wilderness—its furry and slightly messy character made remarkable by the measure of the trees, equally spaced in every direction.

Along Michigan Avenue, two raised honey locust groves call out the garden’s presence a long ways off both to the north and south—their rangy branches towering over the street and descending erratically toward the sidewalk and into the space. These trees, too, are arranged in quincunx formation, once again denoting Kiley’s interest in juxtaposing irregular tree forms with a distinct and recognizable order where they meet the ground and at eye level. When seen from the opposite side of the street, as if in elevation, the combination of gangly canopy trees and undulating subcanopy masses resembles a phenomenon we know from the successional forest—stories of vegetation, competing for the light, but working together to yield spatial richness and complexity.

My June visit to Chicago put me in the mood to consider an unanswerable question: Did Kiley anticipate that the branches of the hawthorns would eventually overlap and create the undulating veil of canopy that everyone loves? Was that the idea? Joe Karr’s photographs from 1966, the year the garden opened to the public, suggest the image of an orchard to me. That is not surprising, because we know that Kiley’s deep devotion to plants comes from his uncanny familiarity with and devotion to—which I believe was unequaled in his generation—plants in cultivation and the successional patterns of fields and forests. He certainly knew the habit of Crataegus as it grows along hedgerows and out in the sunny open field. In truth it’s a complete surprise to see this densely twigged species in such an urbane condition—not the kind of tree you’d choose to sit next to, with its coarse habit and persistent thorns. But it says something remarkable about Kiley: He could reimagine the tree he knew in the early successional field condition as one whose very characteristics could shape a special urban landscape experience. His work consistently asks us to question our typical associations and to see vegetative life in new ways.

Sometimes, magical outcomes arise from foiled intentions. Joe Karr, who saw the project through its completion in 1966, recalls that Kiley conceived this indented cross section as a means to fill the entire sunken space with water so that the hawthorns and their boxes would become frames and floating islands. The institute and the donor demurred, for cost reasons. As Karr reminds us, Kiley convinced another client to build the trees-in-water idea almost two decades later, when he and partner Peter Ker Walker designed the incredible urban swamp of 220 bald cypress trees at Fountain Place in Dallas. As implemented, the South Garden’s central plane of water and bubbling jets on axis with the Great Lakes ensemble commands the right amount of attention, and its proportions beautifully supplement the calm of the great room beneath the hawthorns.

Whether he intended to create this wavy carpet of branches as a continuous four-season overhead plane or not, Kiley’s immense confidence in his choice of species and spatial dimensions joined elegantly with his convictions about the expressive and dynamic qualities of plants and their responsiveness to surrounding conditions.

Kiley’s penchant for upending conventional typologies was at work here, too, in equal strength. The South Garden is not simply an urban orchard, nor a rooftop garden, nor a grand outdoor room, nor a common sunken court with raised planters. It’s a carefully orchestrated spatial invention, rooted in a designer’s devotion to expressing nature’s limitless enticements in unexpected ways. And it’s a place where one can find peace and tranquility amid the city’s bustle and grind. Assuredly, that’s what he was after.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, is principal of Reed Hilderbrand in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

2 thoughts on “The Wild Grid”

Leave a Reply