The Garden of Scholarly Delights

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Imagine walking across campus, and coming to a Chinese Scholar Garden, a quiet refuge from the daily grind of campus life. Traditionally, these gardens were constructed by retired officials and educational elite, and would typically include 3 elements, a water feature, rockeries, or rock garden, and typically bridges and pathways. Like many Chinese landscape styles, the concept of opening views is explored, where small, narrow, and/or dark paths can lead to great views and surprises.

Unlike the other two plans entered in Turf Battle, this plan, by Leah Webster, Christine Hsieh, and Jack Maher, wishes simply to be part of a larger landscape plan, and does not speak to the entire area. This is one of the plans great strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. And this is acknowledged in the proposal, when they state “The strength in our proposal lies in its ability to further the college’s aims to promote respect and learning of other culture is and broaden the scope of building traditions on campus”.

As a garden, the plan is quite exciting. The team is using the Sichuan style of landscaping, which is a wilder aspect, with not as much upkeep as other more formal styles. They imagine the garden in the lower section of the Atwater rectangle, employing a great landscaping technique called “borrowed scenery”. Shakkei is the Japanese term for this, and it simply integrates a distant landscape into the more local. A good example of this technique is a photograph on Fine Gardening, which actually uses mirrors to borrow a borrowed view. In the Scholar garden, they address the problem of the parking lot view with a borrowed view, using a bamboo screen to block the lower views of the cars, while affording the higher view to the north.

(Side note to the fellow plant geeks…Yes, bamboo can grow in Vermont, but I personally have no experience. The little bit of research I’ve done led me to Snow Bamboo, Phyllostachys nuda. It is a running bamboo, probably invasive in warmer climes, but has potential to be controlled through specialized root control barriers.)

The garden, as explained above, is a contemplative place, and this raises a question common to all three proposals, one of programming. How do we visualize using the Atwater area? There are questions and problems of circulation in the entire area-witness the goat paths across the lawns, or the tire tracks near sidewalks. Can we make a restful garden in the center of what at present feels like an urban corridor? Or stepping back even further: are we bringing people to the area, while at the same time providing a solitary retreat? Maybe Turf Battle needs to define what sorts of groups will use the space, what type of programming will get used in the space, and see if a contemplative retreat is appropriate for the space.

There is an area on campus that is a contemplative garden, and we can draw lessons from that space. The Singer Garden, known as the Garden of the Seasons, next to the Main Library, is already programmed “as a designated spot for study, contemplation, and refreshment of the senses.” Michael Singer imagined an “alluring conjunction of nature and culture”.

Like all planned landscapes, the Garden of the Seasons needed to ‘grow into it’, which it is starting to, albeit a little slower than other landscapes. This area of contemplation suffered from a lack of context in the beginning stages. In the center of Library Park, the surrounding terrain felt too ‘open’, and not enough privacy was afforded while sitting in the garden. While the garden is several hundred feet from Route 30, the openness of the lawn and the relative lack of large trees in the area seemingly shrink this distance. Furthermore, this relatively small garden was juxtaposed to the broad expanse of the southern wall of the library, dwarfing the garden and accompanying structure/sculpture. We’ve since planted the rock swale that envelopes the garden with large shrubs and understory trees and, as this vegetation matures, the scale of the garden will seem more appropriate against the library, and should feel more private.

This, to me, speaks of the problem that would need to be addressed should this garden be chosen in amongst a greater plan. Major amounts of work around the garden site would need to be done to give this garden the proper setting. At present, there is no context of seclusion around Atwater, and this would need to be developed, if that indeed is the programming we want for the area.

Overall, this is a very exciting plan, and a great example of the point to Turf Battle, that of throwing new ideas to break up the existing vernacular of Middlebury. My compliments to the authors for a great plan.

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