Villandry Comes to California
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts.
By Kenneth Helphand, FASLA
©Samanda Dorger 2004
The American pursuit of happiness takes many forms in the landscape. In the Napa Valley of California, the pleasure to be derived from
a choice glass of wine, a fine meal, and the company of friends is cultivated as an art. This may seem a component of a modern,
hedonistic America, but it hearkens back to the lifestyle of the Mediterranean, a climate similar to California’s.
The winemaker Robert Mondavi, one of the founding fathers of the
California wine industry, instigated the formation of Copia, a cultural
institution dedicated to exploring interrelationships among wine,
food, and the arts. On the land that Mondavi donated on the Napa
River is an 80,000-square-foot gallery designed by Polshek Partnership
Architects, but most of the site is occupied by a garden by Peter
Walker, FASLA, of Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture.
The central influences and inspirations for Walker’s designs have
been minimalism in contemporary art and classic French design, notably
that of André Le Nôtre. Walker has created a limited
but precise language of design, which he has employed with increasing
refinement in successive projects. It has proved to be surprisingly
adaptable to a wide range of situationscorporate headquarters,
parks, campuses, and roof gardens. However, the language works best
in the marriage of program and place, where it is not an imposition
or appliqué but the inherently right solution to the situation.
Such is the case at Copia.
When you look out at the gardens from the upper-floor terrace,
the inspiration for the design is immediately clear to any student
of landscape architectural history. It is Villandry, the Loire River
Valley garden restored by Joachim Carvallo between 1906 and 1924
(and pictured in “En Route to Chaumont” in this issue). A central
element of that garden is the kitchen garden: a set of nine large
squares bordered in boxwood and treillage work and separated by
gravel pathways. Each year sees a new design for the plantings in
the kitchen garden. Copia follows the same basic pattern. More than
20 squares (each a 50-foot square) are framed by low stone walls.
Each square is further subdivided according to the Edenic garden:
four quadrants separated by a turf pathway. The walkways are gravel.
Those with a historic sensibility can see strong connections to
the hortus conclusus, the walled enclosed medieval garden
symbolically linked to the locked “garden” of the biblical Song
of Songs. The geometric imperatives of agriculture and horticulturerectangular
beds, the framework of arbors, the linearity of furrows, and the
grid of orchardsfit a classic and minimalist approach. One
can even make an argument that classic form and proportions are
in part derived from agriculture. The linkages between culture and
agriculture are in fact what Copia celebrates.
Glass walls connect inside and outside, with the lines of sight
and land blending seamlessly. These views are most deftly displayed
in what was perhaps the site’s most daunting problem: It is bisected
by a road. The sightlines of the garden traverse the road, and the
careful placement of espalier apples and artichokes along the roadside
fences obscures the roadbed and transforms the road from a liability
to an east–west cross axis of the site. The northsouth axis
is the 825-foot-long entryway. An allée of closely spaced
poplars, a symbol of California agriculture and France’s rural landscape,
crosses the site leading directly to the entry. The allée
also simultaneously separates and unites parking lot and garden.
The distant end of the allée and walkway is flanked by a
lavender garden several hundred feet long, another link to France
and the Mediterranean tradition. Across the road, the entry walk
is bordered by a 250-foot-long, gently cascading shallow pool of
river rocksyet another homage to French design.
The richness of the garden experience belies elements of its classic
framework and suggests that maximum benefits can be gained from
minimal means. The geometry of the garden beds combines a grid of
classic proportions with serial repetition. The lines of the garden
walls and borders are reminiscent of the work of contemporary sculptor
Carl Andre, a style Walker employed effectively at Solana near Dallas,
but here it is linked more precisely to the function and program
of the garden.
Walker designed the frame for the gardens with the clear intention
that the client would fill in the picture. In charge of that activity
was curator of gardens Jeff Dawson, who offered his suggestions
during the design process. He brought to this task his previous
experience as designer of the kitchen garden for the Culinary Institute
of America in St. Helena, California, and gardens for the Kendall
Jackson Winery in Fulton, California. There are more than 20 organic
gardens that have multiple objectives; much of the produce finds
its way into the restaurants at Copia. The gardens also have an
explicit educational aspect that links the edible produce of the
garden with the gustatory pleasures of the table. They are a fine
complement to “Forks in the Road,” the superb exhibition inside
the gallery that examines the history and folkways of food with
imaginative connections to contemporary practices. There are also
gardens dedicated to exploring the ethnobotanical heritage of America,
especially California. Thus far, there are gardens highlighting
the Italian American, Native American, Japanese American, Chinese
American, and Hispanic communities, and others are planned. Appropriately,
grapes are given pride of place, as are olives, the indicator species
of the Mediterranean landscape and a product of the valley.
There are daily garden tours; perhaps the most exciting are the
tours and classes for children offered by Dawson himself. The most
delightful space right now is a passage of hanging gourds in the
children’s garden. Four full-time gardeners try to keep up with
the garden’s bounty and program.
The parking lot, one of the central design problems of our time,
is usually ignored, but at Copia, as in his previous designs, Walker
treated parking as an integral part of the design workthe
garden starts as soon as you enter the site, not when you leave
the parking lot. At Copia the parking lot occupies about a third
of the site. The lot is deftly linked to the garden through a continuity
of geometry and also through materials, as grasses fill in the medians
and grapevines act like bookends for the rows of cars. Walker seems
to have been focused on formal design to the exclusion of environmentally
friendly elements such as bioswales for capturing stormwater.
The gardens dominate the forecourt of Copia, but the passage through
the gallery leads in the direction of the river, where an amphitheater
houses an active concert program. The scale is intimate, and concerts
are embraced artfully by the structure and a few strategically planted
trees. The near invisibility of the water points to a fault in the
design: A strong connection to the river is lacking. It is visible
from the upper floors of the building and the amphitheater, but
there are only minimal links to the river and the riverside Napa
River Trail, which has yet to be completed. On this river, oxbow
flood control issues are paramount (see “A River Lives Through It,”
January). The designers worked with the Corps of Engineers to restore
the riparian edge and grade the site to allow flooding across the
parking lot and, only in extreme periods, the gardens.
At the nearby Opus One winery, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe
Rothschild created a vintage that is intended to marry the best
of the old (France) and new world (California) winemaking traditions.
I leave it to the tasters to judge the results. At Copia there is
a similar motivation, as classic traditions merge with those of
California. Given the theme and mission of the institution, it is
a fine marriage, much as modern American cuisine has taken the artistry
of the European traditions (especially of France and Italy) and
wedded those to American sensibilities and abundance and diversity
of produce. These gardens remind us that gardens are the art of
agriculture, and they take us back to the most fundamental of garden
ideas. As Eden had “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and
good for food,” gardens eternally link sustenance for the eye and
Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture
at the University of Oregon and former editor of Landscape Journal.
Client: Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts.
Landscape architect: Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture,
Berkeley, California (Design team: Peter Walker, FASLA, Doug Findlay,
Paul Sieron, Jim Grimes, James A. Lord, Dorothee Imbert, Tom Leader,
and Carol Souza).
Architect: Polshek Partnership Architects, New York City.
Landscape architect for garden squares: Jonathan Plant Associates.
Curator for garden squares: Jeffrey Dawson, Copia.
Subscribe to LAM!
| Annual Meeting
Product Profiles & Directory