Merit Award -- Design
Spider Island, Chicago Botanic Garden
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects, PC
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA
Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects, PC
18 E. 17th Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10003
Spider Island is one of 20 garden landscapes set within the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG). With a million visitors annually to CBG, these gardens impact the public's perception of landscape architecture by allowing visitors to experience different landscape design types and study a collection of plants in varying micro-climates and design applications. The donor gave Spider Island to CBG to honor his wife, a naturalist. He required that the garden's spirit be natural and the plantings native. The terms of this gift created the opportunity for the landscape architects to show the public something difficult to achieve: a small landscape (11,000 sq. ft.) formed with nature's irregularity that also has the gusto usually found only in larger landscapes.
When John Ormsbee Simonds designed the CBG in the 1960s, he dotted the waterways with islands and edge landforms shaped from the extra soil on site. We used two similar landforms with scaled-down profiles to make Spider island compatible with CBG's vocabulary. These earthen shapes are combined with veils of trees, meadows, and indigenous stone and wood.
Movement and experience are the engines of this design. By exaggerating the island's naturalism, a compelling visceral experience of moving through this garden creates a retreat from heavily used roads, parking areas, and buildings nearby.
Spider Island sets out to be a contemplative and peaceful place, one that affords an enveloping journey and serenity. The journey is lengthened by placing the beginning of the boardwalk diagonally across the water. As the boardwalk reaches the island, it curves between the pair of landforms. Everything slows down. As one steps off the boardwalk, a stone threshold transitions to a granular path. As one moves along the spiral walk at the island's edge, the opening and closing of thickets of alder syncopates views of the surrounding water and botanic garden. A stone-sitting prospect, embedded into the base of one hill and embraced with evergreens, creates a terminus and frames a long view over water.
Our philosophy included artisans as part of the team: we designed the boardwalk of rough wooden planks and a smooth stainless steel rail, then commissioned craftsmen to harvest the native rot-resistant black locust and devise their own detail connections. The island's planted surfaces needed to be of native grasses and wildflowers, but the CBG rejected the sparseness of nascent meadows so close to the visitors' center. To overcome this, an artisan meadow grower cultivated for us-off-site-four different microclimatically tuned meadows as sods: emergent edge, wet and sunny, dry and shaded, and dry and full sun. These sods were transported in a refrigerated truck and planted in August 2000 after a season's growth.
The landscape architects were prime designers; the project cost was $750,000.
Client Statement: The challenge of Spider Island was to take
an 11,000 square foot island, shaped like a cupcake with a few scattered
trees, shrubs and pines on it, and create a unique space in which the
public could have an intimate experience with nature. The woman in whose
name this island was dedicated loved wild nature, especially spiders.
Layered over this was the Garden's goal to expand its collections and
create a tranquil, distinctive garden experience connected with the greater
visitor experience at the Botanic Garden. We visualized a jewel in the
landscape, seen from all sides, to be appreciated as much from a distance
as from within. We desired a natural feel and a relief from nearby intense
display gardens. We wanted impact and drama in a very subtle way.
The landscape architect fulfilled our vision and took it further than we could have imagined. His sensitivity to space and landforms has created a unique setting in which visitors can separate themselves from the rest of the Garden, while enjoying selected, spectacular views of the Garden. The designer has created an intimate, secluded space in the middle of one of the most visited display gardens in the nation.
The island has become the jewel we envisioned, with beautiful white birch leaves sparkling as they move in the sunlight. The bridge out to the island creates a separation and its low height makes the island look bigger. The entrance enfolds visitors as they disappear into the island. It is a totally different experience, whether you are on (really in) the island or looking at it from a distance. We could not be more enthusiastic about the outcome of this project.