Monks’ Garden: A Visual Record of Design Thinking and Landscape Making


Boston, MA | Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. | Client: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


Monks’ Garden provides the public with a deeper understanding of the wide-ranging considerations that lead to a new work of landscape architecture. It communicates the entire creative process from start to finish, elucidating both how and why particular decisions were made. This comprehensive approach enriches the reader’s appreciation of design as a creative discipline, and landscape as a cultural experience, while also offering a detailed presentation of the garden itself.


Deciphering the Design Process

Monks’ Garden captures the abundance of background detail that is only available right after a work of design is completed. Compared to a final design presentation, which often discards the messy vitality of the design process and presents a smooth chronology, this book offers an alternate model for appreciating a work of landscape architecture. It traces the development of the Monks’ Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, over a period of two years through client aspirations, early sketches and models, dialogue, construction photos, email correspondence, and images of the completed garden. The book explains the process of design in a way that is rarely shared with outsiders, whether inside or outside the profession. In so doing, it highlights aspects of the work that cannot immediately be understood in the course of a visit or by viewing photographs of the completed garden.

The images in the book reflect the diversity of tools that designers use to generate and evaluate ideas. They range from the rough simplicity of a quick string model sketch to the layered complexity of a rendered view. The beautiful and the mundane, the esoteric and the technical, enduring and discarded ideas are presented side by side. The book connects these disparate yet related elements, seeking to produce a holistic view that gives the audience a better understanding not only of the design process, but also of the built landscape itself. This approach reveals the landscape as an act of imagination and exploration, the manifestation of myriad design decisions informed by intuition rather than a pure idea made instantly tangible. Monks’ Garden is a record of the invisible process of design evolution – it embraces rationality, intuition, chance and program, which are part of every design, large or small. We offer this book to be read as a challenge to the current trend toward privileging the measurable components of a finished landscape over the ineffable benefits of landscape beauty, in all its forms.

A Celebration of the Felt Experience of a Garden

Monks’ Garden is also a celebration of the physical reality of the medium of landscape architecture, demonstrating how materiality shapes the felt experience of a built environment. The images in Monks’ Garden bring forth the textural richness of the brick and stone walkways as they meander through a miniature forest of stewartia, gray birch, and paperbark maple, punctuated at moments by deep green columns of arborvitae. The dark metallic sheen of manganese clay brick and the silver shimmer of mica schist brick, as well as other materials in the garden, are described at various scales and stages of production—from their source in the quarry or nursery to their carefully orchestrated installation and final placement in the garden.

Intellectual Aspirations and Content

Inspired by the great tradition of epistolary novels, as well as the power of graphic storytelling, the images and email correspondence present a non-hierarchical history of the design and construction of the Monks’ Garden, from April 2012 to September 2013. This includes full and unvarnished conversations about the project among the designers, client, contractors, and subconsultants. Aerial photographs by Alex MacLean capture the garden in a beguiling state of almost-completeness, adumbrating the form of the finished work as it emerges from the underlying structure. Elizabeth Felicella’s and Lexi Van Valkenburgh’s photographs of the garden interior capture the paradoxical expansiveness that can sometimes exist within a small garden.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into five sections—Concept, Design Development, Documentation, Construction, and The Garden—that trace the process and progress of the design from inception to construction. Writing is kept to a minimum in order to direct attention to the images and to encourage readers to find their own way through the book. Concise, descriptive captions complemented by selected correspondence between MVVA and the Gardner Museum give the reader a background for understanding the images in much the same way object labels provide the information necessary to understand artwork in a museum.

Throughout the book the organization of images is not strictly linear–much like design itself–and ideas that were fleeting considerations are presented to provide context for those ideas that eventually developed into the basis of the garden. In this way, the starts, stops, and subtle shifts of an authentically open-ended and iterative design process are shared. For those who come to see the garden, whether on a regular basis or a special visit, the understanding and appreciation of this built work will be enriched by this broader view.


The book was commissioned specifically for an exhibition at the Gardner Museum, but the intention was that it would be of broad interest to anyone who loves gardens and landscape architecture. It is a manifesto about why design matters; using the garden type as a telling reminder that landscape architecture needs to be far more than problem-solving. Monks’ Garden is a tool for sharing and disseminating ideas and information within the field of landscape architecture, and also beyond to a more general audience. It is an approachable book by design, meant to immerse the audience in the story of the garden and its coming into being. By revealing the messy complexity of the design process, this book extends an expanded understanding of the profession to a wider audience, laying bare the myth of the designer as arbitrary form-maker, or environmental technician. The Gardner Museum will sell a version of the book in its gift shop.

"It's well-done . . . warm and welcoming. The book is amazing. It shows the whole design process and how landscape architects show their ideas"

- 2014 Awards Jury



Design Team:
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Principal Designer
Matthew Girard, ASLA, Project Designer
Christopher Donohue, Graphic Designer