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American Society of Landscape Architects


March 2005 Issue

Villandry Comes to California
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts.

By Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

Villandry Comes to California
©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 situations—corporate 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 horticulture—rectangular beds, the framework of arbors, the linearity of furrows, and the grid of orchards—fit 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 north—south 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 rocks—yet 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 work—the 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 the body.

Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon and former editor of Landscape Journal.

Project Credits
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.

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