Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Opens Historic Monks Garden Redesigned by Michael Van Valkenburgh

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum unveiled today the Museum’s historic Monks Garden redesigned by Michael Van Valkenburgh. The Garden, which was originally designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner during the installation of the Museum in 1901, has been reinstalled several times since that time. Van Valkenburgh was commissioned in 2012 to redesign the cloistered garden adjacent to the historic building and connected to the exterior gardens which surround the Museum’s new wing designed by Renzo Piano.

Courtesy of Alex S. MacLean

Originally Isabella Gardner installed the Monks Garden in an Italianate style with tall, vertical evergreen trees in rows along part of the main walk and along the edge of the brick wall. Over time she added a large pergola covered with vines and the beds along the pergola were planted with flowers.

In 2012, Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s firm was chosen after a search that involved national and international candidates. Working with Charles Waldheim, Consulting Curator of Landscape, and Robert Campbell, architecture critic and consultant, the Gardner Museum’s new building committee with the Director Anne Hawley selected top candidates from a list of nominees. The committee visited gardens by these candidates before choosing Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates for the commission.

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s work combines an artist’s perspective and a love of plants in the making of a garden. His firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, has been significantly recognized in recent years for work on larger urban parks, campus work and landscape urbanism projects. Alongside the larger works, however, a consistent focus on Van Valkenburgh’s work has been on gardens of a small scale. After meeting with Hawley in 2011 to tour the Monks Garden, Van Valkenburgh said it was a letter from Hawley that inspired his approach to the design of the garden.

“She said she wanted a garden that Proust himself would have liked. She was thinking of the famed passage in “Remembrance of Things Past” where the taste of the Madeleine cookie evokes in the author a broad spectrum of specific and generalized feelings about the past – childhood – the whole conflation of things and experiences that make us who we are,” Van Valkenburg said. “Thinking about this in terms of a garden’s capacity to evoke a broad spectrum of similarly complex emotions, I could tell that she was going to be a client that would push us to create something great.” The Monks Garden will officially open to the public on September 18th, 2013, and will be open during regular Museum hours, weather permitting.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella,

As part of the historic campus, the Garden now holds a special place of higher visibility and prominence for visitors by virtue of the reorientation of the Museum’s front entrance and the addition of a wing which includes a transparent first floor as well as the expanded exterior gardens. Historically, the Monks Garden was a warm season destination for visitors although it was also visible from the Chinese Loggia, East Cloister, and the former Gardner Café.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s redesigned Monks Garden draws inspiration from the way the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s galleries encourage visitors to meander rather than take direct routes about the galleries. “I realized that the Monks Garden surely did not need to take you anywhere in a functional sense—you would only go to the garden to be in the garden,” Van Valkenburgh said. “While it’s important that the new Monks Garden be accessible from both sides of the Garden, it should be focused on a sense of internal experience, rather than the need to connect architectural spaces.” The juxtaposition of light and dark, from the gently lit corridors of the Museum galleries also motivated Van Valkenburgh’s decision to use alternately dulled and reflective surfaces in the many intersecting garden pathways. A field of dark clay brick is dotted by pools of shimmering micah schist, an attempt to catch and draw the viewer’s eye.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella

In addition, the rich textures of tapestry, leather, and tile throughout the Museum Galleries helped to inform the selection and composition of the array of plantings in the Garden. Stewartia, Paperbark Maple and Gray birch compose the canopy, while their mottled trunks add texture to the middle-height of the garden both in summer and winter. Coarse (Hellebore) and fine (fern) foliaged perennials blanket the ground plane.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella

The fullness of the tree and perennial planting is both a foil to the open courtyard at the center of the Palace and a strategy for enlarging the sense of space in this small (7,500 square foot) garden. The layout of the path is also designed to expand the space by creating dozens of routes and vantage points, and by boldly pushing all the way to the garden’s walled edges. Loose groupings of tall, thin evergreens frame the southern and northern ends of the new Garden. In the north, these trees give a strong vertical expression to the Garden that mediates between the high palazzo walls and the central space. On the south end, the evergreens mark a threshold between the Monks Garden and the new wing, giving the Garden a sense of autonomy while
still supporting strong connections between the two spaces.

The Monks Garden was designed as a contemplative space for strolling and small gatherings, Van Valkenburgh said. The paths that wind through the garden gently widen in key places to allow for informal seating, while larger areas for gathering are formed where two paths meet, such as near the fountain.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Monks Garden |  Boston MA. USA | Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates 

Image Credit | Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella and Alex S. MacLean as noted







About Damian Holmes 3226 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at

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