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When Californians ponder Mexican influence on our gardens, we tend to think back a few centuries to a shared past before we broke from Spain — and each other. We envision whitewashed stucco garden walls with bright red bougainvillea cascading to a terra-cotta tile patio. But it is probably time to revise our thinking and look at the present rather than what happened long ago.
Examining that current view, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek next weekend hosts its second all-day seminar on the influence of Mexico on California gardens. In the previous seminar, landscape design artist Topher Delaney spoke of her debt to Mexican architect Luis Barragán in a lecture titled “From Barragán to Berkeley.”
Although Barragán built nothing outside his native Mexico, the beauty and originality of his buildings made him a legend among architects, and they campaigned for an exhibition, a retrospective of his career, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the mid-’70s. In 1980, Barragán was awarded the Pritzker Prize, which is architecture’s version of the Nobel Prize.
Barragán, who died in 1988, created a vibrant, sensuous Mexican aesthetic by using bright colors and strong lines. His celebrated outdoor space at the stable at Cuadra San Cristobal, outside Mexico City, uses an unadorned earth surface backed with vivid pink walls, natural pools of water, a strikingly simple fountain and the genius of horses running freely through the space. It is a stunning work.
Delaney noted that Barragán, who could take as long as a year to select the precise colors to use, called himself a landscape architect. In his acceptance of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, he said it was “alarming” that publications devoted to architecture seemed to have banished the words “beauty, inspiration, magic, spellbound, enchantment, as well as the concepts of serenity, silence, intimacy and amazement.”
He apologized for having, perhaps, not done these concepts complete justice, but said “they have never ceased to be my guiding lights.”
Those qualities envisioned by Barragán are very much part of the thinking of Western contemporary landscape architecture, which makes it instantly distinctive from the English cottage garden influence of many California gardens.
Delaney uses Barragán’s concepts in her work. In the Bay Area, she is known for her use of large, brightly colored surfaces. A very large freestanding wall painted a vivid blue dominates her site installation at the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma (the first gallery-style garden exhibition in the United States). In her design for a backyard garden for the Pantazelos family in Novato, Delaney combines large, bold, painted structures with a massive planting of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’). The grasses change dramatically with the seasons and make for an exciting display.
Another seminar speaker, Steve Martino, a landscape architect from Phoenix and licensed in California whose work has graced the cover of Sunset magazine, also acknowledged Barragán’s influence in his work. Like Delaney, Martino is known for his use of vivid colors. When Martino begins designing gardens, he thinks about developing space using hardscape elements first. He thinks of himself as a “set designer” and his gardens as sets. But he also selects drought-tolerant plants.
Choices of plant material are another contemporary Mexican influence in the California garden. Mexico’s climate is harsher than ours. Many of Mexico’s native plants are what Martino would call “high tech” because they evolved specifically to survive a difficult climate.
Brian Kemble, the curator and assistant garden director at the Ruth Bancroft Garden, is an authority on two plants widely associated with Mexico but also used in California gardens: yuccas and agaves. The use of boldly colored walls calls out for boldly sculptural plants, and Mexico’s agaves and yuccas are striking architectural plants.
Agaves are the largest member of the agave family and yuccas are the second-largest member. Both agaves and yuccas do well in Bay Area gardens, but Kemble cautioned that good drainage is essential to their success. He advises against planting them where water will collect in the winter.
The October seminar will feature several speakers on Mexican plants, such as John Fairey, who is responsible for introducing to the United States a wide range of rare, native plants from Mexico.
For 30 years, Peckerwood Garden, in Hempstead, Texas, has been evolving under the expert care of Fairey, whose fine arts background is evident in the garden’s design. A Mexican Dioon edule var. angustifolia is poetically displayed against a courtyard wall painted a vivid tangerine with lavender-colored insets.
Glenn Keator, botanist and author, will speak on the diversity of Mexico’s plant communities, and Flora Grubb, of Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, will speak on great courtyard subtropicals for Bay Area gardens.
Alma Luisa Du Solier, a Mexican landscape designer, will present an overview of gardens in various Mexican different regions, while Ruth Chivers, garden author and lecturer, will speak on what makes a Mexican garden Mexican.
Richard Turner, the editor of the distinguished horticultural magazine Pacific Horticulture, will present a photo journal of Estranjero gardens in Mexico.
The all-day seminar “Influence of Mexico on California Gardens” is sponsored by the Garden Conservancy and the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Oct. 21; $85 fee includes lunch. The seminar combined with the daylong study tour Oct. 22 is $160. To register, call (415) 561-7895 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which has a large collection of succulents, was the Garden Conservancy’s first preservation project. The garden is open Fridays and Saturdays from April through October and on some winter Saturdays. For more information, visit www.ruthbancroftgarden.org or call (925) 210-9663.
The Peckerwood Garden Foundation is an outstanding repository of rare and unusual plants and unique folk art from Mexico and the United States. Its purpose is to encourage the people of these two countries to rebuild the common heritage that lies in their shared ecological and cultural experiences. Visit www.peckerwoodgarden.com.
The Garden Conservancy is a national nonprofit organization formed to preserve exceptional American gardens for public enjoyment. Visit www.gardenconservancy.org.
La Hacienda Jardín, a Warm Weekend Home
La Hacienda Jardín is a weekend home located in Tepoztlán, Mexico. Designed by Práctica Arquitectura, the 875-square-meter building was built as a family weekend house that would eventually work for the retirement home.
(Mount El Tepozteco seen from inside the house of La Hacienda Jardín)
In their design, Práctica Arquitectura explained that La Hacienda Jardín’s design was guided by the concept of a classic Mexican hacienda with minimal elements and a touch of warm rustic wood. However, they did not thoroughly apply the hacienda concept. Because usually, the architecture of the hacienda is surrounded by gardens, and some spaces will become dark. To avoid that, they reprogrammed this house with the mass of buildings surrounding the park.
(A large courtyard is located in the center of the building)
The two-story project was built using local materials sourced from the surrounding environment. The structure of La Hacienda Jardín was built using Durango pine wood with perimeter walls arranged using volcanic rock from the nearby El Tepozteco mountain. Meanwhile, to give a visual resembling the architecture of the hacienda, Práctica Arquitectura gave a white paint finish on some parts of the walls and arranged the floor with creamy natural stone.
(La Hacienda Jardín was built using volcanic rock and pine wood)
(Outdoor area floor using natural stone)
When entering the indoor area, Práctica Arquitectura also included elements of natural stone and huanacaxtle wood for the space grid. While the floor is arranged with wooden parquet, which further warms the atmosphere of the space.
Since its function is only as a holiday house, La Hacienda Jardín does not have a complicated space program. It accommodates four bedrooms, a kitchen, and a relaxing area that opens into the garden on the ground floor. While on the top floor, it is arranged to be a living room and master bedroom.
(Durango pine wood and huanacaxtle wood create a warm feel to the interior)
(Dining area and relaxing area)
About the large courtyard in the central area of the plan, Práctica Arquitectura provides a spatial experience to residents through concave seating surrounded by greenery.
(The middle yard is equipped with concave concrete chairs)
La Hacienda offers a typical space of classical Mexico that is interpreted in a modern style and role. La Hacienda Jardín embodies the dynamism of a holiday home through its landscapes, materials, programs, and typologies.
(Most of the space opens up to the middle courtyard)
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