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Outlandish Landscapes
FINANCIAL TIMES

January 26, 2008

The Sonoma Valley is known for its rolling hills, boutique wineries and Mediterranean-style villas. It is not the kind of place one would expect to find a diseased Monterey pine tree festooned with thousands of plastic baubles or a mini-golf course whose most prominent feature is a giant, bubblegum-pink breast with a shiny red metal ball for a nipple. But since opening its gates four years ago, Cornerstone Gardens (pictured), in the heart of the California wine country, has rocked this otherwise genteel area with a riot of botanical bombast.

A showcase for experimental gardens by top landscape designers, Cornerstone is the first outdoor gallery of its kind in the US. Visitors looking for neatly planted rows and ornamental cherubs will be disappointed. Cornerstone is highly irreverent and playful, from American landscape designer Ken Smith’s “Daisy Border” – a display of candy-coloured plastic pin-wheels that both mocks and pays homage to the classic floral border – to Mexican architect Mario Schjetnan’s “A Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers”. With its regimented boxes of vegetables and rusty metal walls, Schjetnan’s garden delivers a strong political message about the plight of immigrant workers in California. Even the upcoming installation of a 1,000 ft-long fence around the perimeter of the site is expected to defy conventions. “It’s a white picket fence with a twist,” says David Aquilina, general manager.

The gallery’s founder, Chris Hougie, a former toy company owner, was initially inspired to create a series of evolving walk-through gardens in 1996, while visiting the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France. In collaboration with Peter Walker, an acclaimed conceptual architect whose credits include the World Trade Center Memorial in New York, Hougie invited 15 landscape luminaries, such as Martha Schwartz, Claude Cormier and Christophe Girot, to create exhibits that would connect art, architecture and nature. Each 1,800 sq ft display cost $15,000-$20,000 to create.

A few exhibits, such as Japanese landscape architect Yoji Sasaki’s zen-like “Garden of Visceral Serenity”, have been there from the start and remain much the same. But the forces of nature have greatly altered other designs. When it was first created in 2004, Roger Raiche and David McCrory’s “Rise” was dominated by a massive metal pipe through which visitors could see a perfectly framed vista of vines and blue sky. Today regular pruning is necessary to prevent encroaching hedgerows and a show-stealing willow tree from upstaging both pipe and view. Meanwhile, the Berkeley-based designer Tom Leader’s “Break Out”, which invited visitors to wander through a maze of hay bales interlaced with creaky screen doors while listening to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” on a constant loop, was removed in 2005 owing to rotting hay.

Indeed, garden landscaping exhibitions form a tiny niche of the design world. Most showcases, such as the International Garden Festivals at Chaumont-sur-Loire, Emo Court in County Laois, Ireland, and the Jardins de Métis in Canada, run only during the summer months. The International Garden Festival at Emo Court closed early this summer because of poor weather conditions. Meanwhile, The Festival of the Garden, formerly held at Westonbirt National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, UK, under the auspices of the Forestry Commission, has been on hold since 2005. “The commission decided that it was not in a position to continue to hold the festival,” says Therese Lang, one of the organisers. “We have been very close to settling on a new venue for the festival on two occasions over the past three years, only to fail at the final hurdle. It is not a cheap event to stage...”

As probably the only year-round garden design show in the world, Cornerstone has some advantages over its peers. Sunny weather and enviable growing conditions enable the organisation to invest both in long- and short-term installations. Resident horticulturalist Dawn Smith says she never has to look beyond California to source plants no matter how outlandish a designer’s tastes might be.

Yet Cornerstone faces other challenges, such as the upkeep of ongoing exhibits. Some once-pristine installations, such as Martha Schwartz’s comical mini-golf landscape, “The Usual Suspects”, now look run-down. When Claude Cormier’s original “Blue Tree”, which resembles a giant piece of azure coral, became unstable last year, it had to be destroyed and rebuilt elsewhere.

Finding ways to attract more visitors is another problem. Attempts to market Cornerstone to wine tourists haven’t worked, though the number of on-site wineries is increasing. Its managers have also started experimenting with offering free admission this summer.

Retail has become an increasingly important feature. The site has a variety of high-end boutiques selling everything from designer jewellery to antique garden furniture. But, with less than half of its total footprint devoted to green space, achieving a balance between landscape design and upscale shopping might be the gallery’s biggest challenge. “Cornerstone is gradually becoming a destination – a place to go in wine country that goes beyond wine tasting,” says the Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood, whose “Eucalyptus Soliloquy” was one of the site’s original exhibits and continues to thrive in a corner of the gardens. “But it’s important that it maintains another dynamic beyond the selling of products to stop itself from becoming a glorified garden centre.”

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