getty garden, light and shadow

I try to stop by Robert Irwin’s Central Garden at the Getty Center whenever I’m nearby. This early august day was bright but cool, a perfect day for a stroll through the garden to see what new things I’d find.

If you’ve never been to the garden, it divides into two large parts: a central bowl holding a maze of two colors of clipped azaleas and its surrounding plantings, and, above it, a straight watercourse that is shaded all along its length by London plane trees, a cousin of the American sycamore.

This trip I was concentrating on how the idea of light and shadow, dark and light played out in the overall design and plantings.

To experience the upper watercourse, you follow a path that zigzags back and forth. It takes you in and out of the shade and shelter of the trees, letting you experience the bright Los Angeles sunlight and how it contrasts with the dappled light the trees provide in the spring, summer and fall.

The watercourse near the top of the Central Garden

The watercourse, the sheltered core of this top garden, changes from a noisy stream with large stones in its path at the top, to a waterway that glides quietly over a textured streambed down below.

The effect of the dappled sunlight is repeated in the plantings. Dark, almost black-leaved, plants alternate with light-colored ones. In this photo it’s almost hard to distinguish the alternating light and shadow of the trees above from the dappled plantings below. It’s a little confusing, a tad disorienting. And if you’re fascinated with the effects of light and shadow as I am, you might find it a quietly thrilling experience.

Even this little detail, a planting of succulents, plays with contrasts, light and dark. It’s a little corner that would look great in a home garden, and here it further helps to reinforce the vibrations of light and dark in the upper garden.

When I first saw the garden I thought the plantings were a little chaotic. All this light and dark, all this continual contrasting of colors and plant shapes seemed restless. Small doses would look great as perky little container plantings, but it seemed way too much of a good thing. It seemed like a little English cottage garden doped up on steroids.

But I’ve been changing my mind. All this craziness reinforces the intense vibration of contrasts that you experience walking the zigzag path.

Once you make your way out of the upper portion of the garden you’re set free into the relative calm of the lower bowl. There’s no more zigzagging in and out of the shade, there’s no more quick shifting from light to dark. Still, the sunken design of the lower garden ensures that one of the sides will experience shade during most of the day. And the plantings down here, still alternating dark and light, tell you that you’re still in the same garden.

Yes, each trip here I see something new. But I also realize that making this kind of garden happen is such an extreme commitment of resources and labor.

I haven’t quite figured out a way to photograph the capital outlay it takes to keep this garden looking great. But I’d like to end this post with a tribute to the heroes, those dedicated gardeners who make this place a garden worth visiting several times a year.

Thanks, guys!

8 thoughts on “getty garden, light and shadow”

  1. A garden I’d like to check out. That first bird’s eye of the garden seems like the best view. I wonder what it feels like to be tasked with maintaining that maze.

  2. Yesterday I was wondering how the Getty garden is looking this August after such a mild summer, so your post is timely. The path through shadow and light, alongside the sight and sound of water disppearing and reappearing, is one of my favorites too. Irwin really nailed it.

  3. I’ve only been to the getty garden once, but I remember being blown away by the color combinations of both flower and foliage and thinking the water course was genious. I, too, was struck by the grandness of it. I’d be curious to see how the garden has evolved since I saw it and also, how my own perspective has evolved. I didn’t go in for the spiral of azaleas in the center of the water that appeared to me as the shape of mickey mouse’s head, but who knows now…..

  4. This is a beautiful garden! I like the idea of visiting with a particular element in mind – looking at the light and dark. I would probably never tire of this place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *