Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City

About the Exhibition

Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City is a multi-site, multi-year program that explores the integration of art and urbanism through the much-neglected medium of the garden. Public Art Fund has commissioned fourteen artists and artist-teams to design eleven gardens for New York City. This project creates a realm in which an artist’s vision, a community’s commitment, and the government’s cooperation yield a public amenity of an enduring nature.

Urban Paradise offers a significant development for artistic practice in the public sphere. The project is a proactive response to the needs of the urban and social environment, offering an alternative to the historical and current experience of green spaces within the city. The project predicates the artist as a potentially significant contributor to urban planning while recognizing the historically important role artists have played in our understanding of nature and landscape.

As a construct, the “garden” is more than simply a limited space given over to vegetation; it is a spatial realm of color, shades, texture, scent, perspective and time. Urban gardens in particular offer a temporary escape from the linear, logical and planned “reality” that circumscribes the lives of most city dwellers. It is this visceral quality of the garden that makes it a rich area of exploration for many of today’s artists who seek to go beyond object based art-making.

Urban gardens, which tend to be the result of community action, represent an unusual balance between labor and pleasure. The garden as an object to be viewed, walked through, or otherwise passively consumed generates varying degrees of pleasure. But the garden as a living organic thing demands to be taken care of; therefore, it is a product of sustained labor; generally, a labor of love. It is this intimate interaction that separates the garden from the formulaic “green” spaces and vest-pocket parks designed for the inner cities. The urban garden offers city dwellers an important pleasure currently lacking in our city parks while providing a new interactive experience between artist and community.

The objective is to create a citywide discourse on the role of artists within society and the garden as a physical design element that has been overlooked in our inner cities. The discussions and exhibits will make connections between artists and communities, and will at the same time explore the urban issues of greening, community participation and urban ecology.

Sponsored by the Public Art Fund and made possible by PaineWebber Group, Inc.



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Featured Artists

Vito Acconci, Addition to MetroTech Gardens
At MetroTech Center, a Brooklyn office complex and academic campus, Vito Acconci (b.1940, New York City, NY) created a public garden on a temporarily vacant lot between two existing chain-link fenced private gardens. From the adjacent side fences, “chain-link is stretched across the site”; ivy grows up from the existing gardens to cover it, to create “a horizontal plane of landscape, lifted up from the ground.”

Esther Iverem from Newsday described Acconci’s garden as addressing “the sense of being wrapped up in the garden. Between two existing fenced-off viewing gardens he is creating a third. Chain-link fencing [is] covered with ivy and stretched horizontally in a pattern four feet off the ground. From above, the garden looks like a maze, with pathways and seating within. Because of fear of the pathways creating hiding places for criminals, Acconci lowered the height of the fencing and ivy included in his original plans” (June 6th, 1994).

Acconci’s project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery (4/14-7/1/1994).

Gilbert Boyer, Proposal for The Garden of Babel—Leaves and Lives
New York is a city of stories. Millions of immigrants have uprooted themselves from their native land and come to America hoping for a promised land. Over the last 150 years, many have settled on the Lower East Side. Garden of Babel—Leaves & Lives by Gilbert Boyer (b.1951), a proposal for Peretz Square (First and Houston Streets), serves as both a reminder and a translation of the after-Babel era in its diversity of cultures, ethnic groups, and languages. In the middle of the square, where trees stand alone amidst random irregular patches of cement, asphalt, and cobblestones, will run a winding, irregular slab, six to ten inches high, at a maximum of twenty feet wide. This granite form will be crisscrossed with numerous incisions. The edges of these passageways, planted with ivy, will be engraved with foreign writings. These bits of stories—one sentence long each—were collected in the neighborhood, transcribed in their original languages and characters, and translated on the upper surfaces of the granite. Recounting the roots of migration of certain individuals, these stories link us to the other distant cultures, other people. Leaves & Lives thus will create two potential visions of the garden. In summertime, the ivy will cover part or all of the stories, and ultimately the entire surface. In wintertime, the stories will again be apparent.

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

The development of this project has been supported by both the Canadian and Quebec Governments and the Public Art Fund, Inc.

Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, Proposal for Apotheosis
Kristin Jones (b.1956, Washington, D.C) and Andrew Ginzel (b.1954, Chicago, IL) have created Apotheosis, a proposal for Pier 32 where a new park being planned in conjunction with the Hudson River Park Conservancy. Jones and Ginzel stated, “The pier invites one to leave the known confined static domain of the built city and to experience the ever present and mercurial forces of nature; the fluctuating tides, wind, and cycles of light and idealized positions from which to look anew at the urban environment and the infinity of the ceiling above it.”

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

Lorna Jordan, Proposal for The Pull: Wild Gardens at Paerdegat
In her proposal for The Pull: Wild Gardens at Paerdegat, Lorna Jordan (USA) represents human efforts to restore nature to a degraded wetland basin in southern Brooklyn. She explains, “Since the hope is to pull life back to the basin, a horseshoe magnet symbolizes the desired forces of attraction. Nestled in the U-shape of the basin’s head, a large-scale steel ‘magnet’ acts as an observation deck as well as an organizing element for the entire site. The planting, grading, shoreline, and the garden spaces manifest the dynamic forces set in motion by the symbolic sweep of the magnet over the site. In the basin’s waters, a series of tethered floating islands responds to the magnetism of the tides.”

Justen Ladda, Proposal for Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City
Within a vacant lot in the Bronx, Justen Ladda (b.1953, Grevenboich, Germany) proposes a mountain outcrop—a “piece of rugged nature” that is “somewhere between a detail of an alpine slope and an opera stage set.” “Trails meander through a series of tableaux of idealized nature” and community members play, picnic, and grow food in the margins.

He explains that his project looks “like it was cut out of the foothills of the high mountains. The terrain has many levels and is dominated by a big rock outcropping and several small ones. The planting enhances the ‘natural’ look; there are no right angles, straight lines, or symmetry. The garden addresses the needs of the community. There is a play area and a garden for children, a place for barbecues and picnics as well as individual plots for people to grow produce. Some sunken seating is arranged to enhance the sense of shelter by arranging the sight lines so that the people who are seated see nothing but nature and sky. The rock outcropping extends down into one of those sunken areas and opens into a grotto with a small fountain. The trees in this garden are mostly fruit trees or small ornamental trees.”

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

Alison and Betye Saar, Roots and Wings
Alison Saar (b. 1956, Los Angeles, CA) and Betye Saar (b.1926, Los Angeles, CA) developed the Roots & Wings garden for the Kindergarten students at P.S. 152 in Woodside, Queens. In their first public art collaboration, this mother/daughter team elected to reclaim a 40’ x 60’ unused plot of land located at the corner of the school’s playground in order to create a new outdoor classroom for the 300 kindergarten students. Their vision for the Roots & Wings garden is based on an old proverb and their desire was to “create a garden that at once nurtures a child’s sense of belonging (roots) and exhilarates with the gift of knowledge (wings)”.

The central design layout of Roots & Wings features a series of winding pathways that form the trunk and branches of a giant tree. Children follow the pathways that work their way to and around large colorful cement planters in the shape of a moon, sun, heart and boat (mast included), all filled with tulips, butterfly bushes and begonias (to name a few). Both Alison and Betye are known for their profoundly multicultural approach to art making, which derives from African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern as well as African-American folk art traditions. While Alison’s method involves the incorporation of found objects often broken down into smaller components, Betye often constructs her works utilizing recycled materials.

Alison has created four sculptural whirligigs using hammered copper and tin-nailed into wooden forms in the shape of mermaid-like figures with spinning fin-clad arms and butterflies with rotating wings. In addition, two bronze Tree Souls rooted firmly in the sun and moon planters are poised to greet and welcome garden visitors. Perched in trees located throughout the garden are eight of Betye’s birdhouses; half are blue, covered with silver stars, and half are wooden with twisting green ivy on them. Set within the garden amongst the planters, whirligigs and birdhouses is a child-size table with stools inlaid with the children’s own mosaic designs, created with the help of staff from the non-profit organization Studio in a School. Following the dedication ceremony, Roots & Wings will officially become an ongoing part of the kindergartners’ curriculum. In addition to teaching young children about art and the environment, Roots & Wings will provide a much-needed enclosed play area for the 300 Kindergarten students.

Susan K. Freedman, Public Art Fund president, describes the Roots & Wings garden as “one of our most unique and extensive collaborations to date. This artwork brought together two prominent African-American artists, hundreds of public school students, teachers, parents, school administrators and the non-profit organization Studio in a School to collectively realize the Saars’ verdant vision.”

Principle Robert J. Burke says, “The school community at P.S. 152 is excited by the garden project being conducted by the Public Art Fund. Students from the Gorgeous Mosaic Project as part of their Team-up To Clean-up contest have cleared the garden of all the weeds and trash, while others have been involved with planting earlier this spring. The garden has been neglected for a number of years because of a lack of funds. Alison and Betye have designed a wonderful garden and both the teachers and kindergarten students are looking forward to using the garden as their new science ‘classroom’ for many years to come.”

Alison and Betye Saar’s project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery (4/14-7/1/1994).

Realization of this ambitious multi-year project required the foresight of a group of supporters who recognized Alison Saar and Betye Saar’s vision for Roots & Wings garden. Elizabeth Merena, Director of Visual Arts Program at New York State Council fort he Arts, states, “NYSCA has been pleased to support an important program like Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City from its inception. A 2-year commitment was given for the Saars’ extraordinary garden through a special project grant.

Gary Simmons, Proposal for Rosetta Garden
Inspired by the controversy surrounding Martin Bernal’s breakthrough study Black Athena, the Rosetta Garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn is a proposed amphitheater designed by Gary Simmons (b.1964, New York, NY) in collaboration with students from Brooklyn Technical High School. Named for the Rosetta Stone, the 1799 discovery in Rosetta, Egypt of a tablet written in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Demotic (a version of hieroglyphics used by common Egyptians), the Rosetta Garden is intended as a place for the popular questioning of history and the expression of the arts. Like the Rosetta Stone itself, which provided the key to translating ancient hieroglyphics, this garden translates between our classical past and our cultural present. The garden’s juxtaposing materials comment on our romantic relationship to antiquity: rose bushes and grape arbors conjure images of romance and hedonism; concrete seating and brick facing recall the austere materials of the surrounding city. Together, these materials question the calls for authoritarian control of our youth and instead promote the bacchanalian celebration of culture and identity-making.

With its minimalist referencing of classical architecture, the Rosetta Garden is designed as a place of contemplation, a sanctuary within Fort Greene that is also sensitive to the community that surrounds it. The garden’s small, semi-circular setting arena provides a view of a cast concrete stage through a courtyard, which contains two cast figurative sculptures and one single wall relief. Grapes, roses and other flowering plants, which were selected for their seasonal bloom, thrive in the courtyard. The four original sculptures in classical poses made from artist’s models embody the heroism of the everyday and refuse the empirical quest for legitimacy based on the identification of great historical figures descending from established racial lines. Formerly an abandoned lot, this project of land reclamation is simultaneously a reclaiming of the ground of history.

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

Haim Steinbach, Proposal for Grove (Recessed Planters)
Haim Steinbach’s proposed Grove suggests a series of gardens within a serpentine wall surrounding the Newtown Creek Wastewater Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A second wall outside would create a moat of treated water to supply the gardens. According to Steinbach (b.1944, Rehovot, Israel), “The city dweller celebrates nature through the cultural ritual of placing a planter on a windowsill. …even as the plant itself is of nature, this cultural phenomenon of presentation of a plant is an artifice. That which is natural inevitably becomes cultivated and manicured in the city.”

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

Gary Strang, Michael Roche, & Robert Hewitt, Proposal for Steam Temple
According to Gary Leonard Strang, Michael Roche and Robert Hewitt, their proposed Steam Temple is intended “to express the wonder of New York’s vast infrastructure and its relationship to nature.” Traditionally, the tools that insured human survival and comfort were objects of great reverence. Like a hunter’s spear, a hearth could be seen as a utilitarian device that has been elevated, through its formal expression, to a position of importance in architecture, ritual and society.

The chaos of the contemporary city may in part be because our tools, now great support systems of infrastructure, have no formal realization that expresses their importance to society. What should be a cause of architectural celebration is too often an eyesore. The wonder and complex beauty of these systems is not unlike that of nature itself, and yet its potential is unrealized. Strang, Roche, and Hewitt express the wonder of New York’s vast infrastructure, which converts natural resources into the energy that allows millions of people to live in close proximity. It is this infrastructure that enables New York’s unparalleled cultural exchange to take place.

Within a median on Allen Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Strang, Roche, and Hewitt created a landscape that “uses infrastructure as one of the basic raw materials of the urban garden.” The exhibit’s landscape is color-coded to show utilities emerging as gardens: blue “water fountain garden”; red “steam gardens”; yellow “light and power gardens”; green gardens (one excavated “to reveal all of the pipes and electrical lines that make all of the gardens possible”).

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.

Meg Webster, Proposal for Garden
For her proposed garden, Meg Webster (b.1944, San Francisco, CA) explains, “Individual community garden plots are interwoven with ecological demonstrations of hedgerow, ponds, streams, and bogs, and further joined with production spaces of orchards, organic vegetable plots, cutting flower beds and plant propagation.” Webster assumes that a hypothetical “teaching enterprise organization would build and maintain the sites and demonstrate the viability of biodynamic intensive hand agriculture and horticulture.”

This project proposal was included in Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City, an exhibition at PaineWebber Art Gallery.