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Two iron horse rides: Seattle to Emeryville & Chicago to Los Angeles, Part 2 (Gardens)

Not quite bookend gardens on the Southwest Chief Amtrak route, the perennial garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park and the rose garden at the Los Angeles Union Station, above, exemplify two types of design: native ecology and formal ornamental.

The Lurie Garden though located in downtown Chicago and framed by well-known skyscrapers is planted with North American natives and designed in honor of Chicago’s pre-development prairie landscape. The garden was designed by the Seattle landscape firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd and won the 2008 ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) General Design Award of Excellence. Piet Oudolf, “world-renowned plantsman,” collaborated with Gustafson not only to “bring beauty to the Garden in every season” but to “reference Chicago’s Midwestern locale.”

As the Lurie Garden sits on top of a garage, it functions as a green roof also, another strong element of sustainability.

The park was well occupied during my own visit: people strolling along the garden paths and the adjacent boardwalk and sitting beside the Seam Wall’s water feature. Certainly this garden fits the idea of sustainability that aims to seduce as reported by Stephen Orr of the New York Times today. More simply, landscape architects and garden designers are creating appealing gardens that benefit the local ecology. Landscape historian and professor Louise Mozingo, writing about ecological design and “culturally based aesthetics,” argues that the former tends to ignore the latter, creating landscapes that function technically but are “boring, unexciting” places for humans. The Lurie Garden appears to be a good marriage between ecological function and aesthetics.

Fitting with the local architecture but not the ecology (certainly not the pre-development ecology), the garden at the other end of the Southwest Chief route is a straightforward appeal to a particular—though widespread—aesthetic taste. Los Angeles’s Union Station was completed in 1939 (at a cost of $11 million) and combines Spanish Mission and art deco styles.

The garden’s geometric beds surrounded by clipped hedges and filled with roses, as well as its sealed brick patio and lanky palms, do not seduce me. And here I reveal my bias. However, after two nights on the train, this garden too is a pleasant space to be in.

This essay can also be read at Human Flower Project.